By Rob Kendt, Los Angeles Times
Stephen Karam was not like other teenagers. For this Scranton, Pa., native, "play" didn't mean pickup basketball or keg parties -- it referred to one-acts he'd write and mail off to publishers and contests listed in the Dramatists Sourcebook.
"What kind of 16-year-old does that?" wonders Karam, now 28, with a self-deprecating laugh. Well, maybe the kind of 16-year-old who grows up to have a hit play run off-Broadway and subsequently in small theaters around the country, as has Karam's dark comedy "Speech & Debate," now in an acclaimed production at Hollywood's 2nd Stage Theatre, and in development as a feature film.
Remarkably, the new L.A. production, and even the Hollywood connection, marks a return of sorts for the young playwright.
"I was sending off my plays almost like an 8-year-old would send letters to Santa Claus," Karam recalls. "So it was a bit of a miracle when the Blank Theatre Company actually called and selected a terrible little play that I wrote."
He's talking not about "Speech & Debate," of course, but about an early effort portentously titled "A Work of Art" (the action of which, incidentally, anticipated the setup and punch line of Yasmina Reza's "Art" by a few years). That was produced as part of the Blank Theatre's Young Playwrights Festival, which for 16 years has solicited short plays from teenage playwrights nationwide and produced the dozen best of them with name actors and directors. Karam was a winner for three years running in the late 1990s, and he credits his first visit as a crucial turning point for him.
"To see professional actors do my work, to take it seriously -- that was the thing that made me think playwriting could actually be what I do," Karam says. "It's not a profession that has some sort of clear career track, like, 'This is what you do to be a playwright.' For me, that festival was the first step."
Blank Artistic Director Daniel Henning, who directed "Speech & Debate," remembers Karam's first Young Playwrights visit to L.A. for another reason. He and the young scribe were standing outside the theater on the corner of Santa Monica Boulevard and Wilcox Avenue, Henning recounts. "Stephen mentioned something about being in Hollywood, and I said, 'Have you seen the Hollywood sign yet?' And he said, 'I can't wait to go see it!' I said, 'You don't have to go anywhere. Just look over there.' " Karam looked up, Henning recalls, and broke into a huge grin. "Here's a kid who wrote a play in his basement, and not only are people he knows from television doing it, but it's all happening right in view of the . . . Hollywood sign."
Though older and wiser, and with a degree from Brown University, Karam has thus far made the tremulous teen years his dramatic terrain. The two plays he's had professionally produced are set in high school: "Speech & Debate," about three odd ducks forming a tenuous bond around an unfolding sex scandal, and "columbinus," a docu-theater piece about the infamous school massacre in Littleton, Colo., that played in 2006 at the New York Theatre Workshop.
Even his other major effort thus far, a musical adaptation of Jane Austen's "Emma" performed at Brown, is an essentially youthful tale. Karam doesn't necessarily think he'll always draw from the teen well for dramatic inspiration. But there's a reason that "columbinus" and "Speech & Debate" came one after another, he explains.
" 'Columbinus' was four years of my life, collaborating with a lot of people and gathering lots of information," Karam recalls of the ensemble piece, co-written with director PJ Paparelli, which mixed reported fact and fictional speculation in telling the story of Dylan Klebold, Eric Harris and Columbine High School. "I was talking to so many teenagers for so long that I started to feel like, 'I have my own story I want to tell, and I need to do it soon.' So I started to store away pieces that eventually became 'Speech & Debate.' I felt this burning need to write it while I still had not only all of the ideas but the passion to do it."
It's about the experience
THE RESULTING play, despite the sobering themes it touches on, is an extremely playful, even uproarious comedy about high school nerd subcultures, sexual confusion and the social effect of the Internet. "Speech & Debate" opens, in fact, with a precocious teen named Howie dressed in his underwear and exchanging alluring chat-room messages to the ironic accompaniment of Aaron Copland's booming "Fanfare for the Common Man."
"I always wanted it to be a play that was very much a combination of kitchen-sink realism and not-realism," Karam says. "I love that it opens with basically a cyber-ballet, scored with Copland and the clickety-clack of the keyboard."
Though he admits he has trouble describing what the play's about or defining what he hopes an audience takes away from it, Karam has no trouble articulating what he hopes an audience feels at the start.
"I hope they're saying to themselves, 'I'm glad I'm here -- something's going to happen.' All my plays, I hope, have that sense of the theatrical."
He offers a recent example to illustrate what he means.
"I just saw 'Equus,' and it was amazing to see the opening moments, where they all come out in the masks. I had read the play a bunch of times, but there's something undeniably thrilling about sitting next to all these other people when the lights go down, and there come the actors, and just feeling: This is a mode of storytelling I can't experience at home in front of my TV. If you don't feel that in the theater, why not just Netflix 'Equus'?"
A sense of wonder has been key to Karam's writing from the beginning, Henning says.
"I would say that even with 'columbinus,' there is a joy about Stephen," Henning says. "He laughs a lot, and he is able to convey funny, but only from truth, never from bits."
Karam's glass-half-full outlook even extends to the vicissitudes of forging a career in the theater.
Though he still works for a small law office to support himself, it's a day job that works well with his schedule, and his bosses and co-workers are supportive of his playwriting.
"Not only do I not feel any shame, I have a pride and a relief that I've found a day job I'm able to manage while I pursue my writing career," he says. It doesn't hurt that his boss is an avid theatergoer, though it led to a surreal moment last year when "Speech & Debate" was at Roundabout Underground, a basement theater the New York producing powerhouse opened to nurture new plays.
"I actually handle my boss' subscription to the Roundabout," Karam says. "When I was on the phone to them last year, I almost wanted to say, 'You know, I have a play there.' "