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Playwright Stephen Karam ’02 talks Tony win, future projects

Karam discusses dealing with artistic failure at Brown, film adaptation of ‘The Humans’

Senior Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Stephen Karam ’02 started writing at Brown and has since been recognized with numerous awards for his work, including a Tony award for his play “The Humans.” Karam, who grew up in Scranton, Penn., initially thought he wasn’t “fancy enough” to attend a school like Brown, but continued to write and act. Now, Karam is developing a new play and writing a screenplay for a movie adaptation of “The Humans.”

The Herald: How did you begin writing plays?

Karam: I just really fell in love with it without making a conscious choice. I didn’t have exposure to a lot of theater where I grew up, so my first connections to theater were when I was in a production of “Little Shop of Horrors” and (saw) a community theater production of “The Glass Menagerie” in Scranton. The best way to describe (my love of theatre) is that it’s just a feeling that people get with things they are obsessed with like baseball or flying planes. It felt like I was home. Theatre was so fun for me to experience that I wanted to help recreate that experience for other people.

What are you working on right now?

I am working on a new play and the film version of “The Humans.” I have always had a visual obsession with “The Humans” and the way in which it’s both a psychological thriller and a family thriller. It’s been inspired by so many genres I love, and the chance to be obsessed with the visual landscape and architecture of that space felt like a risk worth taking.

What is your writing process like?

I am a very slow writer. I research and read and dream a lot before I am able to start. I am very visual, so there are usually things when I am writing that pull me through from beginning to end. In the case of “The Humans,” it was an architectural obsession with space and people in it. The play I am currently trying to get off the ground is very spatially oriented. I am always trying to figure out something that I can’t quite figure out, and that’s what keeps me writing. Beyond that, I am a writer and a rewriter and a rewriter and a rewriter. My process is slow, but I like taking my time and rearranging the pieces like a puzzle.

A lot of your plays use humor to deal with difficult, painful subjects. Why is humor effective in this way?

I like to laugh at myself and people are pretty resilient. I use humor to write through a lot of difficult situations myself. I think it’s an extension of how I see the world in that humor and tragedy exist side by side very easily.

Who are some of your favorite playwrights and authors?

I have been influenced by so many different writers and artists. To narrow them down would feel like a lie.

Does your experience at Brown affect your work?

It’s where I grew up as a human being. I wasn’t really a go-getter when I was at Brown. My first experience was not getting cast in the Sock & Buskin play I auditioned for. There were about a billion parts, and I did not get called back. The same semester I ended up doing a production of the “Little Shop of Horrors” at Production Workshop, playing Seymour. What’s amazing about Brown for me is that it really was a microcosm of what has become my professional world — being involved in the arts is learning it’s not always about success but also about falling down and failing. I had a Brownbrokers show that changed my life. I didn’t even know that I could do a musical. I ended up doing this brawling, overwritten, spectacularly fun adaptation of a Jane Austen novel, and Brown gave me the funding and support to actually make that happen. When I left and was still writing and pursuing a career, it set me up in a really wonderful way to learn to expect things to not always go your way. At the time you might think, “Oh my god I’m at a college campus in Providence, Rhode Island. If I can’t make it now, I will never be able to make it in the real world.” But the truth is, you are on a campus full of people who will be doing this professionally. I remember auditioning with John Krasinski, and they ended up giving the part to John Krasinski. But, at the time, I was just like “I can’t believe I didn’t get a part in the play.” Looking back, a lot of the actors went on to be professional actors. Chris Hayes was doing theatre with me and inspired me. At the time he wasn’t MSNBC Chris Hayes — he was just a smart and talented guy. It’s funny looking back to see how many people have made their way into the theater and communication world.

What was it like to win a Tony?

It was a lot of fun. I was very anxious. The best part was after it was all over. It’s really fun to be recognized for work you do. This was a play that was so personal and sprung from a place of essentially assembling people and artists I loved. I don’t think it gets better than that. I could have won a Tony for writing a jukebox musical, but this felt like my ultimate dream because it was something that came from an original place without the intentions of becoming a commercial enterprise.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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