A Playwright Hits the Big Time: Stephen Karam on His White-Hot Career

Courtesy of Roundabout Theatre Company/Jenny Anderson
Stephen Karam during rehearsals for 'The Humans'

The author of 'The Humans' discusses the acclaimed play's upcoming Broadway transfer and his two film projects premiering next year: "I'm not exaggerating when I say this feels like a bit of a fairy tale."

It's a familiar maxim that success breeds success. But so does talent, and there's no better example of that right now than Stephen Karam.

The fresh-faced 35-year-old playwright is on a roll, thanks in no small part to the Roundabout Theatre Company, producer of his first three solo plays: 2007's Speech & Debate inaugurated the Roundabout Underground strand for emerging playwrights and has since been widely produced in regional theaters across the country; 2011's Sons of the Prophet, presented at the company's larger Laura Pels Theatre, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama; and The Humans, which opened in October to rapturous reviews (THR's David Rooney wrote, "tremendously moving … resonates long after the actors have taken their bows"), has just been confirmed for a Broadway transfer, produced by Scott Rudin and Barry Diller, to open Feb. 18 at the Helen Hayes Theatre. 

Karam is also embarking on a film career in a big way, having written the screenplays for two 2016 features. The first is his adaptation for director Dan Harris of Speech & Debate, about three misfit teenagers bonding to expose male sexual predators. The second is a new version of Anton Chekhov's The Seagull, directed by Michael Mayer (Spring Awakening), with a starry cast that includes Annette Bening, Saoirse Ronan, Corey Stoll and Elisabeth Moss.

And in case Karam wasn't busy enough, Roundabout also just slotted his new adaptation of Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard for a fall 2016 Broadway bow, making him the rare playwright with two works scheduled for the Great White Way in the same year.

Veteran producer Robyn Goodman (Avenue Q, In the Heights) is a key figure in Karam's career, having championed his work since attending a reading of Speech & Debate. She brought it to the attention of Roundabout artistic director Todd Haimes, who loved the play and had a unique plan for presenting it.

"The Roundabout Underground was started because of Stephen," recalls Goodman, who curates the program. "He's sort of the poster boy for the theater. Todd felt nervous about a young, emerging playwright being on the Pels stage because the expectations on a larger stage are greater. So he basically created the Black Box Theater for Stephen and this program."

Goodman remains a big fan of Karam's writing, having subsequently worked with him on both Sons of the Prophet and The Humans.

"The inevitable struggle of human existence is something he captures with humor and authenticity in a manner way beyond his years," she says.

And while The Humans, a darkly comic drama about a troubled middle-class family getting together for Thanksgiving dinner, seems a long shot for Broadway success, she feels confident that the play will find an audience.

"Bravo to Scott Rudin for risking it," says Goodman enthusiastically. "I think the play is so amazing that it will survive and do well. And Broadway needs that. It needs a new American play that has that kind of weight and humor."

A Brown graduate who got his initial theater experience as an apprentice at the Utah Shakespeare Festival, Karam remains low-key and grounded despite all the sudden success. The Hollywood Reporter recently chatted with him about his remarkable career ascent:

How did you develop your passion for the theater? You grew up in Scranton, Pennsylvania, not exactly a hotbed of theatrical activity.

KARAM: I was not exposed to a lot of culture. The shows we saw in high school, like Phantom of the Opera and Miss Saigon, were thrilling. But my love affair with theater started with seeing a production of Little Shop of Horrors that my sister was in. When I eventually found my way to the Drama Book Shop in New York City, I fell in love with contemporary writers from reading a lot of plays.

Which playwrights were your primary influences?

KARAM: My own journey as a writer has been the discovery of different theatrical voices. Chekhov was a revelation. Tennessee Williams was another one. We read The Glass Menagerie in high school, and I still remember the cover. It's been a lot of touchstone moments. My head sort of exploded as an adult by discovering [David] Mamet and [Caryl] Churchill and [Maria Irene] Fornes, so it's hard to name one specific writer.

The Roundabout Theater has been instrumental to your career. How did your association with them begin?

