Stephen Karam: ‘Too many writers try to please too much’

Stephen Karam in rehearsals for Speech and Debate. Photo: Mark Douet

A 2007 play inspired by a set of Republicans is now reflecting a wave of political and social issues buffeting a post-election US. “The most devastating thing is that it doesn’t feel politically irrelevant,” says Stephen Karam. The 37-year-old, Pennsylvania-born writer is talking about Speech and Debate, which is being revived for its UK premiere at Trafalgar Studios, directed by Tom Attenborough.

We’re meeting for coffee while Karam is in London for rehearsals. Friendly, casually dressed and quietly spoken, taking his time over questions, he’s an engaged and empathetic interviewee about theatre.

Speech and Debate marks Karam’s UK debut as a writer. It follows a game-changing 2016, in which his Thanksgiving-set play – the sharply funny and bruisingly sad The Humans – won him a Tony award and cemented his reputation as one of US theatre’s most exciting voices. Speech and Debate’s dark comedy centres on three socially outcast teenagers who set out to expose an online sexual predator at their school.

“There’s always a gut-level instinct,” says Karam, about what sparked the play. He’d been obsessed with a spate of sex scandals exposing the hypocrisy of conservative Republican politicians, who had “spent their careers championing the sanctity of marriage and family values, and making life miserable for gays and lesbians”. He was particularly struck by the revelation of gay chatroom transcripts involving James West, a mayor from Washington state who had supported anti-gay legislation. The outrageousness, complexity and sadness of the situation was Karam’s initial hook.

But that story receded into the background, as Speech and Debate ended up being about three teenagers finding their ways to each via one such scandal. This often happens during the evolution of Karam’s work. The Humans began from a much more overtly 9/11 standpoint, while his previous play, the Pulitzer prize-nominated Sons of the Prophet, moved from being about the state of affairs in the Middle East to focusing on two Lebanese-American gay brothers.

What gets Karam writing, “in a way that’s probably helpful,” is to think big at the outset, “then that idea becomes about a handful of people”. But he believes all plays are political and that the personal isn’t distinctively different. “Even if those bigger ideas recede into the background, I know that they’re there,” he reflects. “And I think they’re felt, even if in the abstract.” The Humans is about a family, but it’s also about New York and the wounds of the recent past.

clockwise from top left: Sarah Steele, Cassie Beck, Arian Moayed, Jayne Houdyshell and Reed Birney in Roundabout Theatre Company’s production of Karam’s play The Humans in 2015. Photo: Joan Marcus

How was it revisiting Speech and Debate? “Like looking at an old picture of yourself,” Karam smiles. However, invoking Stephen Sondheim, he reveals he resisted any temptation to make changes. “It’s good not to mess with your baby pictures too much,” he says, wryly. Besides, as well as noting the continuity of his interests, he discovered “a freedom and messiness in the play I think I can learn from. You get inspired by the recklessness. It’s been fun”.

Attenborough’s revival of Speech and Debate – whose starry, predominantly British cast includes Douglas Booth – will retain the US setting. Karam doesn’t mind. “I’m excited about the specificity of people from different places,” he explains. As a New York resident, he relishes the Off-Broadway transfers of plays by Brits such as Nick Payne and Lucy Kirkwood. “So, instead of panicking that no one will care about teenagers from Oregon, I’m reminding myself how much I enjoy seeing plays by British writers talking about their own towns.”

Karam wouldn’t particularly claim to be a theatrical Anglophile – he just likes good plays – but he enthuses about subsidised institutions such as the National Theatre. “If there’s ever a moment when I am an Anglophile,” he asserts, “it’s when I see so many theatres in this country that have what I would call federal funding.” Coming from the US, where artists are “used to the lack of that” and are now facing the possible disappearance of the National Endowment for the Arts under the Trump administration, he calls it “awe-inspiring”.

Pointing to work staged at London’s Royal Court Theatre, Karam also highlights how young the writers can be, “because a lot of your theatres are set up with programmes that encourage risk-taking,” he says. He’s passionate about such opportunities, and about how audiences – thanks to subsidy – can see a major production on the National’s Lyttelton stage “without breaking the bank”. In his opinion, New York – where theatres sometimes have to create second, third or even fourth stages just to find donors to help subsidise their prices – is about a decade behind the UK.

