By Johnny Oleksinski
“I never thought I’d go back to this play. Ever, ever,” emphatically states PJ Paparelli, artistic director of American Theater Company. He’s talking to me on the phone during a wintry transit, so there is an added emphasis to his assertion. Well, PJ thought wrong. A revised version of his eight-year-old “columbinus” opens this week at American Theater Company, also directed by him. So, why has he returned to it now? After all, the play has been done here before. When Paparelli moved to Chicago to take up the reins of ATC in 2008, Raven Theatre was in the throes of presenting the Chicago premiere of his widely produced work.
He wrote “columbinus” in 2005 with “Sons of the Prophet” playwright Stephen Karam based on interviews with high-school students around the country and citizens of Littleton, Colorado who had been affected by the 1999 Columbine High School massacre. The play began with a first act set in a fictional high school, and the second segued into specifically Columbine. The New York Theatre Workshop premiere was critically praised and sprouted countless productions nationally.
But when discussions for the 2012-2013 season began, “columbinus” emerged as an ideal fit for the theater’s American Mosaic program that allows over a thousand Chicago high-school students to study, perform and eventually see the play. Having come to the conclusion that “it’s so important for Chicago right now,” Paparelli planned a return trip to Littleton to hold new interviews. Shortly before he was set to depart, however, tragedy struck in neighboring Aurora.
On July 20, 2012, a troubled James Holmes stormed a midnight screening of “The Dark Knight Rises,” shot and killed twelve people and injured another fifty-eight. The entire country mourned, and Littleton, being only a half hour away, endured the trauma of terrible loss all over again—this time with another, perhaps even worse, grief-exploiting media invasion. Out of respect for fresh emotional wounds, Paparelli delayed his visit three weeks.
When he finally arrived in the town he assumed would be familiar, he found the environment had altered in an unexpected direction. “Aurora had sort of torn open people’s feelings about Columbine.” He elaborates, “the temperature was very different from when I was there ten years ago. This time everybody wanted to talk.”
And talk they did. Paparelli interviewed thirty new people totaling about a hundred hours of recorded discussions. Suddenly, what had been a plan to revise the play’s second act amounted to an entirely new third section. What will remain of those one-hundred transcribed hours? Who’s to say? Paparelli says he gave his cast fifteen new pages last Tuesday night, only a week before the show opens.
One person who never talked before was a young man named Brian. Brian was a student at Columbine during the massacre and saw awful, scarring sights on that day. During this round of interviews, Paparelli spoke with Brian and his mom, an extraordinary and unbelievably generous woman named Ruth. Brian’s initial response to the tragedy had been through his music. After the shootings, “he locked himself in his room and played the piano.” Paparelli felt Brian’s story and his compositions, which he’d never let anyone hear, would be a moving addition to the new “columbinus,” but Brian understandably wasn’t keen on talking. “He’s not someone who talks about his feelings.”
That changed on that terrible December morning of the Sandy Hook Elementary shootings. After hearing the sad news, Brian called up PJ, and told him that now he wanted to talk. Relaying this message to audiences and especially to young people has become of paramount importance to the survivors and their families (several will appear in Chicago during the play’s run), and the same is true of him. Brian’s brave story and deeply personal music will be heard onstage at ATC in the revised “columbinus.”
Another new thread involves the Columbine families’ efforts to raise an astonishing $3 million for a library. The school board was content with patching the bullet holes and applying a new coat of paint on the building shadowed by a painful past, but the families, unhappy that the room in which their children endured so much suffering would stay as a reminder, remained persistent, motivated and focused. At one meeting, a spokesperson for the school board called the logistics of the new building “a nightmare.” A mother replied, “wanna know what a nightmare is? Sending your daughter to school, and she doesn’t come back.”
Toward the end of our conversation, Paparelli makes a paternal emotional appeal. He’s developed close relationships with many of the play’s subjects—so much so that on the morning of the Sandy Hook Elementary shootings, several interviewees called him up to talk it through. Though this play concerns the Columbine and Aurora tragedies and will undoubtedly bring to mind for many the most recent school shooting in Connecticut, PJ does not want the play’s unfortunate relevance to overshadow the high-school students and Littleton community members he first interviewed ten years ago. “They were such a huge part of creating the piece and I don’t want them ever forgotten.” For, in “columbinus,”the real individuals are truly the most essential element. “It’s not just a play. It’s a means of healing for a group of people.”
“columbinus” plays at American Theater Company, 1909 West Byron through March 10. For tickets, call (773)409-4125.