Theatre Kibbitz: Matthew Gardiner and Paul Downs Colaizzo on Directing and Writing ‘Really Really’

I really really wanted to know more about this new play that I have heard so much about lately. A young playwright and a young director are working together at Signature Theatre to bring a ‘terrifying’ examination of ‘Generation Me’ to The Ark. Paul Downs Colaizzo tells us about writing his play and working with Director Matthew Gardiner, and Matthew introduces us to his talented cast and gives us some insight into directing Really Really.

Joel:  What is Really Really about from the playwright and director’s point of view?

Matthew Gardiner

Matthew: Really Really is an examination of ‘Generation Me’ (anyone born from the 70s-90s) – a generation where high self esteem was encouraged early on in childhood and the belief that you are special just because has carried through into our adult lives. A group of people that grew up never having to place duty before self. We have been referred to as the most confident and driven young adults, while also the most self important and narcissistic. Paul has written a trilogy of plays called the Want Give Get Trilogy and this play specifically looks at our generation and the lengths we will go to get what we want and believe/told we are entitled to.

Paul: I never know how to answer this question, but the answer I’ve been giving out lately is that it’s a play about a girl who wants a house.

How did the play get to Signature? And why did you select Signature as the venue for the play’s ‘World Premiere’?

Matthew: Several of my peers introduced me to Paul’s writing. Actually the first person to introduce me to one of Paul’s plays was Nick Blaemire (the composer of Glory Days.)  After much prodding from Nick and several others, I sat down to read Really Really and was hooked. Paul’s use of language is incredibly authentic, his characters are fully dimensional unique individuals, and the questions that he raises about people my age strike me in a very personal way. I told Eric Schaeffer to read it and the rest is history. We’ve done a few readings, and here we are getting ready for the first fully staged professional production of one of Paul’s plays.

Paul: Several of my friends had passed the play off to Matt about 2 years ago. He read it and then passed it off to Eric Schaeffer, who, to my surprise, insisted that Signature produce the play. I remember he said “Everyone is afraid of this play.  That’s why we should do it.”

What character in the play reminds you most of yourself and why?

Matthew: That’s a hard question, because I think it’s easy to view this play and want to disassociate yourself from all of these characters. I couldn’t possibly treat people the way these characters treat each other. And isn’t it so “Generation Me” for me to say that…to say that I don’t see any of these qualities in myself? That’s not true. I know that. I think there are elements of every character in me, which I don’t think I would have said at the start of these rehearsals. It has taken clarifying the motivations of these characters and much discovery in rehearsal to realize how similar I am to all of them.

Paul: There are parts of me in every character, which is very scary in the case of this particular play.

What does the play have to say to the ‘iPhone’ generation and to the older generation that makes up a lot of Signature’s subscription base? How will they be able to relate to the play? What themes in the play move ‘hit home’ the most for you?

Matthew: Of course I was drawn to the play because I felt it spoke to me and the challenges our generation is facing. One of my biggest concerns when Eric said he wanted to produce this play, was that I didn’t think we had the “right audience for it.” Eric was quick to shoot that line of thinking down. All of the readings we have done have been for our peers. But after the first week of rehearsal we had a donor presentation where we read two scenes from the play for many of our donors. I was shocked a pleasantly surprised by their response to the play and it’s themes, and the conversations that followed with them and have continued (even after only hearing two scenes). If that donor presentation was any indication I don’t think the “older generation” will have any issue relating to the play.

Paul: I’ve been doing a fair amount of rewrites while we’ve been in rehearsal and more themes seem to be presenting themselves. Really Really explores the entitlement and the desires of the post-abortion generation. As far as the older generation and their relationship to the piece, that has yet to be tested. We recently did a first glimpse of the play for donors and volunteers of Signature, and the response was surprising. Matt and I both anticipated an older audience to feel an immediate disconnect with the piece, but that was far from the reaction we received.

What have you learned about the play and each other since you have worked together on this production?

