About the author:
Paul Downs Colaizzo’s playwriting career is unfolding in fairy-tale fashion, with Really Really, a play he began when he was 21 (he’s now 27) getting a premiere run at Signature Theatre of Virginia before its current New York debut at MCC Theatre. Everything about Colaizzo’s off-Broadway debut is first rate, from his cast (including Girls star Zosia Mamet and Friday Night Lights vet Matt Lauria) to his director (the always-in-demand David Cromer). How did a self-described friendless theater fan from Alpharetta, GA, become NYC’s young playwright of the moment? Colaizzo tells all in a thoughtful essay on creating “theater for a maturing young audience.”
In 1996, in the CD section of a Barnes & Noble, on one of those put-on-these-huge-headphones-and-press-a-button-for-a-sample devices, I first heard the original cast recording of Rent.
“These people are me,” I thought to myself. I was a sixth grader with no friends, and the characters in Rent were starving artists and drug addicts with tons of friends, but still, something about them was exciting and thrilling and tapped into my young psyche in a way that felt electrifying.
Rent served as my gateway drug to contemporary theater.
I went on to study drama at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. Growing up in Georgia, I found it easy to indulge in the latest musical theater offerings via the Barnes & Noble CD section, and in high school, via Napster, but it wasn’t until I moved to the city in 2003 that I began to appreciate the thrill of that other kind of commercial theater. The more mature, intimidating medium called the straight play.
I had always liked Lost in Yonkers, recalling the iconic performance of Mercedes Ruehl in the film version, and we did Larry Shue’s The Foreigner in high school, and that was fun. But in college, I was exposed to darker, more twisted works that opened my mind and my artistic spirit to a less forgiving and more complicated exploration of the human condition.
“No, not that, that’s Utah talk, Mormon talk.” Every semester we would dissect the brilliance of contemporary plays and scenes. (To this day, I will sometimes begin reciting dialogue from the exceptional and oft assigned Harper/Joe scene from Angels in America just because it gets stuck in my head like a song.) But as my years in school continued, and my appreciation for drama deepened, I had yet to find something as compelling to my 20-year-old self as my first taste of Rent in that Barnes & Noble in Alpharetta, GA.
People in their early 20s are not often considered the target demographic for new plays; musicals have had much more success in exploring that coming-of-age period of life. But just after graduation, while I was playing the role of the senior citizen Magwitch in a touring production of Great Expectations, I decided that I wanted to create a piece of theater that not only offered opportunities for young actors to play vicious age-appropriate roles, but also a piece that offered younger than average audiences a viscerally compelling night in the theater. This wasn’t going to be a piece for older theatergoers. It was going to be theater for 20-somethings.
I wrote the first draft of Really Really when I was 21. It wasn’t until last year, when I was 26, that it was produced for the first time. I expected older audiences to walk out in disgusted mobs, or find the characters completely un-relatable, leaving us 20-somethings alone in a medium that refused to cater to us. But as the play debuted at the Signature Theatre in Arlington, VA, I was surprised to find the older crowds staying in their seats and sending their friends and children to see the show.
Really Really was then programmed into MCC’s off-Broadway season, and a new production opens on February 19 at the Lucille Lortel Theatre. When the play was in previews in Virginia, the pressure I felt to make it top-notch was self-imposed. I was pursuing my dream of making theater for a new generation, and I was not at all concerned with the way older people would accept the work. But as we started previews in New York, I began to feel pressure from my desire to please everybody. I sat in previews night after night surrounded by 40-year-old audience members, trying to watch the piece through their eyes and fearing that it was not as universal as I had come to believe.
This past Saturday night I didn’t sleep. Were the characters too unlikeable? Should I have gone for a more hopeful ending? Maybe that guy on the message boards was right. Maybe the show made no sense.
I tossed, and turned, sick to my stomach as I walked into the theater for Sunday’s matinee. Past the group of three 20-something women entering the theater, I saw an older man with a pen and a pad. A blogger taking notes during a preview performance for a premature online review. “What was he going to say?” I worried. On the other side of the theater, seated next to four young men, I saw an elderly woman in a fur coat with dyed black hair. Maybe she was on the board of the theater. Maybe they would never produce my work again.
As I put my head down in classic anxious-writer fashion, the houselights began to dim, and the first scene began. I heard laughter at the opening image. And then laughter three seconds later. I perked up from my fetal position and noticed that people on the sides of the theater were being incredibly alert and active theatergoers. I turned and asked the company manager, “Who is this audience?” She replied, “A group of students from Montclair State University.”
Suddenly, I was reminded of my target audience. I was able to watch the show through their eyes. The eyes of 21-year-olds about to enter the world, and I then remembered what it was like to be that age. I wrote the piece at 21, but I’m now 27. I am no longer those characters. But what Sunday’s matinee reminded me of was my goal all along—to make a piece of dramatic theater for an audience that is often forgotten.
Afterwards, I spoke with some of the students. Forty or so of them waited outside to get their playbills signed. It was something I first did at the stage door of Rent.
I went home on Sunday night and e-mailed Bernie Telsey, one of the artistic directors of MCC. “Can we get more young people into the audience?”
He replied 10 minutes later. “That’s exactly what we’re doing.”