The triumph and courage seen in Colossal, now onstage at Olney Theatre Center, is played out in a manner unlike most well-made plays. It’s not only centered on a former college football player; the guts and glory of the gridiron also serves as the basis for the play’s structure.
According to actor Joseph Carlson, “It’s not your standard two or three act play, there’s no break. We have a pre-game that warms up the audience; we have a kick-off and from that kick-off, it goes and there is no stopping until the four quarters are over.” “The structure serves to add a sense of urgency to the story. It’s nonlinear, but there’s definitely a dramatic arc to it. But it takes place within this game.”
To talk about the story that unfolds within the game structure and the unique preparations and rehearsals for the rolling world premiere of Colossal now playing at Olney Theatre Center through September 28, Jeffrey Walker spoke with Carlson and Chicago-based actor Michael Patrick Thornton who plays older Mike.
Jeffrey Walker: Michael, playwright Andrew Hinderaker wrote Colossal with you in mind. You have worked with him before. How did you twp get to know one another?
Michael Patrick Thornton: I met Andrew in 2008 when we did a reading of his play Suicide, Incorporated at Steppenwolf for their First Look program. I really fell in love with the writing and he was a great guy and easy to collaborate with. Curiously, no one was doing the play [Suicide, Incorporated]. I talked to him about that and he said everyone thought the title would scare people off and no one would ever buy a ticket toa show called Suicide, Incorporated. My theater in Chicago, The Gift, gave Andrew his first professional production of that play. It was a huge hit and it ran for months and extended several times. So we just kept collaborating. He would have me read stuff in very early drafts. We did another play after that called Dirty.
Walker: How did Colossal get its start?
Thornton: Maybe two years ago he sent me the first half of Colossal. He wanted to know if there was anything there and had a lot of questions about what a rehab process would look like. I put him in touch with the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago which is where I went through my therapy and healing process. He shadowed and hung out with a few of the physical therapists who are kind of leading the way in p.t. thinking and research.
We came out to the Kennedy Center two summers ago to do a workshop production of it over a weekend. Then last year we went down to University of Texas at Austin to do another workshop production.
Walker: And it’s continued to be a good, working relationship.
Thornton: It’s been kind of a long ride so far but it’s been great to see how the play has changed and how Andrew adapts it based on the people he’s working with in the room which is a real credit to him as a writer. He doesn’t just hold on to what he thinks it should be, he allows it to be what it is based on who he is around. One of the great things about the collaboration, we trust each other to bring everything that we can to it.
Walker: Joseph, since you and Michael play younger and older versions of the same character, did you do any special preparations or character work?
Joseph Carlson: We watched one another during rehearsal and let those things we saw pull on each other organically. I think in casting the show, Will Davis did a great job. Mike and I share a style of humor and personality that compliment each other and an energy that plays off of each other.
Thornton: I think we kind of realized later on that we had been watching each other, just to pick up a gesture here or maybe an inflection. So much of it is theatrical: we both have different color eyes, we are different heights, he has tattoos and I don’t. I think where it does match-up is these characters share the same hurt and passion and wanting to move on – that’s what causes the symmetry.
Walker: The play centers around older Mike’s memories of his collegiate athlete days and the life-changing injury that sidelined him. Michael, as an actor who has suffered paralysis, how does your own condition inform your decision to play a role like this or your performance here?
Thornton: I kind of actively avoid any role that overtly deals with disability as a theme or references a wheelchair. So the way I think Andrew has handled it, it is such an integral part of the story, but it’s really just one part. You are watching a group of people trying to heal and move on from a cataclysmic event. It doesn’t have to be paralysis for people to understand it. In some ways it’s refreshing to play a character where you know what happened to him, this is where the injury was and this is how it happened and you can get on with telling the story.
Walker: A writer who saw the UT Austin mounting, said it was perhaps the most physical demanding play he had seen. Is that a fair assessment, Joseph?
Carlson: For myself, it’s psychologically, emotionally, and physically exhausting. But it’s the same thing for Michael as well. Our director Will Davis likes to describe it as a test of true endurance. And you see different types of feats of strength from both of us, really by the whole cast. Like real football, I just keep my head down and my heart open and try to play the moments. There is so much to do, there’s not a lot of time to think about whether or not you’re tired. And we trained and we prepared to build up stamina and endurance. When I got into the show I would be able to run the show and not look like the show was running over me.
Walker: How is it for you, Michael?