Matthew: Well anytime a play goes from 2-D to 3-D for the first time there are a number of discoveries made. There were things on the page that eluded me, but putting the words in the mouths of this incredibly gifted company has opened my eyes to the piece. Paul is an incredibly gifted playwright. To say I admire him is an understatement. It is an incredibly, rich and dimensional play. Each day is a whirlwind of discoveries, and I feel very lucky to tackle this piece.

Paul: I’ve learned that the play has more layers than I knew, and that Matthew Gardiner is an incredibly collaborative director.

Paul, when you started off writing the play were you trying to write a play that  “pushes the edges and embraces the harsh realities of the “Me” generation,” as the show is being advertised, or did it just evolve that way.

Paul: I wasn’t trying to push the edges, but I wanted to fully and truthfully explore the generation of which I am a member, and I knew that meant accepting some not-so-admirable traits in myself and my peers. The cast laughs at me because I share their reactions to some of the content in the piece. They keep saying to me “Why are you reacting like that? You wrote it!” I tried to tell the story in the most effective way that it could be told.

The play is based on a true event. Tell us about that and why did you not choose to use that event in the play?

Paul: It’s actually not based on a true event. So many events and studies kindled my inspiration for this play, and when a press-release went out for the Kennedy Center reading of the show in 2009, it was likened to the Duke Lacrosse scandal. That really has followed the piece non-stop for the past few years, even though it’s not an accurate comparison.

What is it about Matthew Gardiner that made you want him to direct Really Really? What has impressed you most while watching him direct and working with the cast?

Paul: When I saw his production of Art last year, I found him right afterward and told him how I’d never seen a production of the show that brought the asexual aspects of these men to the forefront, and allowed that to serve as the context for the whole piece. I’m not sure if that was his intention with the piece, or if anybody else took that from the production, but I was excited by the idea that the audiences interpretation of the piece seemed to be given just as much importance by Matt as his own take on it.

His desire to honor my work – while also fighting to let the actors find the characters for themselves – has been most admirable.

Have you made any changes to the script for this production?  If yes, can you name some of them? How long did it take you to write Really Really?

Paul: I’ve made several changes but I won’t name any of them because I doubt anyone would have any idea what I was talking about. Really Really was the first play I’d ever written and I hammered out the first draft in the first half of 2007. So I’ve been with this play for about five years.

Tell us about the design of this production and how it enhances the mood, atmosphere, and themes that you want audiences to experience.

Paul: I found out today that there will be a neon beer light on the set of the men’s apartment. Suddenly the characters’ relationship with alcohol will literally be illuminated on the stage.

When did you first get the ‘playwright/theatre bug?’ What is your first memory of performing on the stage or writing for the stage? Where did you get your training as a playwright?

Paul: I fell in love with theatre when I was three years old and my babysitter scored the lead role in a national tour. But I really think that encountering Alan Ball’s work on American Beauty and Six Feet Under while I was in high school secretly affected me in such a permanent way that they led to my desire to explore social themes in a dramatic way.

How would you describe your style of writing and the style you wrote Really Really in?

Paul: I tend to write comic tragedies.

What other plays have you written and what are they about? Are you working on anything new at the moment?

Paul Down Colaizzo

Paul: Really Really is actually the first play in a trilogy. I call it the “Want/Give/Get” trilogy because the first play, Really Really, deals with how member of this generation deal with the things that they want, the second play, Little Gives, explores with how we deal with the things that we give up, and the third play, A Dog’s Tale (or the Thing About Getting), explores how we deal with the things that we get. And then I have two more plays, both set in the south. Pride in The Falls of Autrey Mill examines a family that is a product of a sexless marriage in the suburbs, and For Tomorrow, Please Prepare explores the teaching of Huck Finn in a racially-charged public school.

Are there any other productions of this show coming up after the Signature run?

Paul: I hope so. But I have quickly learned not to trust anything in this business until it has already happened.

How has your Signature experience been?

