Stephen Karam: A Quick Look at the Playwright
Playwright Stephen Karam has an uncanny knack for echoing American culture in ways that amuse and compel audiences equally. In his 2007 hit Speech & Debate, he riffed on everything from high school misfits to Republican sex scandals, to the persistent rumors about Abraham Lincoln's sexuality — all with such a unique blend of accessibility, wit, and unapologetic emotion that after it premiered, seventy theatres leaped to produce it around the country within the following year.
Sons of the Prophet was commissioned by New York's Roundabout Theatre Company during the original production of Speech & Debate. "I'm a fairly slow writer," Karam says, "but I think audiences of new plays might not realize that from first draft to production represents a long time. I started thinking about this play in 2006, started writing in 2007, and it premieres at the Huntington in 2011."
Prior to Speech, Karam's other major credit was co-writing columbinus, a docudrama that considers the general state of teen culture and the specifics of the Columbine massacre. columbinus appeared at New York Theatre Workshop in 2006 following stagings in Washington, D.C. and Alaska. (The play has recently been in the news in Boston after a principal banned it from production by a high school student. The Huntington donated space for that production to be presented in the Roberts Studio Theatre April 13-15) Given his consistent success, it's remarkable that Karam graduated from Brown University in just 2002.
Karam's humor is notable, and he can be funny in remarkably few words. Recently, he contributed a piece of flash fiction to the literary journal McSweeney's online called "Things an Editorial Assistant should never say to Senior Editors," written in a series of rapid-fire punch-lines:
The Chicago Manual of Style is good, but honestly, I prefer to use my own instincts.
However, he is quick to note that he starts his plays with the basics: character and plot. "I'm not really interested in punch-lines," Karam said of writing Speech & Debate. "I wrote it as a drama, but I knew it was going to be a comedy. Once you have the characters, you know them, and they tell you if they're saying something false. When you have a good handle on your characters, it becomes obvious when a line doesn't ring true."
Karam thinks of each play as an opportunity to push himself; Sons of the Prophet works on a larger canvas, has twice as many characters as Speech, and he is less elliptical about his own connection to the work. "I think it's a braver play than I've written," he says. "Salem, Oregon [where Speech & Debate is set] was a stand-in for Scranton, Pennsylvania, where I grew up. It was fun, and slightly terrifying, to set Sons of the Prophet in a pocket of Pennsylvania I knew well." But, he also shrugs it off as a natural part of the job. "Writing a play is such a naked expression of yourself," he says. "If a play is not deeply personal for the author, it's probably a bad play."
— Charles Haugland