Final Bow: Cassie Beck and Sarah Steele on Changing the Landscape of Broadway in The Humans
Beck and Steele play sisters in Stephen Karam's Tony-winning dark comedy.
It was like a situation out of a movie: The curtain came down on the off-Broadway opening-night performance of Stephen Karam's The Humans and the cast, six well-regarded veteran actors, were informed seconds later that not only would the play be transferring to Broadway, but they would be, too.
That was October 25, 2015. In the ensuing months, the dark comedy, about a fractured family gathering for Thanksgiving dinner at a ramshackle Chinatown duplex apartment, has defied the odds. It racked up a Tony nomination for its director, Joe Mantello, and the first wins for actors Reed Birney and Jayne Houdyshell. The full company, which also includes Cassie Beck, Sarah Steele, Arian Moayed, and Lauren Klein, was even honored with a Drama Desk Award for their work as an ensemble.
The Humans did so well on Broadway that it even transferred from the Helen Hayes Theatre to a larger venue, the Schoenfeld. That was after it had already won the 2016 Tony for Best Play. And now, having recouped and officially attained hit status, The Humans will end its run on January 15.
It's safe to say that neither Beck nor Steele, who play sisters Aimee and Brigid Blake, expected this experience to continue as long as it has. While they both have Broadway credits (Beck for Picnic, Steele for The Country House), they're best known for their extensive off-Broadway résumés. In fact, this is the longest run both of them have ever taken part in. But it's one that has allowed them to both grow as performers and pay tribute to the scores of hard-working New York actors who dream of playing the Great White Way.
1. What is your favorite line that you get to say?
Cassie Beck: "God bless us, everyone."
Sarah Steele: I like, "You don't have to text her every time a lesbian kills herself."
2. Every show experiences technical difficulties. What was the worst technical difficulty experienced during your show and how was it handled?
Cassie: I manifested it myself. I was saying to Joe, "I'm having these nightmares, these anxiety dreams, that I'm getting stuck in the bathroom in the middle of the show." And the next night! [laughs] How did I handle it? I just muscled that f**ker open.
Sarah: Sometimes Arian and I spill stuff in the kitchen, but there was a day where the spill was massive, and no matter how much we tried to clean it up, we just kept slipping and holding our cups of wine, and then those would spill. We kept calling it the night of The Humans, the farce.
3. Who is the coolest person that came to see your show? (You can't say your family!)
Cassie: When Oprah came, I was like, "That's not real." You know who I was really, really moved by? Chris Cooper.
Sarah: That's true. He just came back and was so moved. Louis CK I was excited about.
Cassie: Another really meaningful one was Alan Rickman, like the week before he passed. We were one of the last shows he saw. I will take that with me, you know?
4. What was your first New York City apartment like, and how did it compare to the one depicted in the show?
Sarah: Mine was ridiculous. I moved with, I think, five other college friends into a disgusting six-bedroom bordering on Bushwick. We kept it disgusting and one of my friends had a dog that was really poorly trained. It was just awful.
Cassie: My New York apartment doesn't count, because I just moved here seven years ago from San Francisco. But, my first San Francisco apartment was a futon and a chest of drawers in a masochist's basement. So the sounds in The Humans…Yeah. The only difference is that I had code words. That was an education.
5. How did you go about forming the believable sisterly bond the two of you have?
Sarah: It was an incredible moment of imagination on [Stephen's] part, because we don't really look alike. But we're similar people in a way. It was very clear very quickly that we were going to be close, and that was going to happen naturally.
Cassie: There's been a lot in our lives where we've just had to lean on each other, because we see each other more than we see anybody else. Sarah is the person I come to when I have to make a decision in my professional life. When you can lean on someone in every facet, you can't define what that bond is, it's just there. Also, Sarah never buys eyeliner or mascara, so she steals mine.
Sarah: Cassie basically takes care of me like an older sister would.
6. This is the longest run of a play you both have done. How have you managed to keep it fresh over the past year?
Cassie: We had the luxury of every time we moved a theater, Joe came back and worked with us a little bit. So we've kind of had three reboots. And Stephen has been around. Not that anything drastic has changed. And I think the 90-minute real time aspect of it…There's no break, so you don't have a choice but to be in it. That forces it to be fresh.
Sarah: I'll never forget that after we won the Tony, Joe came back and he was like, "No, this doesn't work. Let's do this instead." I was just so struck by… At the end of the day, we are all doing this for the piece, and it doesn't matter that we won the Tony. Nobody got complacent after we had all of this success.
Cassie: That's a good point. Joe never stopped. Stephen never stopped. So we never stopped.
7. In May, your costars Reed Birney and Jayne Houdyshell described how you found out the show was moving to Broadway. In your own words, what was that like?
Sarah: We found out opening night [off-Broadway]. But before the show, two things tipped me off: I saw Stephen before opening, and he was really calm. I was like, "That's weird. Why is he so calm?" He knows something. I was like, "I bet we're going to Broadway, and that's why he's so calm." Then, after that, Todd Haimes came into the dressing room and said, before the show, "I can't promise a lot of things, but I can promise you tonight is going to be a great night." And I was like, he knows. But then it was still very thrilling.
Cassie: I hate opening nights. I loathe them. I was in my opening-night hate bubble, where I was just like, "Let's do the show." They brought us all into our dressing room and they told us [about the transfer]. I screamed. Everybody else was silent and I was like, "WHAAAT!?" I thought it had potential. I certainly had faith in the play, and I certainly had faith in Joe.
8. Does the success of The Humans make you optimistic that producers will start taking greater risks on Broadway, in terms of plays and casting?
Sarah: Definitely. We hope that people can look to The Humans as, "Yeah, keep the theater actors in the play." Don't replace them with movie stars for the Broadway move. It really can work, and it can sell.
Cassie: I think the biggest compliment that our company has received is when we have these other off-Broadway stage actors, these veterans, come up to us after the show and say, "It feels like us up there." My response: "It is." To be able to take it to the ultimate place in the theater world, Broadway, in a new American play, and to be part of the canon of great American plays? That is everything we've ever dreamed of.