Thornton: My kind of exertion if different from everyone else’s and I try to push myself as hard as I can to match what everyone else is doing. For Joe, it’s absolutely insane, he barely gets a break. He goes from the first half right into the half-time show which is this complicated, choreographed dance and then he goes right into the third quarter. When it’s over, the floor is covered with sweat. People are giving their all to this play.
Walker: Joseph, talk about the preparation and rehearsals and what kind of workouts you went through to prepare.
Carlson: We had an actual football coach come in and do drills with us. We ran blocking drills, and sprints, and a variety of football-type exercises. And thanks to the wonderful benefactors and sponsors for the production, we had an extra week of rehearsal with the ensemble. That gave us time to train our bodies and get into the physical and mental landscape of football but also of modern dance. We would have these eight hour rehearsals, running things and scene work, as well as training. We built these epic moments of physicality and we built this really incredible half-time show. And we danced our butts off. Outside of the rehearsals, I would also hit the gym at least once a day to build up strength and conditioning for myself. And I ended up adding on some pounds for the show, so I could have the look.
Walker: You mentioned the dancing, Joseph. I know that one of the pivotal characters is Mike’s father, a modern dancer and choreographer. How does the relationship with the father play out in the show?
Thornton: I think the line in the show goes, “you’re the only son in the history of the United States to disappoint his dad by choosing football over dance.” Steve Ochoa plays Mike’s father, Damon. Their relationship is like what Anton Chekhov said about fathers and sons who live in a perpetual state of mutual incomprehension. I think that speaks very well for those two. They both come from the place of using their bodies to express themselves, they are a lot better physically than they are verbally. As emotionally available as they are as performers and athletes, they also can be quite tacit and closed off as characters. I think a lot of the heartbeat of the play, and a lot of Andrew’s work, is men learning to talk to other men, especially the sons and fathers, as in this play. And they do, by inventing their own language on the spot by the fourth quarter.
Walker: And before that moment, there is conflict between them.
Carlson: You see those moments of conflict when Mike and his dad talk about giving up dance and choosing football. You see his spirit shadow me during the pre-game work. Later, with the physical therapist Mike gets asked why he chose football and decided to forego his father’s modern dance company. There is a flashback where we see him prove his mettle with these guys who are tormenting him for being on the football field and for dancing. He uses dance to pass through this obstacle and his father is there so you see the physical influence from the father to the son. It’s a sort of mirroring that runs throughout. And there is a beautifully choreographed pas de deux by Christopher D’Amboise that expresses that universal struggle between a father and a son, and who the father wants his son to be and who his son wants to be.
Walker: What else is at stake in Colossal?
Carlson: Mike has to win this game, this battle with his former self, if he’s going to rehabilitate himself. And no matter what you do, you’re not going to be what you were. So to put that battle of wills into this football game – and a football game is very much a battle of wills.
Thornton: It’s also very unusual acting with a clock ticking above you. It makes you quite judicious about not indulging in any pauses; each quarter does have to fit into 15 minutes.
EXTENDED to October 5
Olney Theatre Center
2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Rd.
1 hour, 10 minutes, no intermission
Tickets: $53 – $63
Wednesdays thru Sundays
Walker: What does the audience get to take away from this experience?
Thornton: Someone came out of the theatre the other day and said that they felt like they just watched a moment when American theatre changed. I said, boy, they should put that on a poster. She was speaking to having never seen a mash-up between a play and a modern dance kind of performance, and also a very current topic, an issue play. Whether it’s homosexuality in professional and collegiate sports, or whether it’s about disability, or the drafting in the NFL – so much is going on. I’ve never been part of a play like this; I don’t even know what you would possibly compare it to.
Carlson: Part of the experience of this audience is that they are seeing the cast endure the play. At the end of the half time show, before we go into the third quarter, I am kneeling beside a bench, toweling off and changing, gasping for air and getting water. As an audience member in that little area, you’re witnessing that. There’s nothing artificial about that moment; it’s a real live person breathing, needing water, and moving on to the next moment. There’s something exhilarating about that and it’s one of those things that contributes to this event that is Colossal.
Walker: And how have the audiences reacted?
Thornton: People are really beside themselves after this show at curtain call in a way that I have never really seen in the theatre, leaping to their feet. If we run into them outside, they want to talk to us about it. And people are really shell-shocked and inspired and absolutely floored by it. Jon Hudson Odom, who plays Marcus in the play, said when you’re bringing people to the theatre with walkers and you’re bringing them to their feet for a standing ovation, you know you’re on to something special. And as someone who knows how hard it is to stand with a walker, he is absolutely right.