How The Women Of The Humans Became Family

Special Features   The Ties That Bond: How The Women Of The Humans Became Family
 
How actors Sarah Steele, Cassie Beck and Jayne Houdyshell created tight mother-daughter relationships and sisterly bonds in order to fight like family onstage.
Reed Birney, Jayne Houdyshell, Cassie Beck, Sarah Steele and Arian Moayed
Reed Birney, Jayne Houdyshell, Cassie Beck, Sarah Steele and Arian Moayed Joan Marcus

The first time Sarah Steele and Cassie Beck did a reading of Stephen Karam's The Humans together, Steele told Beck that she would totally buy them as sisters. "I turned to her and I said, 'I'll believe it when the contract is signed,'" Beck recalls. "So bitter and cynical. Sarah is so awesome." Two years later, they found themselves playing Brigid and Aimee Blake at Roundabout's Laura Pels Theatre, in a production that was fast-tracked to Broadway and officially opens Feb. 18 at the Helen Hayes Theatre.

The play takes place during Thanksgiving in the Chinatown apartment that youngest daughter Brigid (Steele) just moved into with her boyfriend, Rich (Arian Moayed). Beck says that in other plays where she has had to play part of a family, there has been something outside of her character — like time period — that she's had to learn about. This play is not only contemporary, it hinges on the relationships. "Our main job was really to get to know each other and to be intimate because that's what needs to come off the stage," Beck says. "Sometimes, in other scenarios where you're supposed to have those relationships and the audience is supposed to understand ‘that's a mother and daughter’ or ‘that's a sister,’ there's something [else] driving the plot. This is really about a family working out being a family."

Because they had an unusually short rehearsal period before the Off-Broadway Roundabout run—about two weeks—they had to build those relationships quickly, under the guidance of director Joe Mantello. "It was like surviving boot camp," says Jayne Houdyshell, who plays Brigid and Aimee's mother, Deirdre. "You come out of it really depending on each other and trusting each other in extraordinary ways." Steele adds that because it was so fast, there was a lot less talking through everything and more instinctively finding it.

Sarah Steele, Arian Moayed, Jayne Houdyshell and Lauren Klein
Sarah Steele, Arian Moayed, Jayne Houdyshell and Lauren Klein

It helped that the actresses see parallels with their own families. "I've been thinking a lot about my mother during this play because I grew up in a family of all girls—four daughters—and I think that's a very specific dynamic between mother and daughter. It makes the bond really tight and really difficult," says Houdyshell. The Blakes certainly have their share of clashes. "[In real life], even if you have a conflicted relationship, there's an innate kind of comfort level that comes from being used to each other," Houdyshell says. Houdeyshell, Beck and Steele needed to develop that familiarity. Luckily, the women shared a dressing room Off-Broadway (along with Lauren Klein, who plays the grandmother, "Momo"). "I remember one time Sarah and I were losing our shit, laughing about something in the dressing room, and Jayne was in the bathroom down the hall. She came back in the dressing room and she goes, 'Sisters already,'" Beck says.

The bonds have carried over from stage to wings now. Steele wears a scarf from her “grandmother”—a gift from Klein. When Steele went on a "date" with Moayed so they could get to know each other, Beck, in true sister form, asked her to text after with the details. "I try really hard not to big sister Sarah,” Beck says. “There was one point about halfway through the Roundabout and I realized I was giving her advice on a daily basis.”

Houdyshell also finds herself giving unsolicited advice to her stage daughters. "I feel completely entitled to do that,” she says. “It's a terrible thing to do.” Beck and Steele jump in to ask her not to stop. "I desperately seek your approval," Steele says. "Like I feel about my mother." 

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