However, there are pioneering initiatives. Sons of the Prophet was commissioned by Roundabout Underground, Roundabout Theatre’s development initiative for emerging theatre artists. It was followed by The Humans. Karam’s praise is fulsome. “You’ve got to hand it to Roundabout,” he says. “It’s that beautiful situation where they’ve actually followed through on their mission statement.” In the largely unsubsidised landscape of New York theatre, he’s seen his plays graduate from a black box to Broadway.

In the past few years, Karam has loved watching comparable New York theatre companies begin to explore “this phenomenon that Roundabout started”. They have created supported spaces where “critics and audiences alike are now showing up to see a work by someone they’ve never heard of – knowing that it might be completely weird, risky or fabulous, but that it won’t cost much more than seeing an IMAX movie”.


Q&A: Stephen Karam

What was your first non-theatre job? Working in a law firm as a legal assistant.

What was your first professional theatre job? Reading scripts for the literary department at Trinity Repertory Company in Providence, Rhode Island, while I was in college. I got free tickets in exchange.

What’s your next job?Starting another play.

What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? That the best piece of art a person is capable of making is the one that only they could create.

Who or what was your biggest influence? Too many influences to name; I didn’t study at graduate school so I have no single mentor, so I’ve been inspired by countless artists whose work has lifted me up and inspired me.

What’s your best advice for auditions? Less is more.

If you hadn’t been a playwright, what would you have been? A therapist. I like the human condition, problem-solving and people.

Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals? Traditionally, I like to watch my plays from the very back.

When the Clintons are there on the last day of your award-winning Broadway play, it’s safe to say you’re no longer an unknown writer. Karam greatly appreciates the financial security that has come in the wake of the spotlight, because “you can focus on the thing you actually want to create”. However, as a “social introvert”, he’s circumspect about the attention. He gets “very nervous” about the red-carpet side of things.

And he concedes that cliches about enjoying awards but not being distracted by them are also his attitude towards industry recognition. “It helps you realise that the reason any of that stuff ends up happening is because you’re a writer, and you’re trying to tell a story that means something to someone,” he explains. “If you get a trophy for doing that, it’s fun and wonderful, but it doesn’t make you happier.”

It’s also a useful lesson for when praise doesn’t go your way. If Karam’s 2016 started with a Tony, it ended with a fairly savage critical reaction to his adaptation of The Cherry Orchard for Roundabout Theatre. “I don’t think people were expecting what they saw,” he muses. “But it helps you weather both storms. You realise that if you are truly going to believe all the good things people say, then you’re going to have to accept all the bad things.”

Karam light-heartedly describes the response to The Cherry Orchard as his “badge of honour”. He also teaches at the New York-based New School for Drama. While he doesn’t believe that you can teach someone to write a great play, “you can pass on useful things.” And he always tells his students: “If you fail on your own terms, that’s a pretty good way to go down.” While it’s still painful, “there are too many good writers who maybe try to please too much, and lose sight of that”.

Teaching also enables Karam to “catch my breath, to take stock and maybe not just go and write 20 plays, without any idea”. In finding ways to articulate his process to his students, he can ask himself: “What tools do I have? What’s inspired me?”

True to his process, Karam’s reluctant to discuss his next play. Not because he’s secretive – he knows “the emotions behind it” – but because, he says (with a smile): “In two years, you’ll think I was lying, as it’ll have changed into something else.”

CV: Stephen Karam

Born: 1979, Scranton, Pennsylvania, US
Training: English major, Brown University
Landmark productions: Speech and Debate (2007), Sons of the Prophet (2011), The Humans (2015)
Awards: New York Drama Critics’ Circle award for best play for Sons of the Prophet (2012), Outer Critics Circle award for outstanding new Off-Broadway play for Sons of the Prophet (2012), Sam Norkin Drama Desk award for Sons of the Prophet (2012), Tony award for best play for The Humans (2016), OBIE award for playwriting for The Humans (2016), New York Drama Critics’ Circle award for best play for The Humans (2016), Outer Critics Circle award for outstanding new Broadway play for The Humans (2016), Drama Desk award for outstanding play for The Humans (2016)
Agents: John Buzzetti at WME, Fay Davies (UK)

Speech and Debate runs at Trafalgar Studios, London, until April 1