Raven Theatre, the stalwart storefront troupe in Rogers Park, announced its 2007–08 season last June. In between Tennessee Williams and Neil Simon was something a bit surprising. The company, which over the years has tended toward the likes of Albee, Miller and Mamet, would present the Chicago premiere of columbinus, an interview-based play conceived by PJ Paparelli, the artistic director at Perseverance Theatre in Juneau, Alaska. The work, which explores the events leading up to the Columbine High School shootings, would require a cast of eight young actors, none of whom would come from Raven’s ensemble.
But the real surprise would come in September, when American Theater Company announced that Paparelli would move to Chicago to take the reins as its artistic director. He arrived in November, with ambitious plans for ATC. At Perseverance, Alaska’s only professional theater company, Paparelli was able to forge a powerful connection with the community; Juneau’s a town of less than 35,000 people, but Paparelli says 10 percent of them attended Perseverance. He hopes to achieve that kind of loyalty again at ATC—only with a much smaller theater and much more competition.
“It was a challenge to see if I could find a theater company or create a theater company that had that same connection with its audience and really influence people’s lives,” Paparelli says. “I really wanted to find a company that was out asking big questions about where our country’s at. It was very important to me to have an environment and a family to create work that asked those questions.”
Paparelli has a laundry list of new ways for ATC to ask those questions. The theater, which was already in the planning stages to build a new, larger facility in Logan Square, is also expanding its staff, including hiring an executive director. That beefed-up infrastructure should help Paparelli implement the programming augmentations he has in mind, which include using ATC’s in-place acting ensemble as a carrot to attract big-name playwrights.
“Artistically, I’m trying to take nationally known artists and develop relationships with them in an ensemble environment, rather than the itinerant regional-theater model where you gather a random group of actors,” he says. “I want to take someone like Craig Lucas or the Tectonic Theater Project and bring them together with our ensemble that has a long history with each other, and use that collaboration to generate new pieces.”
Paparelli has other tricks up his sleeve for establishing associations with playwrights. He’s setting up a workshop program with some of the country’s top playwriting schools; Juilliard is the first to be announced. “It’s a way to catch a playwright right before they go kaboom and allow them to claim a home,” he says. ATC is also launching a nationwide new-play contest and calling it the New Deal, as well as an outreach program pairing writers with teens from Christopher House in its new neighborhood.
“The challenge is allowing everybody [at ATC] to feel in a place of risk, to push themselves to do something they’ve never done before,” he continues. “columbinus was that for me. It was the most frustrating, terrifying, financially unstable thing I’ve ever done.”The play is based on interviews not just with residents of Littleton, Colorado, but also with teens from across the country. The first half of the show presents episodes from these kids’ lives; as the show progresses, it becomes clear that the setting is turning into Columbine, and two kids emerge as Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris. “As you move into the second act, the fiction becomes fact and the people become real,” the playwright says.
Paparelli has worked with Tectonic, the authors of The Laramie Project, and though he’s heard inevitable comparisons, he’s clear that this isn’t Laramie redux. “The first words out of two of my collaborators’ mouths were, we’re not making The Columbine Project,” he says. “The point of view of Laramie was of the writers themselves, their experiences. Matthew Shepard wasn’t even in it. We wanted to directly deal with the boys.”
The impulse behind columbinus, to explore what created an environment in which school shootings are a reality, is related to ATC’s mission of asking big questions about America.
“If we’re doing stuff that everyone else is doing, we shouldn’t exist,” he says. “I look at our mission statement—and our name, for fuck’s sake! We’re the American Theater Company. There’s a responsibility there if you’re going to call yourself that.”
columbinus is in previews at Raven Theatre, opening Sunday 27.