KARAM: I didn't even have an agent. My first professional production was Columbinus at the New York Theatre Workshop, which I co-wrote with PJ Paparelli. People were asking if I had anything else I had written. I already had a draft of Speech & Debate, and readings got set up at a few theaters. When we did it at the Roundabout, Todd Haimes' instant reaction was that he loved it and wanted to do it. But their smallest theater was like 425 seats. I thought for sure that was goodbye, but a few days later they called and said they'd like to produce the play and were going to build a theater to do it, underneath the Pels. That was a call I don't think I'll ever receive again.

Sarah Steele, Arian Moayed, Jayne Houdyshell and Lauren Klein in 'The Humans'

You received a commission from them afterwards to do Sons of the Prophet. Is it harder to write under that kind of pressure?

KARAM: I definitely prefer to write under my own volition and see what happens. But even when I accept a commission, that's how I end up writing anyway. I tend to just focus on the play and trust that if it's not right for that particular space or producer, I can live with them saying that it's not going to work.

That play was widely talked about for a Broadway transfer. Why didn't it happen?

KARAM: We amazingly had the money and the producers, led by Robyn Goodman, who were going to move it. But I had no idea that Broadway was also a game of real estate. And it was a pretty amazing season with, strangely, a lot of plays. There was no room at the inn. The theaters that might have been available were not ideal for us, and we were passed over for other shows. Which, probably, in all honesty, did end up selling a lot more tickets than we would have.

You recently adapted both your play Speech & Debate and Chekhov's The Seagull for the screen. Was it difficult writing for another medium?

KARAM: I would say that I've been preparing for it. I've been a film lover for so long that I feel like I've somehow arrived at a place where I'm finally getting good and comfortable in the medium. It's always harder to adapt your own work. Both because of the outside pressures to reinvent it and because of the inextricable attachment you're going to have to the original material. So I had a much easier time adapting Chekhov than I did adapting my own.

Will your version of Chekhov be updated?

KARAM: No, it's not the Hamptons version of The Seagull. It's reinvented in a very modern way, but cinematically. I've always been madly in love with Vanya on 42nd Street. If you've seen that film you know it actually feels deeply faithful but modern at the same time.

Cassie Beck, Arian Moayed, Reed Birney, Jayne Houdyshell, Lauren Klein and Sarah Steele in 'The Humans'

Your plays deal largely with themes of loss, fear and anxiety. Are you still going to be able to tap into those feelings in the face of all this acclaim and success?

KARAM (laughs): Yes! Are you crazy? Yes! The human condition is endlessly fascinating to me, and the existential horrors of life are what drive our imaginations and theater in general. And I'm sure you know, success can be so fleeting. These burst of good times in one's career can bring about their own anxieties. Long story short, I’m looking forward to getting started on the next play and that's what makes me happiest and keeps me the most centered.

Are you a fast writer?

KARAM: I had a day job for every play I've ever written except for The Humans. So that was the fastest I've been able to write a play, I wrote a draft in about a year. Every other play, written when I was working 30 hours a week at a law firm, took me three or four years. So clearly I'm a very slow writer.

The Humans is now transferring to Broadway. Is that a tough environment for a new, challenging play without marquee-name stars?

KARAM: I think I write from such an emotional, gut-level place that I always hope there's a chance of reaching a wide audience. If you're willing to wrestle with the things that eat you up at night and exhilarate you and thrill you and terrify you, there's a chance that other human beings will be willing to take the ride.

I'm still so blown away that Scott Rudin is doing it. Quite honestly, when Joe [director Joe Mantello] and I ended up with this incredible cast, I thought, there goes our chance to hit Broadway. I mean, one of the reasons we didn't get a theater for Sons of the Prophet was that we didn't have any stars — movie stars, anyway. So the fact that it's moving put me in a very happy and excited place. I'm not exaggerating when I say this feels like a bit of a fairy tale.

So you're not going to replace Reed Birney with, say, Kevin Spacey?

KARAM: Well, we are looking into John Stamos' availability (laughs).

Many playwrights, as soon as they become successful, decamp to television. Have you gotten offers?

KARAM: I'm happy that happens, because I'm a watcher of those shows. As for me, in the immediate future I'm in a position where I don't have a mortgage or a family and so I can selfishly look to the next thing that's exciting me creatively the most. It makes my agent a little frustrated. Hopefully the fact that The Humans is transferring will encourage him to allow me to stick to my guns a little longer.