“During 2009, I was getting flown all these places for my plays, and they were paying for everything, and I felt like this rock star,” Randall Colburn says of his readings last year at New York’s Public Theater, Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre and Seattle Rep.
“But then I come back to Chicago, and I barely had anything going on.”
Sitting in a Michigan Avenue Starbucks across the street from his day job in the education department of a real-estate association last week, Colburn, 28, recalled his frustration. “You get these readings and you meet people, and then nothing happens. That’s happening continuously, with so many playwrights I know.”
This year, rather than waiting for a big institution to give him its stamp of approval, Colburn is embracing the small—resulting in six full productions in 2010 by three storefront theaters, including the entire three-show season of the five-year-old Right Brain Project. “I’ve been working in the fringe because the fringe has embraced me,” he says.
Earlier this year, Colburn and RBP director Nathan Robbel explored the dispirited habitués of a phone-sex line (Pretty Penny) and former amateur porn stars trying to find redemption in a small-town church (Hesperia). In RBP’s hyperintimate Ravenswood black box, these depictions felt almost voyeuristic but never lurid or judgmental; Colburn, who moved to Chicago in 2008 after completing his M.F.A. at Southern Illinois University, doesn’t tell you whom to cheer for or what to think.
“For that reason, a lot of my plays are really messy,” says the loquacious playwright, whose physical calm belies the celerity of his thoughts. “They’re really contradictory, which I love because life is complete contradiction. I don’t have those answers.”
Colburn paid his dues for such moral agnosticism: Raised in a nonreligious household near Detroit, he became a born-again Christian during his undergrad years at Central Michigan University after falling in love with the daughter of a Pentecostal preacher. “It was such a radical shift that it really jarred me. I had to believe quicker than I was ready to,” Colburn says. “I remember her dad, the first time I was at church he said, ‘You’re too quiet.’ Everybody else was speaking in tongues and raising their hands and falling on the ground.”
Colburn spent three years in the church; when his relationship ended, so did his faith. “It’s really hard for me to talk about my influences without mentioning those years,” says the writer, who remains single. Though he no longer identifies as Christian, Colburn retains affection for believers. “I went to church with people who lost everything. But they have this, and they come and they’re so happy there. I’m not gonna trash that.”
This week, InFusion Theatre Company opens Ghostbox, Colburn’s two-hander foray into horror (“not things jumping out at you; you can go to a haunted house for that,” he says). It, too, involves questions of faith: “I started thinking about what terrifies me. And I go back to religion.”
In November, Brain Surgeon Theater opens & He Flew Over the Forest, the second play Colburn has written this year for the educationally oriented company. He also completes his RBP season in November with Halfshut, a new work about “the anticlimax that is your twenties.”
The full season wasn’t planned in advance, he says: “Halfway through Pretty Penny, Nathan was like, ‘This is going pretty well. Want to do another one?’”“There’s something so honest about his characters,” Robbel says. “Reading the scripts, I was like, I want to know these people.”
“If Nathan is gonna say, I’m gonna produce three of your plays, and we’ll get critics out and you can meet people and people will start to know who you are, I’m like, yes! I’m sick of readings, you know?”
Ghostbox haunts the Apollo Studio Theater starting Thursday 30.