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Director stands by decision to re-stage ‘Columbinus’

Matt Bausone Eric Folks star “Columbinus” American Theater Company.

Matt Bausone and Eric Folks star in “Columbinus” at American Theater Company.

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◆ In previews; opens Feb. 6 and runs through March 10

◆ American Theater Company,
1909 W. Byron

◆ Tickets: $38-$43 (previews $33)

◆ Phone: (773) 409-4125;

Updated: March 2, 2013 11:36AM

It is more than a little eerie to know that long before the recent school shooting horror in Newtown, Conn., the American Theater Company’s artistic director, PJ Paparelli, had decided to stage a revival of “Columbinus,” the play he co-wrote with Stephen Karam.

“Columbinus” chronicles an earlier school massacre — the one that occurred in April 1999 at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo. That is where Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold — two quite different teens, both seniors at the school — murdered 12 students and one teacher, injured many others, and then proceeded to commit suicide.

The play has an interesting history. It had a joint world premiere in 2005 at the Round House Theatre in Silver Spring, Md., and at Perseverance Theatre in Juneau, Alaska, had a New York debut at the New York Theatre Workshop the following year, and received a fearsome Raven Theatre production in Chicago in 2008, with slash-and-burn direction by Greg Kolack. Then, in fall 2009, Paparelli workshopped a new text for the show that premiered at Truman State University Missouri, in honor of the 10th anniversary of the Columbine event.

Now, the show has been revised yet again, with new material drawn from recent interviews with survivors of the Columbine shootings, with families of victims and residents of Littleton, and with “never-before-released information” on the shooters and their families.

As Paparelli explained: “The impetus to do the play again here grew out of the start of the Now Is The Time project — a citywide initiative, devised jointly by Steppenwolf Theatre, the Chicago Public Library and the Facing History and Ourselves program that is designed to inspire young people to make positive change in their communities and stop youth violence and intolerance. And it fit ideally into our American Mosaic education program, too, which connects with English teachers and about 1,000 kids in the Chicago Public Schools system.”

Last June, Paparelli went back to Littleton to make contact with more people. Then, in July, just as he was about to return, the shootings at the movie theater in Aurora, Colo., happened.

“We canceled that visit,” said the director. “It was too much for the Littleton survivors. But something about the play just became bigger, though I wasn’t entirely sure what it was.”

Three weeks later he DID return and reconnected with Columbine survivors, who are adults now and “are still processing what happened in the way that occurs with post-traumatic stress. And now, with the lawsuits over, and people aware of the play, I got flooded with contacts from those who wanted to talk. I went away with about 100 hours of tape, and I had just finished the first revised draft when Newtown happened. We did a first read-through two days later.”

“Columbinus,” in which the character called “Freak” is the alter ego of Harris, the angry, ridiculed son of an ex-military general, while “Loner” suggests Klebold, the school geek, who is bullied by his schoolmates and neglected by his parents, begins with a profile of high school life — with all the alienation, rage and social pressure that can come with it. The second act turns into more of a docudrama.

“This time around, the mother of one of the survivors told me about how music had become a huge part of her son’s healing process,” said Paparelli. “We asked if we could record some of it to use in the play, and he didn’t want that. But after Newtown happened she texted me to say he had agreed. Many others called, too, saying it took until adulthood for them to really understand what had happened to them all those years earlier, and that they knew the horrific things the kids in Littleton must have seen.”

“But there WAS a bullying culture there [at Columbine]. Ironically, it wasn’t just the jocks who were hit; it was mostly those kids at the bottom of the food chain.”

Paparelli admits it was hard for his cast to read through the play in the aftermath of Newtown.

“But I think the strength of this piece is that it doesn’t have any answers,” he said. “It just serves as a forum for conversation. And we hear the voices of the parents, the principal and the community as well.”

Casting the show was a challenge.

“Our theater is a very intimate space, so it was important to find actors who physically resembled the shooters, and something about the core personalities had to align. For Eric [to be played by Matt Bausone, 23, who knew nothing about the Columbine history], I wanted someone who could suggest a cold, calculating Type A, and for Dylan [played by Eric Folks, a recent graduate of Oberlin College], I needed a tall, lanky, ‘follower type’ with built-up frustrations.

“Dylan is drawn to “Rebel,” a hard-edged artistic girl [played by Sadieh Rifai], and there are five other actors in the cast.”

As for how teachers and students respond to this show in the aftermath of the Newtown tragedy, Paparelli is forthright:

“They know it is not ‘Our Town’,” he said. “And the sad truth is, violence is often a part of many of these kids’ lives, and we don’t always recognize the long-lived collateral damage that can cause. As for the general public — yes, I’ve gotten some phone calls, and I respect those who are troubled. But my response is: We can’t bury our heads in the sand.”

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