Stephen Karam's family thriller, The Humans, became an almost immediate sensation when it premiered in Chicago in 2014. Before long, the play transferred to off-Broadway and then made it to Broadway in 2016, where it played to sold out houses.
But the play is having its first local showing in a rather unlikely location: the Old Fitz Theatre, situated in the basement of a Woolloomooloo pub. It seats just 60 people, but the Old Fitz might just be Sydney's most important independent theatre of the last two decades, having nurtured talents including Tim Minchin, Kate Mulvany, Ewen Leslie, Blazey Best and Toby Schmitz.
We spoke to the director of The Humans, Anthea Williams, about bringing this show to life in Sydney and finding these characters in the Old Fitz.
The Humans has got some serious kudos behind it – it won the Tony Award for Best Play and was nominated for a Pulitzer – how did it come to be making its Australian debut in the basement of a pub?
That’s a really good question. I think it’s down to Red Line Productions and Mophead. They’re both great production companies and have started to get international attention, which is absolutely fantastic. The Fitz is an amazing venue, and it’s long been a part of the cultural bedrock of this city. But you’re right – it is a coup to get this play straight off Broadway.
What was it that drew you to directing the play?
I like plays where there is no obvious villain, because that's what life is often like. We all have a good points and are generally kind and loyal, but we also have weaknesses, and in this play there is no one person who causes the problems. It’s the opposite of a skeleton-in-the-closet play in some ways. We know from the beginning that something is going to come out; that there is a problem that is difficult to address. But when it comes out, it's dealt with in such an interesting way – I’m trying not to give spoilers here. And it’s a remarkable day for these characters, because every member of the Blake family has their life changed, every character loses something and yet they go on – and that is what humans do. I wanted to look at that; at how we move forward and build our lives, and keep loving and caring despite disappointments, illness and loss. It’s an amazing gift for a director to get to work on ensemble piece like this, and this particular play is so well written. I also think you have to really like people to direct this play. Plus, getting to play with the thriller aspects of the play was super fun.
How did you go about casting? What were you looking for?
Brilliant actors, but also brilliant people. I auditioned so many people to play Brigid (played by Madeleine Jones), and I have to say there are so many amazing young actresses in the city at the moment, I think that process will really inspire my future work. Erik was tough to find, and then Arky Michael came along and he was so warm and so full of love, and yet so complicated, and so I just fell for his Erik. Diana McLean I’d seen on stage in Air at 505 and I thought she was wonderful. We discussed the role and she was so up for it. She plays a woman with dementia, and in life she is so sparky and quick – she’s polar opposites. Di Adams was the last person who we cast, and immediately I was drawn to her fragility and her warmth, and I knew should be perfect. It’s been lovely to see what fabulous reviews the cast have been getting.
Part of what made the Broadway production so special was that the house itself felt like a character – how are you tackling that within the confines of the Old Fitz?
At times I thought I was going to break our designer Jonathan Hindmarsh. He’s done an amazing job. But you’re right – it’s been really tricky putting this giant play in the tiny Fitz. But it works. And it also has some great advantages. In the Fitz you feel like you’re in the dining room with the Blake family – you really feel like you’re part of Thanksgiving dinner. It’s an excellent space for this play.
It's a play that relies on a sense of history, and there really has to be something "lived in" about these relationships. How do you make sure that happens as a director?
Well, firstly you need a cast who are warm and open, and you need to embrace that in the rehearsal room. I’m pretty warm and open as a director, and as a human generally, so it was a good fit. We talked about our family histories and we talked about histories of the Blakes. We made sure that we had a really solid combined imaginings of what this family‘s inner life was like. We cared for and understood each character. And then we honoured the script.
You've recently won a Sydney Theatre Award for directing Hir, a play about an American family that was falling apart in an extraordinary way. Do you see any parallels between The Humans and Hir?
I love this question, and absolutely. I think it’s really interesting to look at these two plays in relationship to each other. Both were written before Trump came to power. But both of them show a lower-middle class and a working class in crisis. Both of them show families with hard-working people in them, facing crisis with no way to go forward. And both of them show how the left has failed the working classes in America. It’s interesting – the playwrights knew that something was rotten at the heart of America. The playwrights knew that in many ways the American dream was over.
The Humans is at the Old Fitz Theatre until October 6.
Looking for more on-stage highlights? Check out the best shows in Sydney this month.