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Really Really Playwright Paul Downs Colaizzo on Lena Dunham, Marketing to Haterz, and Making Audiences Angry

The rising, 27-year-old star does not care if you hate him, as long as his plays get you properly riled. logo

Paul Downs Colaizzo
(© David Gordon)
People have a lot to say about 27-year-old playwright Paul Down's Colaizzo's New York debut, Really Really, which has extended its run at MCC Theater through March 30. And when they're talking about Really Really, they are talking about young people -- the twenty-something population the theater world has struggled to depict, and a generation that is often unsure of how to depict itself.

"'Really Really'… is a take-no-prisoners indictment of the young men and women poised to inherit the earth," said New York Times critic Ben Brantley. "Morality is not a talking point here. This is ‘Lord of the Flies' with smartphones."

"Theater's deep disgust for (and fear of) ‘the Millennials' reaches a high-water mark with Really Really, MCC's latest attempt to comprehend the callow Jugend running amok in our cities, bars, and coffee shops," Scott Brown wrote in New York Magazine.

"This drama depicting the aftermath of a sexual liaison at a raucous college party features wholly unpleasant characters doing and saying wholly unpleasant things," Frank Sheck wrote in The Hollywood Reporter. "But there's no denying the provocative impact of its portrait of what is derisively referred to as ‘Generation Me.'"

At the National Corporate Theater Fund's Broadway Roundtable on Friday, NCTF's Executive Director Bruce Whitacre introduced Colaizzo as a member of the panel. "People say that you're the voice of a new generation," he said, likely eliciting suppressed smirks from anyone in the audience familiar with HBO's Girls,which stars Zosia Mamet, who leads the cast of Really Really.

Matt Lauria and Zosia Mamet in Really Really
(© Janna Giacoppo)
TheaterMania spoke with the playwright, pre-Roundtable, about marketing to theater's neglected demographic, what Lena Dunham does right, and what he really thinks about young people.

Really Really is targeted, very precisely, at young people in their 20s. There's been a lot of talk about how to make theater accessible to this generation. Is that something you were thinking about when you were writing?

That was mainly what I was thinking about when I was writing. I was twenty-one when I wrote the first draft, and the goal was to…cater to an audience that was in my age range. I felt, at the time, that theater wasn't doing [that].

It's been really amazing to see young people come to the theater [to see Really Really] and have so many different reactions. Some are just thrilled and some are so angry and some are scared or pissed off that feel like they've been spoken to, or for. Whatever the outcome has been, the joy has been seeing young people in these seats.

How much of your audience has fit into this demographic?

I'm not there every night, but I've been told that it's higher than usual. We have been blessed in this production with this incredible cast. People who don't go to the theater normally might…come check out the play because of that. Everything is targeted at bringing this younger audience in. The best is when college groups [come to the show]. You can hear them react, and afterwards, seeing them wait outside like it's some musical has been the most incredible experience.

The cast of off-Broadway's Really Really.
(© David Gordon)
I think of the show Girls, and whether it's positive or negative, everyone in a certain age group feels the need to react to it. Do you think Really Really has a similar effect on people?

I hope. That's the goal. I never leave a piece of theater that I love and say, ‘That was a good point; They made a good point.' I leave and I feel something. And I could just be outraged or feel like they were on to something or feel like they didn't quite get it right. But the fact that I have something to say is what makes me excited to go see theater. That something pinched me enough to have an ‘ouch,' in the lamest acting terms. And Lena Dunham has done an amazing job with really giving people something to respond to. I went to the premiere of season two of that show [HBO's Girls] and I saw it with other people—I usually watch that show alone in my living room—and watching that show in a room with other people was like theater. It was a social show. There was a lot to talk about. There was sharing in the misery that these people were going through, or the embarrassment, or the thrill. And theater is inherently that. It is inherently a social experience. And the more that we can make it a social experience, I think the bigger chance we have of getting people to come in groups and getting people to come with their friends and getting people to react.

Girls just gets to young people. Whether they hate it --

There's so much to argue about. That was the goal with Really Really. Somebody asked me once, ‘How should I feel when I leave?' and I said, ‘Hopefully, you're talkative.' I don't really care if you're happy or sad or loved it or hated it or hate me. The goal is that you have something to say, that you have a response.

A lot of people who aren't in our age group have asked me, after seeing your play, ‘Is that the way you young people actually are?' What is your answer to that?

People who have seen the show would probably be very surprised to hear my take on our generation. I have extreme hope for us. I think that we're incredible and I think we deserve better. My play is a dramatic dilation in the sense that, I don't think my play is like, ‘Oh, that happens all the time.' I think that it's an exploration of ‘What if we are that?' and how dangerous that can be. It's half cautionary tale, half soul search. There's self-examination that comes with it for me when I watch it, when I was writing it for the actors as we were going through it, and hopefully for the audience. [I think,] ‘Even if I don't see myself up there at all, what do I see? And if that's not me, why isn't it me?' Ambiguity is a huge theme in the play. I also hope ambiguity carries over into the post-viewing experience of ‘What did you see? What of that is a statement? What of that is a question?' I don't know if it was completely successful in that way, but that was the goal.

Were you involved in the process of making sure that young people knew about this play?

When I decided to go with MCC for the play, one of the [considerations] was, ‘How are we going to get young people in?' Anything we could do to that end, I was all for….We had a really sexy press strategy, it turns out. [Zosia Mamet] did a thing in Vogue and there was a lot of social media outreach. MCC does twenty-five dollar tickets for people under thirty, which is amazing, and they have been nothing but supportive and excited to get young people into the theater. And the cast also really helped to bring in a younger audience.

What are your plans after this?

I have a couple plays in development. One [Pride in the Falls of Autrey Mill] is opening in October at [Signature Theatre], so I'm excited about that. And I'm just going to keep trekking, hopefully keep conversations going, and put what people think about me on the back burner while I give them something to yell about.

Do the plays in development deal with the same age range?

No. Really Really is part of a trilogy, but the two plays that I'm really focusing on right now are not part of that trilogy. They're two plays set in Alpharetta, Georgia, which is where I grew up. One is a family drama and one is about the way that we teach race in public schools, based off of this event that happened at my high school. I've dramatized it in a way that extends it further and sort of explores the question, ‘How do we teach our past while not harping on it?' That one also has no answers and people might be really angry when they leave. I don't know. I hope.