When Theatre Meets Reality

Lisa Hornick

  • OnStage New York Columnist

Last December I had the opportunity to stage manage a staged reading of Columbinus, a play written by Stephen Karam and PJ Paperelli. Columbinus revolves around the dark periods of every high schooler’s life, facing social pressures, and growing up. The name “Columbinus” was inspired by the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School and the play sets the scene of the dark periods of adolescence, giving stereotypical “names” to characters: Jock, Prep, AP, Rebel, Faith, Perfect, and Loner and Freak, who later become Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold in the second half of the play. The play uses excerpts from diaries, documents, interviews, and videos showcasing vital examples of what lead to Columbine and its after effect. It’s raw, it’s heart racing, and most of all- it’s real. 

I remember the first time I read Columbinus. It was at our table read a few weeks before performance. My heart was lurched in my throat, I had goosebumps, and I was so distraught after the table read that I didn’t pick up the script again until the next rehearsal. It messed with your mind and it was disturbing. It was a play that made everyone emotionally and mentally tired, especially for the actors that portrayed Freak and Loner. All eight of our actors and director were changed by it, which made it worthy to receive “a great play” status. 



I had to do research for the show and look up other school shootings that have occurred over the past twenty plus years for a slide show. I was so stunned to see how many school shootings there had been in the past 20 years in the U.S alone. 

Over 200. 

And that doesn’t include mass shootings outside of school.

Then this happened: 

We were two weeks into rehearsal and we were set to open in a couple of days. I remember working late the Friday before the performance, which was on Monday, and I came across a tweet from a student that attends my school. She had tweeted that someone posted on Yik Yak, an anonymous social media app,that he was going to shoot up the school on Monday and to be prepared, the day we were going to perform a play based on the events that happened during a school shooting. Then we got an email from the school’s police department stating that they were investigating the threat. That’s when it became real for us as a creative team. 

Our advisor came to our rehearsal on Sunday afternoon to talk with us to see what we wanted to do about Monday night’s performance. He questioned us to see if we wanted to postpone the show until a later date because he knew we didn’t feel safe and that people weren’t going to show up either due to their fear. It took a lot of thought from all of us , but we decided to go on with the show that Monday night, with campus police standing in the wings for peace of mind. 

Despite our fear of what might happen, we knew we had to show that even though evil is out there, we cannot let that stop us from living…from going on. And we even had a full house with a great talk back session after. We knew the show must go on to get out Columbinus’ strong message, despite the circumstances. That is what theatre is. It’s raw, it’s heart racing, and most of all- it’s real.