Paul: The people at this theatre are incredible.  They made it very clear to me from the first minute of the process that I should not make any changes to the piece in order to cater to their audience. They told me to make the changes that serve the piece the best. I’m so honored to be given an opportunity like this one and to be shown such tremendous support by Eric, Maggie, Matt, and everyone else at the Signature Theatre. Now I just have to make them proud.

Matthew, Why did you want to direct this play?

Matthew: I believe the play sheds light on many important questions. The piece speaks to me personally in a way that very few plays do. The themes of the play, the characters and their situation make me angry. That’s an uncomfortable feeling and one that is rare in theatre. On the first day, after the first read, the conversation with the cast was incredibly passionate. We weren’t talking about characters, we were talking about ourselves and out peers and it was very exciting.

At the same time I wanted to direct it because it’s unlike anything I’ve been given the chance to tackle in my career so far. Frankly the piece terrifies me, but I believe the worst feeling an artist can have is one of ease. That feeling produces nothing, and certainly doesn’t help you grow. The projects that excite me the most are the ones that I don’t think I can do.

What scene(s) affects you the most when you see it performed on the stage?

Matthew: Well there is a specific moment in the play that is terrifying. But to say anymore would give away major plot points.

Introduce us to your talented cast.

Top: Evan Casey, Kim Rosen, Lauren Culpepper and Paul James Bottom: Danny Gavigan, Bethany Anne Lind and Jake Odmark. Photo by Christopher Mueller.

Matthew: We hit the jackpot. It’s an incredible group of young actors, from DC, NY, LA, and even Atlanta. The audition process for this was a long one. The first actors to be cast were Jake Odmark, Lauren Culpepper and Evan Casey. All three had done the first read of the play at Signature. Danny Gavigan is a DC actor who’s work I’ve been intrigued by before. Kim Rosen who plays Haley, has probably been around the piece the longest as she’s done multiple readings of the play, long before I came into the picture (actually Paul wrote the role with Kim in mind.) The last two to be cast were Paul James and Bethany Anne Lind. Paul was in the TV show Greek and is originally from Washington DC. The hardest role to cast was Leigh. I saw over 50 girls for the part. Bethany was the last actress to walk into the audition room and both Paul and I were ecstatic after she read. Bethany is a well respected actress in Atlanta who has a history of creating roles in world premieres. It is a wonderful cast.

What has surprised you so far about their performances?

Matthew: They are each incredible and have taught us so much about the piece. I wouldn’t say I’m surprised by them, as we really took our time in casting this one and finding the right people. But every day I am surprised by the choices they make in each scene.

What has been the most difficult scene to direct/stage so far?

Matthew: Oh I can’t pick one. Directing every scene in this play has been a bit of trial and error, much more so than any other play I’ve done. One wrong move could throw the entire play off track. When a moment is too pointed or not pointed enough, we could tell the wrong story or let out too much information too soon. If a character picks up an object it could lead the audience to think a certain thing too soon or something we never want them to think at all. While it’s not a mystery, I often feel like I am directing one. Constantly asking myself what information does the audience know and what clues can I plant along the way? What is too much and what is too little? Having the playwright in the room is helpful in that, but for us both it’s a constant struggle to find the right balance of ambiguity.

What are some of the challenges you have faced staging the show in The Ark?

Matthew: Well the Ark is a very intimate space. This play takes place in two apartments, so you can imagine how difficult it has been to design and stage. But I think Misha Kachman’s scenic design is working wonders in our tight confines.

What do you want audiences to take with them after seeing Really Really at Signature Theatre?

Matthew: Who knows what the audience will take away. Hopefully the play shines some light on a generation that will do anything, no matter the cost, to make their life work for themselves.

Paul: Well if I told you, then it wouldn’t be a surprise.

Really Really plays through March 25, 2011, at Signature Theatre – 4200 Campbell Avenue, in Arlington, VA. For tickets, call the Box Office (703) 820- 9771, or purchase them online.