With a string of grants and commissions to his name, Randall Colburn, 30, is one of Chicago’s most talented emerging playwrights. He’s also one of the busiest, having tackled subjects ranging from dead rock icons and creepy stalkers to fantasy creatures and disillusioned comedians. (His latest, Improv Play, a no-punches-pulled exposé of Chicago’s improv scene, premieres this month.) So, yeah, he’s prolific. But productivity doesn’t pay the bills. “I had six plays produced in 2010. I got paid for one of them,” he says. “I love the fringe scene. But you can’t make a sustainable living at it. You kind of wonder, How long can I do this?’’ A while longer, we hope—enough that we’re willing to play cheerleader/mom/therapist and share why Colburn shouldn’t throw in the towel just yet.
1. Critiques can be character-building. When Colburn’s Hesperia was remounted at Writers’ Theatre in January, the Tribune’s Chris Jones called it “humorless, inorganic, underpaced, awkwardly staged and, at times, flat-out embarrassing.” Ouch. While the script about born-again porn stars does have some, er, kinks, we found the dialogue intense and provocative. Hey, people threw rotten fruit at the stage when Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring debuted.
2. His voice is fresh and authentic. Improv Play is sharp-tongued and unfiltered, the work of someone who has detailed knowledge of Chicago’s comedy subculture and isn’t afraid to dish dirt on it. That insider scoop comes courtesy of a rotating cast of iO students and performers with whom Colburn has shared a Lake View apartment since 2008. “I guess I could write a play that’s all heartwarming, about some scrappy young improviser who rises through the ranks. But I don’t know those people,” he says.
3. Sometimes your own town is the hardest to win over. Colburn has gained attention outside Chicago’s theatrosphere, nabbing fellowships from the Eugene O’Neill National Playwrights Conference in Connecticut and Dad’s Garage Theatre in Atlanta and an Illinois Arts Council Grant from Springfield. And there’s nothing that gets Chicago’s goat like being one-upped by Springfield.
4. Colburn has fantastic work that Chicagoans need to see. Someone must stage his thus-far-unproduced Lamp and Moth, a saga of sin and the city that was a finalist in the Alliance Theatre’s Kendeda Graduate Playwriting Competition. The ambitious piece evokes the lonesome wonder of Edward Hopper and the jagged edge of film noir.
5. He wants it: “I’ve got a passion you can’t shake.” Randall, we’ll hold you to it.
GO InFusion Theatre Company stages Improv Play April 10 to May 20 at Storefront Theater; $10 to $25. For info, infusiontheatre.com.
Photograph: Anna Knott