Max Burach wants to play soccer during recess. But first: Broadway
Achievement in the Arts Award Presented to Paul W. Downs ’00
The time had come to share stories about a former student. Pingry’s former Drama Department Chair, Al Romano, who served as Chair from 1988–2017, returned to the School on May 15 and was describing a class assignment that Paul W. Downs ’00 completed over 20 years ago as a Drama I student.
For over 30 years, every student in that course has written and performed an original monologue play as one of the final projects, and Mr. Downs was resourceful. Sitting on a shelf in the Drama Office was a chicken puppet from a production of Into the Woods . . . he found that puppet and transformed himself into, in Mr. Romano’s description, “an Eastern European chicken farmer complaining about his life. It was hilarious—the first of many zany characters he would create.”
This story figured in the honors for Mr. Downs, who received Pingry’s 2023 Achievement in the Arts Award, which has been presented since 2012 to honor alumni for their distinguished careers in the arts. Since graduating from Pingry, Mr. Downs has become an award-winning actor, writer, director, and producer. Among his numerous credits, he acted in—and served as a writer, director, and executive producer for—Comedy Central’s sitcom Broad City for five seasons (2014–2019).
More recently, he co-created and stars in the award-winning HBO Max series Hacks, but “award-winning” doesn’t convey the scope of the show’s success. The first two seasons earned 32 Primetime Emmy Award nominations and six wins, including Mr. Down’s Emmy for “Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series.” Hacks also won a Peabody Award, three Writers Guild of America Awards, and two Golden Globe Awards, including “Best Musical or Comedy TV Series.” For each of the first two seasons, the show was honored by American Film Institute Awards as one of the “Outstanding Television Programs of the Year.”
Mr. Downs has also acted in, written, and produced movies for Sony (Rough Night) and Netflix (Like Father).
His achievements can be traced to Pingry, where he first wrote and performed comedy, both in the drama program and for SAC (Student Activities Committee). “One of the reasons I wanted to come to Pingry was its theater program, which was truly remarkable under the direction of Al Romano, Patricia Wheeler, and Stephanie [Romankow],” he told the audience. And attending Pingry wasn’t easy to make happen—Mr. Downs is grateful to his parents for driving him back-and-forth every day, 90 minutes each way, until he was able to drive. He also needed faculty support to iron out scheduling issues between swimming and drama. “I always remember the [Pingry] community that took care of me. It felt like the teachers really wanted you to succeed,” he said.
Reflecting on Pingry’s Honor Code, Mr. Downs mentioned the influence of then-Headmaster John Hanly (who retired the year that Mr. Downs graduated), an advocate for the arts who encouraged Mr. Downs to pursue a career in the arts. He also explained the Honor Code’s influence on his comedy—yes, he wants it to be funny, but he also “strives to represent voices that are maybe underrepresented and push culture forward toward a more equitable future.” His parting mandate to Pingry students: “I need you to change the world . . . I need you to make this country a better place.”
For his part, Mr. Romano sensed Mr. Downs’ talents at Pingry. “You exhibited the creativity, off-centered perspective, and comedic acting skills with which you have built this amazing career.”
Note: Mr. Downs was profiled in The Sunday Star-Ledger on May 22, 2022.
Pictured: Head of School Tim Lear, Former Drama Department Chair Al Romano, Paul W. Downs ’00, and Drama Department Chair Stephanie Romankow
Contact: Greg Waxberg ’96, Communications Writer, Editor of The Pingry Review
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