Stephen Karam’s 2016 Pulitzer Prize nominated play, The Humans, is a profound and rich drama that captures both the psychological and emotional ebbs and flows of a family dealing with age and illness, fear and disappointment.
**Coinciding with Dementia Action Week (September 19 – 25), World Alzheimer’s Day (September 21) and World Alzheimer’s Month (September), the work is astute and bare in its handling of this harrowing and debilitating disease.
“Karam is certainly not glamourising what it is like to have a loved one suffer from Alzheimer’s,” says actor Jordan Barr who portrays lawyer Aimee in the play.
“You’re grieving a person who’s still in front of you, it is an incredibly cruel and also an incredibly funny experience. Everyone’s experience with Alzheimer’s is different. I’m hopeful that people find watching The Humans cathartic. It seems to demonstrate the horror of having to watch someone go through this and also the dread, particularly in a multi-generational family, of who will be next.”
Barr was initially drawn to the piece by Karam’s 2021 film adaptation; watching the trailer and thinking “omg I love these actors”.
“I knew it looked funny and sad. Perfect. Once the audition material came out and I was able to read segments of the script, I was hooked. I’m really attracted to the naturalistic style of writing. It really has moments of awkward stillness and then cacophony of sound, which I think is what all family get togethers are. Unless you have a nice normal family, in which case good for you.
Your dad is probably a serial killer, though. BTK had a nice normal family. Just something to think about. ”
The Humans is a 90-minute story played in real time which is something Barr concedes heightens the power of the storytelling
“I don’t think I’ve been to a show in real time that wasn’t a 7-hour show set on a plane or something like that. This is a moment by moment take on a family gathering. The characters are completely exposed, there isn’t anywhere to hide.
Karam is able to achieve this with an incredible understanding of pacing and tension. From the first read there was an electricity at the table, not because we’re all great actors, but because there’s so much created just through the dialogue and stage directions. I think it’s pretty amazing what he’s achieved and it’s no wonder so many people find the dynamic of the writing so appealing, it sits so perfectly. The script has really handed to us on a silver platter.”
On its Broadway opening, a critic had described the work as one of the most human plays they had ever seen. According to Barr, Karam’s provocative and ambiguous title has stirred the pot for discussion within the rehearsal room.
“I’d say the most provocative title in the history of art is probably Shrek 2, but The Humans does come in a close second.
At one point in the play a character discusses how his favourite comic book is all about monsters who fear humans and tell stories from Earth as spooky tales. Perhaps this is one of those stories.
We all have our own take on what the title alludes to. What’s also cool is that these ideas will change as the rehearsals press on and as we open the show. I’m not sure a concrete definition or meaning behind what the title means makes sense in this piece.”
Breaking with tradition, Erik Blake brings his Pennsylvania family to celebrate Thanksgiving at his daughter’s apartment in lower Manhattan. Over the course of the evening they grapple with aging, illness, and a changing economy, all while the much-anticipated reunion slowly goes awry. But as darkness falls outside, eerie things start to go bump in the night…
In amongst this family celebration of sorts, Barr plays recently dumped Aimee Blake attending her first Thanksgiving dinner alone in many years.
“It’s a pretty triggering and upsetting space for her to be in, but in spite of it all she moves forward with a sense of humour,” says Barr. “She is also suffering a chronic illness that requires pretty invasive surgery, something I’m not too sure she’s fully coming to terms with.
What I enjoy about Aimee and what I relate to is her unwillingness to lean into how shit things are. Of course, she has her moments and we definitely see that throughout the piece. Overall, though, Aimee powers through her adversities. I’m not sure it’s a particularly healthy way to go about things but it wouldn’t be very interesting if everyone in the show was well adjusted and loving life!”
With only a few rehearsals under her belt, Barr is very much still in the process of finding Aimee.
