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Cassie Beck creates a conflicted woman in Broadway's The Humans
Keep your eye on the loners.
In Stephen Karam's play The Humans, which is now on Broadway at the Helen Hayes Theatre, there's always some kind of commotion on the two-tiered set. Designed by David Zinn, it creates a Chinatown apartment where Brigid Blake, a struggling composer, is hosting her family for Thanksgiving. Throughout the meal, the family skitters around the various rooms, as though constant movement will help them avoid their secrets and grudges. But every now and then, someone peels off from the group.
When we watch those solo fliers, we get a sense of what's not being said. We see characters gearing up to tell the truth, or shuddering with the weight of something they've heard. This constant interplay – this assembling and breaking apart – amplifies the dread in Karam's script. The nervous energy echoes the supernatural elements that keep interrupting dinner, suggesting the Blakes' problems are gaining sinister power. Eventually, we may even worry for the family members who are by themselves, since we don't know what's waiting around a corner or outside a window.
We may feel especially concerned for Aimee, Bridgid's older sister. She's coming to Thanksgiving with a trio of burdens: her longtime girlfriend has broken up with her; she's about to lose her job; and her colitis has flared up again, sending her to the bathroom at the most awkward times. Obviously, then, she has plenty of reasons to take a moment alone.
So what does it take to play the outlier in this family? To find out, I asked Cassie Beck, who's been starring as Aimee since The Humans premiered Off Broadway last year at the Roundabout. Here are the highlights of our conversation:
Mark Blankenship: I just saw the play for the second time, and I was struck by how "scored" the movements felt. At every moment, it seemed like everyone on stage was aware of everyone else, even if you were on different levels of the set. For me, the overall effect was one of remarkable precision that somehow created a sense of loose, authentic, improvised movement. Does that observation resonate with you at all?
Cassie Beck: You are onto something. My favorite thing about performing The Humans is that we all enter the space together at the top of the play -- the Blakes on the upper level and Rich, Brigid's boyfriend, on the lower level. We're all there for 90 real-time minutes until we all exit at the end.
The joy of never being able to leave the playing space means you are never off the storytelling hook. Physically, you are always in the "scene", so every movement is an opportunity to communicate something about the character and the relationships. It's detailed work that technically requires us as a team to give focus where it is needed while at the same time never freezing the action. So yes, we are hyper-aware of one another. In fact, it can sometimes feel like a dance piece where you are required to be aware of your own body in space and how it is relating to the doorjamb or the stairwell or the kitchen alcove. But at the same time, you're cognizant of everyone else's movement patterns and how together they paint the big picture. It's really, really actor nerd-time fun.
MB: I love nerd-time fun! Personally, I get geekily excited about how space functions on stage, which is why I love watching you guys navigate a two-story set. What's that like?
CB: Working on two levels asks a lot of us technically -- just being seen and heard for cues and such. And the upper deck took some getting used to, I'll be honest. [Director] Joe [Mantello]'s impeccable outside eye was key when we couldn't see or sometimes even hear one another, not to mention the clever cue lights tucked here and there. But the rewards far outweigh the challenges. In an odd way, the large space grants permission for the smaller moments. Nursing a colitis cramp out of the family's eyeshot, checking the BlackBerry to see if Carol [the ex-girlfriend] has texted, escaping to the kitchen for an extra glass of wine – all these things are possible because I have the space to be the counterpoint to the melody. Those are the most enjoyable moments in acting for me. The little things you get to do for yourself, that maybe no one even registers, but hopefully add to the authenticity of the portrayal. The expansive set makes so many things possible. Just staring out the window has massive meaning.
MB: Speaking of poor Aimee's colitis… I’d love to know what you do when you’re behind the bathroom door for those extended stretches. As a performer, are you still engaged and listening to what’s happening on stage? Do you stay in character? Because for better or for worse, it seems like she "owns" the bathroom.
CB: Ha! Yes, the bathroom is my friend. I do stay quiet and listen to what's happening on stage. I have to, because God help me and everyone else if I miss a cue. (I did get stuck in there one preview, by the way. I managed to bang my way through the sticky doorknob. But I was late and there was some clever improvising downstairs. That incident still gives me actor nightmares.)
I certainly have my rituals, usually around preparing for what's next. Like before I call Carol, I'm sitting in there arguing with myself about if I should do it or not. And after I call her, I'm sitting in there telling myself to get it together and carry on with dinner. Lots of subtext happening on that toilet. Also, I often challenge myself to really look around the bathroom. As much as I'm in there, this is Aimee's first time ever in that bathroom. I try to keep that in mind. It's certainly not clean and not comfortable. And honestly, the physical discomfort and the smell are elements I'm playing out behind the door. It's incredibly embarrassing for Aimee to be having a flare up while she's a guest in a place with only one bathroom. I try to tap into that.
MB: There's so much to tap into! This also makes me think about Aimee's secrets. She's the only character who leaves the play with a big secret still intact. She tells one character – and obviously we hear about it in the audience – but nobody else finds out. Does keeping that secret impact your approach to your performance?
CB: Yes! That was actually a cut Stephen made in previews Off Broadway. Aimee used to tell the whole family about [her secret] during dessert. At first, I wasn't sure about the cut because I had built in this whole motivation of gearing up to tell them, but we tried it and it was clearly the right thing to do. Joe and Stephen felt like the play didn't need another "reveal". So, yes, my character does leave the play with a secret, and the great gift in that is I still internally play that I'm gearing up to tell them, but I get interrupted. And then I get to decide in real time not to tell them, which has been a rich and exciting discovery. I don't want to give too much away, but I will say that Aimee's final scene with her mom downstairs is laced with that secret.
Photos (all taken from the Off Broadway production) by Joan Marcus. Top photo: The cast of The Humans, with Cassie Beck in the center.