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Steven Levenson Stephen Karam

All About Steves

Roundabout Underground's first two playwrights, Stephen Karam and Steven Levenson, talk about their nascent playwriting careers.

In 2007, several stories below the sidewalks of 46th Street on the lowest level of the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre, Roundabout launched a new initiative to support emerging playwrights. The mission of “Roundabout Underground” was to offer young dramatists their first professional productions in New York City in a safe, nurturing environment.


    Stephen Karam's comedy Speech & Debate kicked off the initiative; Steven Levenson's critically acclaimed drama The Language of Trees followed this fall. Coincidentally, the two writers have known each other for a while: Levenson acted in Karam's play when it was workshopped in Providence.

How did the process at Roundabout Underground compare to your previous experiences? There were certainly more previews than many new plays get. How did that influence your process?

STEPHEN KARAM: Having so many previews was luxurious. I actually wasn't prepared to properly deal with that. After the first preview, I went home and cut 17 minutes out of the play! I could have relaxed a bit with all that time. I loved being able to let an audience tell you what was working and what wasn't.

STEVEN LEVENSON: The preview process was incredibly productive for me, too. I felt like each week we solved a different problem. Instead of having to squeeze a million changes in at once, we could think tactically and prioritize. We tried three different endings in the final week of previews. I can't imagine very many other theatres that would allow you to take those kinds of risks and constantly experiment and tweak and improve. KARAM: Three endings! I'm impressed by your bravery to get it right.

How did your experience with the Underground affect where you see yourself going in your writing career?

KARAM: Roundabout Underground has not just made a difference in my's made me believe I can actually have a career. Like most playwrights, I've had lots of New York readings—the kind that happen in friends' apartments, living rooms, alleyways, closets. I wouldn't trade any of that for the world. But to have your work professionally produced—and not have to use half your wardrobe to costume the actors… The experience allowed me to start thinking of myself as more of a professional, and I could make a firmer commitment to being a lifelong playwright.   

LEVENSON: It's hard to overstate how significant a production is as a vote of confidence in you as a writer. It's a huge gamble for a theatre to take, and while the Underground lowers the stakes a bit, it really is only a matter of degree. This production has made me feel like I can actually do this, that my dreams can actually come true. It sounds corny, but it's a pretty profound feeling. 

What are you working on next?

KARAM: I'm working on three big things: I'm excited about my new play, to be completed...uh, well...when it's ready. I just finished a draft of the screenplay for Speech & Debate for Overture Films, which was a big deal for me since I completely reconceived the piece for film. And I'm writing the libretto for an original opera with a brilliant young composer. Stay tuned.  

LEVENSON: I have two commissions I'm working on, or rather just starting. Or rather trying to start. That's scary and exciting. And I'm very much hoping that there are other lives for Language of Trees.  So how did you two first meet and get to know each other's work?

KARAM: I met Steven back when Speech Debate was given a workshop production at Brown/Trinity Playwrights Rep. He played the part of Solomon, brilliantly, in all of the readings that followed.

LEVENSON: Now having been in the position of the writer of a new play, I am astounded by the poise and steady focus that Stephen always had in rehearsals. It is such a charged, stressful atmosphere, and he is a model of how to remain calm, and at the same time confident, in his ideas.

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Jill Rafson is Roundabout Theatre Company's Literary Manager.

Roundabout Underground is generously supported by the Educational Foundation of America, Jodi and Daniel Glucksman, Stephen and Ruth Hendel, Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, New York Community Trust, Laura S. Rodgers/The Honorable Ann W. Brown & Donald A. Brown, and the Harold and Mimi Steinberg Charitable Trust.

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