Thursday, February 09, 2012

Interview with Playwright Paul Downs Colaizzo

Signature Theatre’s press release announcing its next production, Really Really, begins like this:

“An elite university. A not-to-be-missed party. A startling accusation.”

Rumors have circulated that Really Really is loosely based on the Duke lacrosse case of 2006, but playwright Paul Downs Colaizzo is reticent about the plot.

When posed what The Metro Herald characterized as “a basic question: What’s your play about?,” Colaizzo hesitates.

“That’s actually not a basic question,” he replies.

“That’s actually proved to be a very hard question,” he explains. “When people ask me these questions, I tend to answer thematically because that, to me, is what the play is about but usually that’s not what people are looking for.”

Playwright Paul Downs Colaizzo at Signature Theatre
The reticence – or intrigue, depending on how one looks at it – extends to members of the cast, as well. During an interview with actress Bethany Anne Lind, she responds to a question about her character, Leigh, by looking over to Colaizzo shyly and saying, “I don’t know what I’m allowed to say.”

The intrigue may be uncovered after Really Really has its official opening on February 12, but in the meantime we will have to remain satisfied with the thematic background information that the playwright is willing to discuss.

Really Really is Colaizzo’s first professionally produced play, at the age of 26. He found his inspiration for the play, he says, in what he calls the “post-abortion generation” of people born since the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade.

The post-abortion generation, he says, is “the most wanted generation in American history, because there was the option not to have us.”

The conscientious desire of that generation’s mothers and fathers to have offspring led to a lot of what is called helicopter parenting and the inculcation of self-esteem in children without regard to actual achievement or, as Colaizzo puts it, the idea that “everybody gets a trophy.” This, in turn, resulted in “an incredibly entitled and narcissistic generation that is sort of an anomaly in American life.”

Colaizzo describes “this period of time,” in which is own generation was brought up, as one that saw every child as “wanted and loved” and told that every one of them is “amazing, just for being them.”

When that generation reached young adulthood after being pampered during a period of economic abundance, they suddenly faced the economic crisis of 2008 and the recession and slowdown that followed. College graduates who expected a job immediately after graduation were sorely disappointed. Failure and the necessity to cope were new to them.

This situation, Colaizzo explained, led to a “divide” between those who really were resilient in the face of the challenge” of the economic downturn despite the “entitlement teachings” they grew up with, and “those who went the other way,” the ones “who live in their parents’ basements” and who accept the poor job market as a given and have given up looking for something better to do with their lives.

This is the background of Really Really but, Colaizzo asks rhetorically, “Will you see any of that in the play?” The answer is no.

The cast of Signature Theatre's 'Really Really'
The closest Colaizzo gets to describing what happens in his play is to say it “is about a rugby team. It takes place after a party on campus, the morning of the return from the party, and [during] the next two days that follow.”

In the course of the play, “the truth of what happened at the party comes into question. It becomes every man for himself,” in that “there’s suddenly a risk to each character’s future.”

The question is, Colaizzo concedes, “at what level will these characters and members of this generation go to protect [their futures] in an unpromising world [of] these days?”

In his own life, Colaizzo was born in Pittsburgh but his family moved around a lot as he was growing up. They lived in New Jersey and Florida and he went to high school in Georgia. When it was time for college, his parents moved to California while he went to New York University, where he studied drama.

After graduation with a BFA from the Tisch School of the Arts, he acted for two years but “wasn’t happy enough,” and that is when he “decided to switch my path to writing.”

His interest in “exploring social ideas in a dramatic way” was sparked by his encounter with Alan Ball’s work while he was in high-school. (Ball is the Oscar-winning screenwriter of American Beauty and creator of the TV series, Six Feet Under.)

Ball, he said, was writing about “the dark side of American life that wasn’t painted in this glittering-gold way that my conservative upbringing had led me to believe” was the normal way that people lived.

As a high-school student in Georgia, Colaizzo found that point of view “fascinating.”

That informs what Colaizzo enjoys about playwriting.

“My favorite thing about working on plays is,” he says, the way that he can “try to explore dichotomies in contemporary American life without pretension.”

He likes to hold “a mirror to the audience and say, What are you terrified of? What part did you relate to?”

He also likes to “explore unanswered questions or things that are a little scary to confront.”

Colaizzo compares his role as a playwright to that of a pet owner with a sick pet who needs medicine but refuses to swallow it.

“I call it the pill in the peanut butter,” he says, “because when you feed a dog a pill, you have to put it in peanut butter because the dog’s not stupid enough to just take the pill. So I have the pill that I really want to sell, but I have to put it in peanut butter,” so the audience will swallow it.

“The trickiest, and probably also the most fun part,” he explains, “is figuring out a way to explore these real human emotions and parts of our culture that are incredibly terrifying and put it in peanut butter so the audience can digest it and [be] willing to take it while also secretly getting the medicine.”

Colaizzo wrote the first draft of Really Really in 2007 and friends of his sent a copy to Matthew Gardiner, who is directing the production at Signature Theatre. In 2009, it had a reading as a work-in-progress at the Kennedy Center, where Gardiner saw it and recommended it to Signature’s founder and artistic director, Eric Schaeffer.

Schaeffer decided he wanted to produce the play but Colaizzo was skeptical. He asked, “Are you sure?” but, as Colaizzo reports it, Schaeffer replied: “Everyone is afraid of this play, and that’s why I want to do it.”

Colaizzo has nothing but praise for the way he has been treated at Signature. Schaeffer, Gardiner, and managing director Maggie Boland, he said, “have been so incredibly supportive,” urging him to make changes in the script only when the play demands them for artistic reasons and not simply to please audiences and make it more commercially acceptable.

He calls their attitude “unbelievably liberating” and “so I admire everything that they’ve done so far.”

Performances of Really Really run through March 25, 2012. Show times are Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7:30 pm, Thursdays and Fridays at 8:00 pm, Saturdays at 2:00 pm and 8:00 pm, and Sundays at 2:00 pm and 7:00 pm.

Tickets range from $56 - $80 and are available by calling Ticketmaster at 703-573-SEAT (7328) or visiting Student discount tickets are $30 and must be purchased the week of the performance. For more information please visit

Be sure to visit my CafePress store for gifts and novelty items!
Read my blog on Kindle!
Follow my tweets on Twitter! 

No comments: