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Playwright Stephen Karam's '02 success: Not up for 'debate'

Four years after his play "Speech and Debate" was originally staged at the Brown/Trinity Playwrights Rep Theatre, Stephen Karam '02 is looking forward to seeing his work on the big screen. The studio responsible for "Men Who Stare at Goats" and Michael Moore's "Capitalism: A Love Story," Overture Films, has hired Karam to write the screenplay of the film adaptation of his play.

"Speech and Debate" is about three teenagers in Salem, Ore., linked by a sex scandal that has swept their town, Karam said. The community they subsequently form is the focus of this play, which the New York Times hailed as "funny and cliche-free."

Though entitled "Speech and Debate," the play centers on the way the three leads — high school misfits Solomon, Diwata and Howie — support, blackmail and test each other to get what they want. The speech and debate squad they form is a way to finally express themselves, especially for Diwata.

Karam wrote "Speech and Debate" while working on "Columbinus," a play incited by the 1999 events at Columbine High School, exploring the complex relationships among high schoolers. But this production "took such a long time to come to fruition, I started an original story about teenagers," Karam said.

He had finished writing this new project's original script by the time "Columbinus" arrived in New York, but had no agent to generate interest.

Karam then contacted Lowry Marshall, professor of theatre, speech and dance, with whom he worked on his play "Girl on Girl" at Brown.

"She very graciously agreed to have me back to work on ‘Speech and Debate,' " he said.

The following summer, Karam was back on College Hill, watching his play slowly come to life.

"Providence seems like a much safer place to develop a play," Karam said. "It was the perfect setup because it was far from the critical eye."

Providence also allowed Karam to reconnect with the Brown community during the production, which he described as "one of (his) best professional experiences" and "a joy from start to finish."

"It felt like I hadn't left Brown," he added. "We were in our own little bubble in Providence. It was where the play found its voice."

Karam said he needed to see and hear the play before he was completely satisfied. This allowed him to do various rewrites and shape the roles to fit the actors. The cast members from Brown "blew me away," he said. "I feel like there is an inordinate amount of talent up there."

By opening night, Karam had acquired an agent, who attended one of the performances. This time, things moved quickly: In a little over a year, the play arrived in New York City at the off-Broadway theater Roundabout Underground.

"I had to do very little; things just kind of happened instead of me having to make them happen," he said, attributing the play's success to Marshall's and the actors' talents.

It was during this run at the Roundabout that some of Karam's producers optioned the play to Overture Films, he said. The studio hired Karam to write the screenplay, and Dan Harris, who has written screenplays for "Superman Returns" and "X2," to direct. "It's a really fun creative combo," Karam said.

The movie is now in that "lingering stage," Karam explained, as details are finalized before filming begins.

Though back in the waiting game, Karam is "beyond thrilled" with the success of "Speech and Debate" so far, he said. Any playwright feels grateful just to find an audience and get a production, he added.

"I don't let myself dream beyond," he said. "I felt total and complete contentment in Leeds Theater."

"It was a unique experience, and I don't expect it to happen again," Karam added. "It was kind of like catching lightning in a bottle."

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