Playwright Randall Colburn grew up in an “apolitical, areligious” home. But in 2002, when he fell in love with a preacher’s daughter as a freshman at Central Michigan University, he also began an affair with Christian fundamentalism—speaking in tongues and all. “I was going through all these different identities, and then I found this spiritual identity that was mixed with this relationship that was so potent and huge and unlike anything I’d ever had before,” says Colburn, 28. “My fatal error was fusing together the girl and the god.”
When the (unconsummated) romance ended after three years, so did Colburn’s personal relationship with Jesus. The Michigan native earned his MFA in playwriting at Southern Illinois University and moved to Chicago in 2008. But he still wrestles with the real two-backed beast: God and sex.
Consider the three scripts Right Brain Project picked for their 2010 season, which is dedicated to Colburn’s work. Produced this summer, Hesperia concerns a porn star who’s fled the business and, born again, started over in a small midwestern town. She’s about to marry a youth minister when her former lover and partner in sleaze shows up, leading to what Reader critic Zac Thompson called “an intimate, insightful, achingly sad portrait of two people desperate to regain their innocence.” Before that, in March, Right Brain mounted Pretty Penny, in which a young phone-sex operator finds herself getting sucked down the rabbit hole of a client’s fantasy.
The final piece of Right Brain’s Colburn trilogy, Halfshut (the title comes from a raunchy passage in James Joyce’s Ulysses), is being developed with the ensemble members, who are supplying personal stories based on prompts provided by Colburn. The monologue-based piece “focuses on the anticlimax that is your twenties,” says artistic director Nathan Robbel. Colburn adds, “It’s really a play about sex and God and people in their twenties who are afraid to take a leap of faith in either realm.”
While Colburn cites Joyce, Harold Pinter, and Sarah Kane (the famously suicidal author of Blasted) as major influences, he’s also a fan of supernatural fiction a la Stephen King and Michael Crichton. But even his horror play, Ghostbox, contains elements of spiritual conflict. Opening this month in an InFusion Theatre Company production, it explores “the idea of repression,” Colburn says, through the relationship between a woman who’s been a Christian all her life and a newly saved man. “It’s really about the tension between them: somebody who’s lived a life of experience vs. somebody who’s lived a very sheltered life. Something that’s very scary to me is when repression is unleashed and it comes out in a flood.”
In addition to his Right Brain and InFusion projects, Colburn is also scripting & He Flew Over the Forest, a show about divorce and bullying, for Brain Surgeon Theater. “My second-favorite archetype is the bully,” he says, “and my first favorite is the patsy.” He’s particularly interested in the complicity that can develop between the two; it’s something he learned about early on and firsthand when a kid who took the same school bus as Colburn offered to leave him alone if Colburn would just let the kid spit in his hair. In a play he’s writing on commission for Writers’ Theatre—tentatively titled Houghton Lake, after a Michigan town of about 4,000 people where his family vacationed when he was a child—a local bully faces up to his legacy ten years after high school.
Colburn’s fascination with small-town midwestern life reminds me of another Writers’ favorite, Brett Neveu. Stuart Carden, associate artistic director at Writers’, says Colburn’s “writing has the ability to be both innocent and explore ideas of innocence with a kind of nostalgia for small-town America. But there’s also a tinge of perversity and disillusionment and cruelty.”
Though he no longer describes himself as born again, Colburn says he’s not dismissive of religion. “I have a real reverence for it. I like to think that I’m spiritually combative. I like to start fights with God in a fun way, not a mean way.”
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