Getting to Know Playwright Stephen Karam – Interview
by: Sandi Durell
Stephen Karam has had several back to back successes and has quickly become acknowledged as a major 21st Century Playwright – – Sons of the Prophet – Pulitzer Prize 2012 finalist (winning Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle and other awards). More recently, The Humans – – to great critical acclaim at Roundabout Theatre and now headed for Broadway, and on top of that, it’s recently been announced Mr. Karam is adapting Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard for Roundabout scheduled for the American Airlines Theater. He also has two screenplay adaptations of The Seagull and Speech & Debate. He was born and raised in Scranton, PA, is a graduate of Brown University, and teaches playwriting at The New School.
TP: How do you wrap your head around all this quick success? To what do you attribute your rapid rise? What’s the ingredient you have that makes audiences sit up and listen?
Karam: Well, I opened my first three off-broadway plays while still working 30 hours a week at a day job — so it doesn’t *feel* quick!
As for the success, I do my best not to think about it. I’m grateful for the attention – but honestly the trick I think is to stay focused on the next project. I think even success has it’s pitfalls, like making it hard to return to the point where you’re just writing from a gut level without any outside noise or expectations, you know? I also think it can make you more afraid to fail. And that’s no good.
The attention, however fleeting, is a gift though, I’m very lucky and grateful. I’m happiest when I’m able to create something from scratch that means something to me. Then I think I have a shot at reaching other people as well, starting a conversation…
TP: You take serious, painful life issues and suddenly they’re funny. Is that how you experience life?
Karam: Well, that’s just life to me. I don’t think it’s a novel concept. I just think being alive is both terrifying and hilarious!
TP: How did the story about The Humans originate?
Karam: I was thinking a lot about fear and anxiety. The ways human beings cope with their fears. Fear in our culture and fear at home. I wanted to try and locate the black pit of dread and malaise Americans have been trying to climb out of post-9/11 and post-financial-crisis. I had no idea how to do this. I wanted to write about those things…without literally writing about them. I didn’t want to write a play about literal fear or 9/11 or the financial crisis. I was stuck. So I read to get inspired.
Lorca’s writing about lower Manhattan (where I live) was a help. In the wake of the 1929 stock market crash, Lorca wandered around the financial district in New York and managed to capture the thick, grotesque terror that hung in the air; he found disturbing and unfamiliar ways of describing very familiar scenes:
“The terrible, cold, cruel part is Wall Street. Rivers of gold flow there from all over the earth, and death comes with it. There, as nowhere else, you feel a total absence of the spirit: herds of men who cannot count past three, herds more who cannot get past six, scorn for pure science and demoniacal respect for the present. And the terrible thing is that the crowd that fills this street believes the world will always be the same, and that it is their duty to keep that huge machine running, day and night, forever.”
I became interested in his ability to take a familiar thing – Wall Street, the landscape of the financial district — and make it strange. Unfamiliar. (This seems connected to Shklovsky’s idea of defamiliarization – read “Art as Technique.”)
If you are willing to follow me down this wormhole…all of the above reminded me of an essay I read in college: Freud’s The Uncanny. In it, Freud ponders the question: why do certain stories inspire a deeper, more unsettling kind of creeping horror and uncanny feeling than others? I’m particularly obsessed with his use of etymology to unpack this question:
“The subject of the “uncanny”…belongs to all that is terrible — to all that arouses dread and creeping horror… The German word [for “uncanny”], unheimlich, is obviously the opposite of heimlich, meaning “familiar,” “native,” “belonging to the home;” and we are tempted to conclude that what is “uncanny” is frightening precisely because it is not known and familiar… [But] among its different shades of meaning the word heimlich exhibits one which is identical with its opposite, unheimlich… on the one hand, it means that which is familiar and congenial, and on the other, that which is concealed and kept out of sight…”
He goes on to mention the possible notion that “…everything is uncanny that ought to have remained hidden and secret, and yet comes to light.”
I thought about the way the big human fears surface in various people – how no matter how hard we repress them, they eventually creep into the light, sometimes in fantastic disguises. I thought it would be a challenge to try and write a play about these topics in a manner that might slowly generate the thing it was exploring…a kind of dread. Not in a genre-way, not per a pure thriller like Deathtrap, for example (and I do love a thriller) — but by watching human behavior, which is always what I’m most interested in. It may seem comical that all of this thought resulted in something so simple: a story about a family having dinner. But I do think all of my musings and obsessions are buried deep beneath the play’s purposefully banal premise.
I wanted to very slowly, very subtly warp something familiar. But also pay tribute to the tradition of the family play.
TP: Who are your mentors ?
Karam: I don’t have a specific mentor. I never went to grad school. So what’s happened is that I have many colleagues and friends who – whether they know it or not – fill that role. They are my mentors. They may think they are just having breakfast with me, but they are giving me much wisdom and advice. I’ve also learned so much from the directors I’ve worked with. Jason Moore, Peter Dubois, Rebecca Taichman, Joe Mantello.
TP: What’s next? (after Cherry Orchard)
Karam: A new play, if I can crack it.
TP: What words of wisdom (even though you’re only 35) can you pass along to budding playwrights?
Karam: Keep writing. Keep reading. Don’t be afraid of work and life experiences outside of theater. Say ‘yes’ to those experiences that have nothing to do with theater. As a writer, there is value in everything you do – I was at a law firm for years…day jobs, hard work – these things have value. Don’t worry about success. Don’t worry about the business side of the business. Focus on making good work. The best play you’re capable of producing is the kind of play that only you could write, hopefully that’s freeing.