Aug 26, 2011
I Interview Playwrights Part 380: Stephen Karam
Hometown: Scranton, PA
Current Town: New York, NY
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m finishing rewrites on Sons of the Prophet, a play that will have its New York premiere in October at Roundabout Theater Company. It’s a dark comedy about a guy coping with chronic pain. More generally, you could call it a comedy about human suffering. It explores the particularly messy portions of our lives – the times in which you find yourself coping with multiple life issues, and before any of them can be resolved – two more show up on your plate.
I’m also working on the libretto to a chamber opera with music by Nico Muhly called Dark Sisters, which runs Nov. 9th – 19th in NYC before moving to Philadelphia in June 2012. I’m also starting to re-write an absurdist farce that takes place in an abandoned hospital called Girl on Girl. The play scares away most people but I’m hoping mount a small production downtown, maybe self-produce with wildly talented friends.
Q: Tell me, if you will, a story from your childhood that explains who you are as a writer or as a person.
A: When I was fourteen, and completely closeted, I entered my public high school’s talent show and sang “Last Night of the World” from Miss Saigon in front of the entire student body. Earnestly. With a karaoke tape I purchased with my birthday money. I had thick plastic glasses, mild acne and baggy dress pants. So. That happened. In a more metropolitan city/town it would have been a coming out party. But this was Scranton High School, where I was merely identified as being a tremendous dork. Before I went on stage, I was somehow not burdened by the reality of how I appeared to everyone else. Afterwards I was. I began to take life - and myself - way too seriously. Now I’m trying to get that bravery back – not the courage to belt Bui Doi – but generally speaking, to take more risks as an artist. I mean, it’s only a play.
Q: If you could change one thing about theater, what would it be?
A: The major non-profits would offer health insurance to writers they produce on their mainstage. The receptionist at a non-profit gets access to insurance, but playwrights aren’t afforded the option of coverage even for the year their play is running. Everyone shies away from this question because it’s tricky - playwrights aren’t staff members, nor do we work a set number of hours a week – so there isn’t an easy solution. But if the non-profits don’t step up to the plate and care enough to make this a priority, I think they’ll receive less and less high-quality plays since many of the best writers are spending 9 months a year writing for television so that they can meet basic financial needs and be able to see doctors.
Q: Who are or were your theatrical heroes?
A: Williams, Chekhov, Wilder, Shakespeare, Churchill, Orton, Craig Lucas, Paula Vogel, Tony Kushner, Robert Wilson; a handful of newer voices whose work has excited me recently: Melissa James Gibson, Young Jean Lee, Dan LeFranc, Keith Bunin, Annie Baker.
Q: What kind of theater excites you?
A: Any kind that moves me. I like being moved. Laughing out loud. I like being scared. I like dance/movement driven work. I like not knowing what’s going to happen next. Feeling like I’ve been gut-punched, it’s all good.
Q: What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?
A: Do whatever works for you.
My path in NYC was anchored around a day job that had nothing to do with writing or the arts. For around 7 years I had a permanent 30-hr/week job at a Canadian Law Firm working as a legal assistant. It was a good fit and gave me health insurance. I could leave the job behind when I left the office. It left me the headspace and the energy to create. I opened four plays in seven years in three different cities during that time. Using vacation days!
That being said, most of my colleagues have gone the MFA route. I’m sure I would have loved that experience; I still think about going someday – I love the notion of having the space and time to dream big while also having some sort of solid mentorship. I missed out on all that.
Read as many plays as you can get your hands on. Experience as many other art forms as you can, don’t just read/see plays. I’d also remind writers starting out that many exciting new plays get rejected by subscriber-based theaters. A rejection is not always a reflection of the quality of the work, but sometimes a reflection of the kind of play the subscription-based theater favors.
Q: Plugs, please:
--Sons of the Prophet http://www.roundabouttheatre.org/offbroadway/sonsoftheprophet/
--Dark Sisters http://www.darksistersopera.org/