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August 19, 2009

The Shame of "The Columbine Project"

Nine years have passed since Mois├ęs Kaufman and the Tectonic Theater Project created The Laramie Project, the groundbreaking documentary play about the homophobia-inspired murder of Matthew Shepard. Using published news reports and personal interviews with some 200 townspeople in Laramie Wyoming, the piece was a moving meditation on the murder’s effect on the community in which the young gay college student lived and died. Kaufman and the company went back to Laramie last year for an update and The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later is scheduled be presented as a staged reading on Oct. 12 at theaters across the country, including Alice Tully Hall here in New York.

That is good news. What isn’t is the proliferation of imitations The Laramie Project has spawned. Many would-be playwrights now seem to think all they need to do is find a calamity, patch together excerpts from news reports about the event and slap the word “Project” in their title. But it takes more than that to make a play, at least a meaningful one. A few, like The Amish Project, the one-woman show about the slaughter of five girls in an Amish schoolhouse that emerged from last year’s Fringe Festival, do achieve their own grace, finding a way to turn tragedy into art. But others are like The Columbine Project, the new play about the 1999 massacre at a Colorado high school in which 15 people died, including the two students who committed the attack. The only word I can think of for the latter is exploitative.

I take no pleasure from beating up on a small show and I know that small productions have to make do with less. But that’s where creative stagecraft and imaginative storytelling come in. The Columbine Project lacks both. Playwright Paul Storiale serves as his own director and lets himself down by staging scene after scene with actors just walking on, standing in the middle of the stage, shouting some dialog and then walking off.

Actors are valiant creatures and a couple of the 19-member-cast—most notably, Rya Meyers as the devout Christian student who was the shooters’ first victim and Marquerite Wiseman as the mother of the sole African-American student killed—do manage to sneak a little life into their characters. But it’s not enough. Josh Iacovelli, who is listed in the program as responsible for “set adaptation” didn’t even try. The curtain that serves as the backdrop for a table and a few chairs kept splitting open to reveal offstage actors who shouldn't have been seen at that moment. My class did a better job with the set for the spring play when I was in 6th grade. And I went to a school in a poor neighborhood.

Of course I’ve seen poorly written, poorly directed, poorly acted and poorly designed shows before. What so upset me about this one is that in my all years of theatergoing, it is one of the very few times when I didn't applaud at the end of a show. I simply couldn't do it because I felt ashamed as I sat in the Actors Temple Theatre, where The Columbine Project is currently running. I felt as though I were complicit in a violation of the memory of the people who suffered that day and of the professionalism of the theater people who once worshipped at the Temple. They—and I
deserve better.


Anonymous said...

When you speak of "compiled scripts" as being written by those who feel "all they need to do is find a calamity, patch together excerpts from news reports about the event and slap the word 'Project' in their title" it seems you seek to invalidate the work of Anna Deveare Smith and Moises Kaufman, just to name two successful artists who use this form. Your wording is vague, so perhaps you don't mean to smear the entire form and I did not see the Amish Project, so I'm not certain if that show used interviews with actual participants in the event as text. If we hold to an Aristotelian only view of drama, then where do we put Smith, Kaufman, or even, Maria Irene Fornes or Joseph Chaikin? Theatre is too vast in this era to be held in one single lofty "O."

jan@broadwayandme said...

Anonymous, thanks for your thoughtful response. I, as you seem to be, am a fan of the work that Kaufman and Deveare Smith have done. I already have tickets to her new show, Let Me Down Easy, which will be at Second Stage this fall, and I'm hoping to get into the New York reading of the updated Laramie Project too. I've also enjoyed some of Chuck Mee's work, which also uses news reports and other similar sources. I don't object to the practice of appropriating words from other sources but that, of course, isn't all these artists do. They don't simply reiterate the facts we already know but try to help us see and make sense of the world through the events they chronicle. They find a way, as I say in the piece, to turn "tragedy into art." And The Columbine Project fell far short of that. As I said, I don't enjoy knocking a small show and I don't want to discourage young artists but I do think it's important to urge anyone who wants to explore this kind of storytelling to be far more rigorous than the creators of this play have been. Thanks again for taking the time to comment and for helping me to refine the point I hoped to get across. jan

Anonymous said...

The show was just not good. Your'e right Jan, I was in shock myself with the staging, acting, writing. Nothing creative at all. A waste of money.

Anonymous said...

you did not pay attention.
besides the staging and the set comments, speaking of moises kaufman's play has nothing to do with that show. if you had listened you would have been able to report that title was words they used.

Anonymous said...

The only thing Paul Anthony Storiale is good at is hyping himself and his productions. I'm from LA, never saw anything even remotely good from him. But he makes everything he does sound awesome. If you go to his official Columbine Project site, you can see that he quoted a bad review to sound like a good review (NY Post). The only reason this play did well is the subject matter and his relentless PR.

Anonymous said...

What have you seen of his?
Prove your not just a hateful actor?
tell us your experience?

Anonymous said...

A hateful actor??? Give me a break. One night stands-- sucks! pocket books-- SUCK! COLUMBINE.... well the NY critics are speaking! SUCKS!!!!

Anonymous said...

and there you have it. this person knows nothing of his work.
"Pocketbooks"? Okay.

Anonymous said...