Columbinus Focuses Broad Lens on 1999 School Shooting
CFA stages play about the Littleton, Colo., in all of us
The cast members of the College of Fine Arts production of columbinus were young children in 1999 when Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris went on a shooting rampage at Columbine High School, in Littleton, Colo., killing 12 students, a teacher, and themselves. In the years since, a string of mass shootings in the United States and their horrific aftermath have made headlines, from the 2007 massacre at Virginia Tech to the Newtown Elementary School tragedy in 2012. The Columbine shooting has been the subject of numerous films, TV shows, books, and songs.
Created by the United States Theatre Project and written by Stephen Karam and PJ Paparelli, who calls it “a theatrical inquiry,” columbinus is running at the BU Theatre through May 9. It was staged off-Broadway in 2006. Karam later wrote Sons of the Prophet, a play put on by the Huntington Theatre Company in 2011, which was a 2012 Pulitzer Prize finalist and winner of the New York Drama Critics Circle, Outer Critics Circle, and Lucille Lortel awards for best play. Paparelli is in his seventh season as artistic director of Chicago’s American Theater Company.
Columbinus does not preach or moralize, nor does it demonize the boys whose alienation and rage were, in hindsight, glaringly obvious. And for the School of Theatre actors starring in this documentary-style production, the play is less about mass violence than it is a compelling meditation on the painful, often predatory nature of high school culture and the potential fallout of both parents’ and teachers’ blindness to the loneliness, anger, and despondency of their charges.
“In all my experience, I have never worked on a play that gets so deeply inside a literal event that it comes up with something intrinsic about us as humans,” says director Clay Hopper (CFA’05), a CFA lecturer. The play, a work in progress last revised by Karam in January 2013, begins with the day of the shootings and over three acts pans back and widens its lens, from a day after it happened to 36 hours to a week to one, 5, 10, 13 years later, right to the present. It takes an intimate look at the response of parents of survivors as well as of victims, and explores the media coverage of the event and its aftermath. Columbinus begins with the actors introducing themselves and their archetypes—“Perfect,” “Jock,” “Rebel” “Freak,” “Prep,” “Loner,” “Faith,” and “AP”—before they plunge into character.
Working closely with dramaturge Zachary “Oz” Dyer (CFA’15), the actors have become well versed in the events surrounding Columbine and its aftermath, both in the community of Littleton and elsewhere in the nation. The characters in the third act are all based on real, living people, and cast members want their performances to do justice to them, says Ian Geers (CFA’14), who portrays the Jock. “These people we’re playing are all living right now,” says Jordan Brown (CFA’16), whose part is AP, or “the nerd,” as he puts it. “They exist. We found their Facebook pages.” For Isabel Schnall (CFA’16), who plays lead detective Kate Bratton, “the hardest part is doing justice to a voice I don’t agree with.” The actors and director ardently believe that the pat demonization of Klebold and Harris by the police and so many others lets the rest of us off the hook morally and shuts down a conversation that needs to continue.
For Harrison Bryan (CFA’14), as Klebold, and Evan Gambardella (CFA’14), as Harris, the notion that one or both of the killers were psychopaths is far too simplistic. “Dylan was a passionate poet who had friends, but saw and related to how lonely Eric was and how he suffered from the treatment of other students in the school’s fixed hierarchy,” says Bryan. Like Gambardella, he felt he could not portray one of the troubled killers without trying to understand and empathize with him. “By labeling Eric a psychopath, it takes the onus off us,” says Gambardella, citing his character’s rage as well as the fact that both boys could have killed far more people than they did. Both boys, Gambardella and Bryan say, were complicated, misunderstood, and crying out for help.
“The biggest challenge is not to exploit the tragedy, but to portray the events as deeply human,” says Kristian Sorensen (CFA’14), who plays a Prep—one of the several high school archetypes introduced in the first act—and later a father who lost his daughter in the shootings.
Geers was eight in 1999, and he recalls his parents sitting him down after the massacre. “Their reaction was, oh my God how can this happen,” he recalls. He later had many friends at Virginia Tech when the mass shootings occurred there, claiming the lives of 32 people. For him, too, it’s important that the play never descend to the level of mawkishness. “The beauty of the play is that it remains a question,” Geers says, adding that he hopes it transcends being “that Columbine play” to being what Hopper calls an inquiry into universal matters of adolescent pressures and alienation.
“A strong current of compassion and a need for understanding courses through columbinus, an understanding that ultimately remains elusive because of the very nature of the event it grapples with,” Hopper says. “I am constantly amazed at this play’s power and the depth of its compassion when confronted with no easy answers. It’s got a lot of heart. It’s bursting with it.”
Columbinus has its comic moments, mostly arising from the character archetypes’ cluelessness about their biases and self-absorption. Ivy Ryan (CFA’16), whose generic character Faith is the source of much comic relief, says “people might come prepared to cry, but there is a lot of comedy about being in high school, and there are sweet moments about things like the prom, and the awkwardness.”
“Columbine haunts our nation’s consciousness, and despite years of research and some of the most extensive investigations made into a mass shooting, we are still so far from finding a definitive reason why Dylan and Eric did what they did,” says Hopper. “The play joins the books and plays already written about Columbine, embarking on the same search for answers, trying to glean some understanding from what can only be described as a senseless tragedy.”
In Michael Moore’s Oscar-winning documentary Bowling for Columbine, the musician Marilyn Manson is asked what he would say to Klebold and Harris. His reply: “I wouldn’t say a single word to them. I would listen to what they have to say, and that’s what no one did.” Columbinus offers no answers. The audience is left to question itself. In fact, as Hopper told his cast, “If you come up with the answer, it must be wrong.”
Columbinus opens today, Friday, May 2, and runs through May 9 (no performance May 5) at the Boston University Theatre, 264 Huntington Ave., Boston. There will be ASL interpreters at the May 6 and May 7 performances. More information can be found here. Tickets are $12 for the general public, $10 for BU alumni, WGBH and WBUR members, and Huntington Theatre Company subscribers, and $6 with CFA membership. Purchase tickets here or call 617-933-8600. One free ticket with a BU ID is available at the door on the day of performance, subject to availability.4 Comments