An Interview with Stephen Karam

Stephen Karam headshot thumbnailStephen Karam's work has seen theatres from Portland, Oregon to Providence, Rhode Island. He staged an original musical adaptation of Jane Austen's Emma at the Kennedy Center while attending college and his plays that followed have earned a nomination for a Helen Hayes Award, a nod from GLAAD media, and steady critical acclaim. He's done all of this before thirty. With a day job.

A panegyric is the exact opposite of the introduction Stephen would write for himself. It would most-likely amount to two words: working playwright, with the emphasis on working. But the accomplishments are starting to pile up.

Now his latest celebrated production Speech & Debate has been invited to LA Theatre Works for a limited engagement beginning May 14th. Featuring Andrea Bowen (Desperate Housewives,ù Broadway's Les Miserablesù), show veteran Gideon Glick, and SNL Alum Nora Dunn, the play will be broadcast via the international radio program The Play's the Thing.

Stephen speaks to Cityzine about the surreal experience of watching this play take on a life of its own.

Speech and Debate has been lauded as a comedy, but the critics seem to be having a hard time summarizing it. Have you found that to be true?

    Yeah, I have! I kind of like that, though. I would be happy if marketing departments could say enough to give people a hint of maybe what's to come. But, for people who see the show, I think the funniest part about the blurbs [they've seen] is how inaccurate they turn out to be. It's one of those things that might not make too much sense in two or three sentences. So I give my blessing to the people who do their best and lie a little bit.

     

    It's not as if I'm saying "come see Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night!"ù and people discover it's a black comedy. In terms of specific plot lines [Speech & Debate] is about the relationship of three characters, how their stories and secrets end up intertwining. Besides, who really wants a plot summary before they see a play? The best part about theatre is that you don't need Cliff Notes, you just sit down and watch.

The topics at the heart of the play are not traditional sources for comedic situations. How is context critical for the show?

    It's absolutely a dark comedy, but the material I love are dramas that just happen to be funny. In this particular one, it's a comedy full of people who have no idea anything funny is going on. It's a tricky type to pull off, but the only things I find truly humorous are the dark moments. I'm certainly not the first person to say this, but from my perspective it really is true.

     

    You have something like Noises Offù which is really brilliant, but I think farce is a genre all its own.

When you started writing Speech and Debate, did the comedy discover itself or was this a particular angle you set out to attempt?

    It wasn't anything I set out to do, it was just telling the story I wanted to tell. It wasn't a conscious process. I'm not really interested in punch lines. It's a type of comedy that requires a skill set I don't have. I wrote it as a drama, but I knew it was going to be a comedy. Once you have the characters, and you know them, they tell you if they're saying something false. That's when it becomes easy and the job's over. When you have a good handle on your characters it becomes obvious when a line doesn't ring true.

Speech and Debate opened last night in Chicago. How'd it go?

    It was a great show, totally different than New York, but both are fantastic. I couldn't be happier with the end result.

Homesick yet?

    The great thing about New York is that if you leave for the right amount of time you realize what you missed. I was there for a long stretch so it was actually good to get out of the city. I've only been out here for about five days, though.

Are you from the East Coast?

    I grew up in Northeast Pennsylvania, in Scranton. Home of "The Office,"ù as it's known now. Born and raised there, went to school at Brown and moved to New York.

What are some of your early inspirations or influences?

    It started in middle school, but I didn't buy plays like I buy books until high school, after I started taking trips to New York. My sister was in a production of Little Shop of Horrors, so technically that was my first exposure. It pretty much took off from there.
    I don't think I have a specific influence. I just gravitated towards and responded to lots of great dramatists and comedy writers.  Christopher DurangJoe Orton, I just kept discovering playwrights and there would be periods where I would write like whoever I read last [laughs] I think part of being a young playwright is writing lots and lots of bad, bad plays.

As you read the great ones, 

    That I think is probably the best education for anyone who wants to be a playwright. Keep reading and keep writing whatever it is you feel you need to write. It doesn't have to turn out poorly, but for me that was the case [laughs].

Did you always imagine the character of Diwata [in Speech & Debate] as a blogger or was that a product of the writing process?

    I had watched a series of YouTube videos and had the idea of introducing her in that format. That was always in my mind.

Blogging is a lightning rod for discussion right now. What are your thoughts on it? Tool of expression or something more ominous?

    I don't have a formal opinion on it, but my spur of the moment feeling is that I love it. I don't do it myself, but I'm a big blog reader. Of course it's going to bring a mixed bag of craziness, of people pushing their ideas from their bedrooms or offices, but I also think it brings some truly amazing, instant, topical writing to the forefront in a way that's fantastic.

A lot of reviewers really responded to her performance art interpretation of "The Crucible." Was that intended as a jab at the medium, affectionate or otherwise?

    No! Not at all, actually. I think the only reason that moment works is that it's the music or the art she's creating at that stage in her life. I think it shows a great deal of creativity in her. It's not ready for any kind of public showing, but I was just drawing on my own experiences, and the kind of songs and poems I was generating at fifteen, sixteen. [The character] is wildly inventive, but more so just wild and out of control [laughs].

     

    So it really was never about shining a light on any bogus performance art, it's just the way this character thinks. She cares deeply about Mary Warren, and I think that's what makes it funny. When an actress really commits to it, it becomes unbearably funny and painful to watch. It gives you flashbacks to any of your early endeavors, to that interesting point in your life when you started thinking of yourself as an adult. What your strengths are, what you think you're going to be like. Part of you actually feels like you're an adult. It's a time I think a lot of people can relate to, oddly enough, that goes beyond sketch comedy. But for sketch comedy purposes it's funny, even if you took it out of the show and introduced it out of context.

What sets the upcoming production of Speech & Debate at LA Theatre Works apart from previous showings, aside from the radio broadcast?

    Yeah, that's exciting! How 'bout that? I've never had an experience like this before, so that absolutely sets it apart. And, of course, we have one actor I've worked with before on the play who's fantastic and we're lucky LA Theatre Works has put together such a great cast. Any time a show has a new director or new designers or new performers, the script is the same but the show takes on a new life. I'm excited to see it myself.

How directly involved have you been with this production?

    [LA Theatre Works] obviously has a network of people they've worked with before. Susan at LA Theatre Works has been great. To a large extent I want to give them the room to do what they need to do, because the radio aspect is a special thing. I don't know the nuances of that.
    I've been involved in terms of them running things by me, and I've had great talks with the director Matt August. The biggest help I could be to them is to keep talking to the director. Matt's steering the ship, and he's going into rehearsals with a clear idea of what I set out to do, and then applying his own creativity.

Is this your first time working with Matt?

    Yes. I have yet to meet him, yet I feel like I know him because we've had so many good talks.

Are you going to be around for all the upcoming performances in May?

    For two or three, but I'll be there a few days before for rehearsals, just to help where I can and then get out of the way.

Is this the first of your plays to see productions on so many stages?

    My only real experience with this before now was Colombinus, a play I co-wrote with PJ Paparelli. That's had several productions across the country. Speech & Debate is my absolute first, however, as something I've created from scratch. I feel like it's the same for any writer, to get to a point where you have to step back and let other directors, actors, and designers to take it and make it their own. And trust the first productions you've been involved with to point out the problems in the script. For [Speech & Debate] I had the chance to do the show in New York and workshop it in Providence, Rhode Island before that. In the Chicago production I saw a bunch of different actors grapple with the text and it helps you to step back and make some changes. I like to write for actors and if I am involved in the process I like adapting for specific voices.

     

    Now after two or three productions I can say "˜Okay, this is the one.' This is the one I should hand off to anyone who wants to do the show. I feel lucky to have all these experiences leading up to publication. It's a real gift, to not feel like it's being rushed and learn from some really talented people. Theatre's so collaborative. I feel like it's my play, but it's also owned by about seven thousand people, everybody who's put their mark on it in some way.

Is this the first of your plays to be produced on the West Coast?

    Yes and no. It's the first for California, but I actually got my start in Portland, Oregon. When I graduated from school a couple of friends of mine from the Cardboard Box Theatre Company put on a play I wrote. It did well and got another show done through someone I met at the first, and then another show after that. It was a really welcoming theatre town there.

It sounds like your experience in LA has been positive so far, 

    It's been fantastic. To be honest, I never knew something like [Play's the Thing] ever existed, so when I got the call I was like "that's amazing."ù Just the idea of what they've been doing for over two decades, it's just a great idea to capture a play in this way.

This play is put together just for this run?

    Yeah, they're not moving into the Skirball Center, but that's part of what's so great about this. You're assembling this wonderfully talented group and doing this in two weeks, it just seems like the right amount of time to put it together and just go. I just think it's cool.

Is there an element of spontaneity that's a little unusual?

    Yeah, and they're going to be learning fast. In New York I had four weeks of previews, and they're doing five performances. You gotta come with your game ready and these actors are going to do that. They're diving right in. It's both exciting and terrifying.

Have you been out to LA to meet with people here or was this all arranged over the phone?

    I learned about LA Theatre Works through my agent. I've been out two or three times for a young playwrights contest at the Blank Theatre Company. I was there when I was sixteen or seventeen as one of their group of winners for three of my tragically bad plays. At the time I was very proud of them, but those times I was there with my parents to see the plays. That's been my LA experience, period. I don't like to drive, so it's been,  educational. I love the weather, though. I'm obsessed with the weather.

How's the film adaptation of Speech & Debate coming? Can you discuss that at all?

    I can say that I'm unbelievably excited, and that adventure is literally just beginning.

Are you adapting it yourself?

    I am. For now. We'll see how long that lasts [laughs]

Have you written other screenplays prior to attempting this?

    I dabbled in college, but haven't since, so this will be a return to it. Certainly the first time I've taken it seriously. While I was writing the play I wasn't thinking of any adaptation at all. This just came about because there was interest. I'm kind of practical when it comes to those things. The good thing about playwriting is that I feel connected to the theatre world, so if nothing else I could find some friends and put the play on myself. But a screenplay, I wouldn't have the wherewithal or the skills to make my own indie movie.

Have you been writing plays and putting them on steadily since high school?

    In terms of a professional career track, it's been as it should be. It started with high school and getting friends together and doing plays in lounges and dorms. Things like that. It's been a steady passion, but it hasn't been like every time I finish a script I hand it to somebody and it gets a professional production somewhere. I'm constantly generating mostly-useless material that hopefully turns into something I want to work on. I try to keep that part of my brain alive.

What kind of creative routine do you keep?

    I have a day job, so the beauty of that is at this stage of my life, it's been defining my routine. For me that works well, I actually like having a schedule that forces me to budget my time. I'm not predictable in the way I write or when ideas come so just try to carve out time to write each week, even when I'm not inspired. Hopefully in the process of plugging away, something good comes out of it.

     

    I've never known what it's like to write without doing a lot of other things. In college I was writing separate from my course load and once I graduated I had to start paying off college loans. So I've been working in New York in a non-theatre job for a steady income and health insurance and to be a playwright. It's not the world's highest paying profession.

May I ask what your day job is?

    You certainly may, but . . . Well, Let's keep it at "office work."

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