A few years ago, PJ Paparelli, Patricia Hersch, Stephen Karam and Sean McNall arrived in Littleton, Colo., to interview students, parents, teachers, police and community members about the April 20, 1999, Columbine High School shooting that left 15 dead, including triggermen Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold.
The writers were developing a script for Paparelli's United States Theater Project, a nonprofit group committed to stories based on social and political issues in the country. They drove through the town of Littleton on that first day, approached a rise and saw Columbine itself - as normal as any suburban high school they could imagine.
"One of the things we gleaned from the experience is how similar Littleton is to so many suburbs, and how normal Columbine is in comparison to whatever you consider normal," said Paparelli, the artistic director at Perseverance Theatre. "No one thought Littleton was an evil place. It's a beautiful place where people move to raise their kids. Years later, there's a real sadness still in the town. People are struggling to shed some perspective on the whole thing."
"columbinus," a co-production with Round House Theatre in Silver Spring, Md., doesn't pretend to have any answers, but tries to explore a generation where suburban school shootings have become part of the consciousness.
The play opens at 8 p.m. Friday, May 6, at Perseverance Theatre and runs through May 29.
"A big part of the process is seeing what the teenagers, teachers and parents say," Paparelli said. "I don't know how people are going to react here. I know what happened in Washington didn't surprise me, but that's an environment I've been part of. I'll be curious to see what kind of discussions start, and if we're part of that, or if these are private discussions that happen at home."
"columbinus" premiered earlier this year in Silver Spring. It will go to the New York Theatre Workshop this fall. The theater hopes to produce it the following season, which means it could open off-Broadway in 2006.
The eight actors in the cast have been working with the script in workshops for the last three years. All are new to Perseverance, with the exception of Ekatrina Oleksa, who plays Rebel.
The writers have made a few changes to the script since it premiered. One ending was based on an interview with Eric Harris' next-door neighbor. He searched for answers in the wake of the shooting and concluded that his only solution was to spend more quality time with his children.
"I think people related to that," Paparelli said. "You can't really end this piece. There is no answer. It's been a challenge, but no matter what, it was really important for us to write it so you had two people (the shooters), instead of two monsters or two icons."
The first act of the play looks at today's adolescent world. The writers spent 2 12 years interviewing kids at different high schools; three months with 12 kids at one school in Virginia. Those interviews shaped the play's eight characters.
"I gave the script to a teenager in Virginia, and he said, 'Well it's great, it's really theatrical, but it's a lot like (the 1985 John Hughes movie) 'The Breakfast Club,'" Paparelli said. "He said, 'I think you need to spend more time with the kids now, because it's different.' And he was absolutely right. The sense of isolation that's deepening in this generation is so much more than the one before. Kids are parenting each other or finding the Internet or other ways to get information instead of engaging in this mass human conversation that dominated the last century."
Act II follows Klebold and Harris from the time they conceived their plan to the aftermath of the shooting. It's based on police archives and the writings of the boys, except for one scene - a hypothetical conversation between the two the night before the shootings.
Most people in Littleton were willing to talk for the three weeks the writers were in the area. They could not talk to the parents of Klebold or Harris or the principal of Columbine High.
when: 8 p.m. friday, may 6, through may 29.
where: perseverance theatre.
tickets: call 463-tixs, visit http://www.perseverancetheatre.org or hearthside books.
"We felt that the only way to understand the event was to thoroughly have all the information out on the table and include what happened with the boys, what kind of people they were," Paparelli said. "I think the people there liked the fact that we weren't the media. Some people had their opinion on why it happened, some people had no opinion and a lot of people wanted to move on."
The story goes beyond school bullying to examine the mental makeup of Klebold and Harris and the defense mechanisms they showed at school.
"High school is a time where life patterns are set to a certain degree," Paparelli said. "Those scars don't go away, and we talked a lot about that in the last couple of weeks."
"Every time you think you've arrived at an answer, even after living with these guys for three years, you still can't understand how they can pick up a gun and go ballistic," he said. "They knew they were going to die. How did they not show warning signs of that?"
Korry Keeker can be reached at email@example.com.