“I like to start big picture, what are the given circumstances of the time, place, class etc. In this piece we’re in NYC, a city that is still recovering from 9/11, the financial crash and whatever else might be happening,” says Barr about her process. “Then we’ll look at the script and find the facts about the character that Karam has given us. Where does Aimee sit in this world? The interesting thing about Aimee is that she’s suffering heart break and a painful chronic illness. Two things that’ll determine so much of her physicality. Brandon (Pape, Director) and Aubrey (Flood, Associate Director) are finding out who our characters are and how they relate to one another.
I could talk about this shit for ages, (haha!) I love to do it. Once we’ve had these discussions and then process of staging and putting the work up in the space begins, I’ll do my homework. Homework for me is going through the script finding an action for each line and an objective for each unit. I know some people find this limiting, but I find that once you’ve created the boundaries to work with it actually gives you so much more room for (don’t roll your eyes) play.
My acting teacher at uni was Margot Fenley (Faculty of Fine Arts, VCA) and she used to always tell us to walk on stage with one hand full of what you know and one hand with what you don’t know. I reckon that attitude will work well with The Humans.”
Barr’s relationship with Antipodes Theatre Company (who seek to provide a collaborative and inclusive environment for producing independent theatre in Melbourne) began when she took part in the 2021 Winter’s Lab as a reader for a new project Regrowth. “An amazing piece written by Sam Hooper, Phoebe Panaretos and Alex Gibson Georgio. It’s always an incredible experience being a part of something new, and it’s great that Antipodes makes it possible for this work to go through the workshop phase, something that many Australian writers don’t get the opportunity to have.”
Barr was out of town for the initial The Humans auditions so, she explains, had to make a self-tape awkwardly kneeling in a hotel room with a friend reading the lines to her over the phone. “It’s a glamourous life.”
There must have been something appealing about it though because she was cast! Prior to casting, there were a few in person call backs and a chemistry read with the other actors. “It was pretty clear from those reads that Brandon, our director, had brought together a group of actors who really clicked together.”
Barr is a Melbourne-based stand-up comedienne. Short-listed for Screen Australia’s Smart For A Girl: ROAR initiative (2016) and finalist for the 2018 Rebel Wilson Comedy Commission, Barr performed a return season of her one woman show How To Be Sexy at the 2018 Melbourne International Comedy Festival. Also a Vic state finalist for RAW Comedy (2018) and a featured comedian on Triple J’s Good Az Friday broadcast (2018), Barr recently completed a sold-out season of her show Zombie at the 2021 Melbourne International Comedy Festival and was a part of Upfront.
As if all of that wasn’t enough, Barr will soon be opening for Hannah Gadsby on her upcoming tour
“I’m excited and incredibly nervous. It’s happening the same week that The Humans opens so a big week of nerve induced IBS for me!
Hannah Gadsby is so funny and an absolute legend. This is not the first time she’s given a leg up to a new comer in the comedy world and I think that’s a testament to how fkn cool she is. ”
Comedienne and actor, Barr loves doing comedy. Originally starting comedy to help with her writing skills – just to see if it would force her to churn out more work – she ended up just loving it so much more than any other work she’d previously done. “It’s the best. It’s also fun to see how comedy has influenced my approach to acting too. Bit looser, I think.”
Acting vs. comedy, Barr is not sure if she has a preference. “I will say that both acting work and comedy work are only good if you’ve got a great team and great material. Which thankfully The Humans has both!”
Winner of four TONY Awards (including Best Play) and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, The Humans is a highly comical and clever examination of family dynamics, and how they evolve.
Says Barr, ” Everyone in this show has a 6 pack! I mean, I’m pretty excited to be in a multi-generational cast, unpacking universal themes and cracking great jokes. The Humans is a refreshing take on family, class and questioning where our faith comes from. It’s the Victorian premiere, so I’d believe the hype and book a ticket before you miss your chance!”
**The work was to play September 14 – 24 but has now been postponed. Dates are now TBA.
Jordan Barr image: Emma Holland