Happy accidents in passionate spaces

Along the way to becoming the Artistic Director of the Trinity Repertory Company in Providence, Curt Columbus had a few people worried. 

His parents, for starters. They sent him to Yale to become a doctor, but he studied Russian instead.  Of course, they assumed he would then join the CIA, which seemed the logical move for a Russian major in the 1980s.  But he told them he was going to Chicago to become an actor—and deliver high-end pasta.

His parents took the news in stride.  His father said, “OK, we’ll be here,” and the day before his son left, he taught him how to drive the stick shift on a moving van for the 8-hour trip to Chicago.  When Columbus got to his third floor walk-up in the Windy City, he rolled out his futon, laid down it, and cried for two hours, convinced he had made a mistake.  Then he stayed for almost 20 years.

In 2005, when the Gamm Theater in Pawtucket, R.I., wanted to do his adaptation of Crime and Punishment, Columbus’s husband, Nate Watson, begged him: “Please don’t make me move to Providence.”  They had to take out a map to see where the….heck…Pawtucket was.  A year later, they moved there permanently after Columbus was offered the position with Trinity Rep.

Columbus says everything in his life has been “a series of happy accidents” that first led him to the Chicago theater scene in the ‘80s when he was supposed to be in medical school or the CIA.

His early interest in the theater began in his hometown of New Castle, Pa., a small town on the border of Ohio, where he says he did not always fit in: “It was not a very culturally awake place,” he says of New Castle, “and so as a kid growing up and being different from other kids, I found myself drawn to the theater.” 

He was also “hooked by the travel bug” while he was still in high school and began saving money from a summer lawn mowing business to buy a Eurail ticket and do Europe on $5 a day (“back when that was possible,” he says).  While at Yale, he studied abroad for a year at Lenigrad State University where he “fell hard in love” with the Russian language that has become one of the hallmarks of his work in the theater.  In addition to writing an award-winning adaptation of Crime and Punishment, Columbus has published several translations of Chekhov plays.

“I love Russian because the music of the spoken language is really magnetic to me,” Columbus says.  “I love it because of the literature. I also love the Russian people.  They’re just the most intense people on the planet.  I’m a sensualist above all things so I’m drawn to people who live in that kind of passionate space.  I find myself wanting to be near them.”

The theater, Columbus says, offers the same kind of passionate space, where people can have philosophical conversations, escape the hysteria of the 24-hour news cycle, and witness realities outside of their own.  It allows us to consider human beings and the breadth of their capacity, he says.

Columbus thrives on being a community leader promoting the arts in his state.  Under his direction in the past seven years, Trinity Rep’s K-12 Educational Enrichment program has grown threefold and adult education offerings have expanded.  There are weekly “talkbacks” for audience members who want a chance to interrogate actors and directors and tell them what they love and hate about what they see on stage.  Columbus also heads the theater’s joint MFA program in acting and directing with Brown University.

 “I’m not thinking of myself as an artist disconnected from my community or my world or my audience,” Columbus says.  “It’s not just an end-user situation where you buy a ticket, sit your butt down, and when the show is over, stand up and walk out.”

Columbus wants the theater to be a complicated place where happy accidents can happen. 

“A movie doesn’t care if you are there or not,” he says.  “But the theater is shaped by the audience’s presence.  That’s what opens people up to contemplation.”