For City College’s Charles Erven, ‘The Humans’ is an uncanny theatrical opportunity
‘The Humans,” an enticing new play opening Friday, Feb. 28, is a good example of what the Fresno City College theater department can do so well. The title is fresh from Broadway and critically acclaimed. The subject matter is contemporary and nuanced. The set is complicated and essential to the plot. The actors bring different levels of experience to the project, with mentors and students working alongside each other.
Pictured above: James Knudsen and the cast of ‘The Humans.’ Photo: Fresno City College
And the director is Charles Erven, who has long relished bringing these kinds of experiences to Fresno-area audiences.
The action sounds simple: A family meets at the New York City apartment of one of two grown daughters for Thanksgiving dinner. As is so often the case, it is an eventful meal.
Are you a member of The Munro Review? Win a pair of tickets to an opening-weekend performance of ‘The Humans.’ Deadline is 9 p.m. Friday, Feb. 28.
I featured three actors from “The Humans” on the February episode of “The Munro Review on CMAC.” (You’ll find the video embedded a little deeper in this story.) But I also wanted to go in-depth with Erven on this play because, well, it’s worth it. Here’s our conversation:
Q: Do you remember your first reaction when you read “The Humans”?
A: I was actually kind of astonished. I had heard about the play, knew it won some awards and was very successful when it ran on Broadway, but I hadn’t read it until about a year ago. When I did, it really hit me. It struck me that this was a funny and serious slice-of-life story that was somehow also deeply mysterious. I was hooked.
Q: Tell us a little about the playwright. What else is he known for?
A: Stephen Karam is in his 30s and wrote “The Humans” in his 20s (Impressive when you consider the age range of the characters in the play). “The Humans” won the Tony for best play and it was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in drama (as was his previous play, “Sons of the Prophet”). He’s also a successful screenwriter whose most recent script was an adaptation of Chekhov’s, “The Seagull,” staring Annette Bening. Suffice to say, the guy knows what he’s doing. He is surely one of the great playwrights of his generation.
Q. Holiday dinners seem to bring out the worst (and sometimes the best) in families. Do you have a Thanksgiving horror story to share?
A: I wish I did (although that is an odd thing to wish for!). I grew up in a family of six brothers and divorced parents. We had very little money, so when Thanksgiving came around, the focus was on the food! Politics or past infractions were not even part of the setting. I remember dinners being rather quiet and then afterward, everyone slept. But “gathering plays” such as The Humans do offer opportunities to air dirty laundry and dredge the past. There is always great drama in such settings. “The Humans” is no different in that respect. What makes it different is that usually the family in such plays are so dysfunctional that the damage done is irreparable by the end of play. But, that’s not the case with “The Humans.” Ultimately, the Blakes are a functional family.
Q: How is food used in the play? Do the actors eat on stage? Do you need a backstage kitchen?
A: There is a lot of eating in the play. The entire play is structured as: before the dinner, the dinner, and after the dinner. It’s all performed in continuous time. So, yes … much food is consumed. This is actually surprisingly difficult to coordinate on stage (and backstage). Most of the food is prepared before the show, but some items are prepared onstage, during the performance.
Q: What are some of the deeper meanings/themes in “The Humans” that you’d like to emphasize?
A: Where to start? The play comes across as a casual, slice-of-life gathering of a family. But as it proceeds, it opens into other territory. There is a sense of the “Uncanny” (in the classic, Freudian sense of the word). Karam was under the influence of Freud’s essay “The Uncanny” when he was formulating the play. “The Uncanny” explores the subconscious idea that what is a typical, everyday occurrence, such as a sound, or a coincidence, or a dream, takes on deeper, psychological significance when a person is under great psychic stress or trauma. We’ve all experienced moments of the uncanny when we assign significance to a recurring dream. Is the dream simply a result of a particular stress or does it mean something deeper? “The Humans” takes this idea and runs with it, producing a kind of mystery that shrouds the play. There are themes of fear of loss. Who hasn’t experienced anxiety over fear of losing a job or losing respect or the loss of a loved one? The play explores these ideas with subtle strokes and humane characters. There are also themes of class and economic struggles, but mostly the play deals with the family and how love provides protection to the ravages of living.
Q: It’s a delight to see Brandi Martin again, returned from grad school. Do you think there is a way for the Fresno area to better nurture and support homegrown talents such as Martin who come back after furthering their educations?
A: There are so many wonderful artists who have chosen to make Fresno their home. We’re lucky to have them. We see them in shows at Second Space or Fresno State or the now defunct Stageworks Fresno. These are high caliber places, but there are limits to what Fresno can offer theater artists. There are simply limited venues for them to work. But, I’m optimistic and believe these artists bring something of value to the community and that the community will respond in kind. New venues will open.
Q: In terms of casting, why did you opt for pairing experienced, non-student actors with students?
A: When the theater department chose to produce “The Humans,” we did so with the express purpose of teaming a members of our acting faculty (and well-experienced local actors) with our students. It has been a lovely experience on every level. Faculty served as informal mentors to their student counterparts. But the influence went both ways as faculty learned from students. The camaraderie, respect and love that developed during the rehearsals was nothing short of inspiring.
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Q: What can you tell me about the design for the show?
A: The play requires a very specific two-level set. The audience must see what happens in the upstairs and downstairs of a converted duplex apartment. Some action happens simultaneously and so actors have to move between these two levels effortlessly, and the timing must be pretty exact. This means the design is critical. The designer has to understand not just the mechanics of the plot but the timing and movement of actors. For instance, how long does it take for someone to cross from the upstairs bathroom to a spiral staircase so that they can overhear a bit of conversation taking place downstairs? In many ways, the designer makes the job of the actors and director much easier because all of this has been considered. In a sense, the set becomes a character. And this is all the work of our talented scenic designer, Christina McCollam-Martinez.
Q: Anything else?
A: This is Debbi Erven’s last show at Fresno City College. Debbi has been the costume designer at FCC for thirty-some years. But, she is so much more! She’s directed great plays, taught hundreds of students, mentors many more. She has influenced the lives of countless students, many of whom are working professionally. This would not have happened without her. I can’t begin to tell you the number of shows that I’ve done with Deb that were vastly improved, not just because of her costumes, but because of her insightful questioning and brilliant ideas. The theater department will not be the same without her and she’ll be missed. (Of course, I’ll still get to see her all the time, being married to her and all. Her retirement is my gain.)