The process of taking a play from idea to page to stage is a long and often arduous one. In communities like Nashville that process is rarely seen – usually the plays done here have been developed elsewhere, sometimes years before they reach us.
Thanks to the vision of Tennessee Repertory Theatre Producing Artistic Director René D. Copeland and the Ingram New Works Project that isn’t the case with David Auburn’s The Columnist that opens this weekend in Tennessee Performing Arts Center’s Johnson Theater. The Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright (Proof ) brought the work-in-progress about revered and feared 20th Century Washington columnist Joseph Alsop (1910-1989) with him when he was the Ingram New Works Fellow in 2010 – he’s been followed by John Patrick Shanley, Steven Dietz and Theresa Rebeck in that fellowship.
“I had probably written about half of the play and then I got the call from René introducing herself and explaining the program and asking if I’d be interested,” Auburn says. “She told me it wasn’t just about working with the playwrights but also about presenting a new work of my own. …And it was a good spur for me to get the play into some kind of shape where I could present it publicly.
“I find that kind of deadline pressure very helpful. The fear of public humiliation is a good motivator – ‘Here’s the date certain where you’re going to have to have something coherent that actors and audiences can respond to’ was useful for me.”
“When David Auburn agreed to be our Ingram New Works Fellow we really felt we’d hit the jackpot because he’s such a spectacular writer,” says Copeland. “It turned out to be better than we could have ever imagined. Our experience with him was so positive. He’s such a generous, smart person that we enjoyed having around; his mentoring of our lab of playwrights was very useful and positive. It was a lovely experience on the person-to-person level, and then he came up with this incredible play for us to read at the festival. The readings we do at the festival are very much about serving the needs of the playwright and the play, so the rehearsal process is very much about allowing the playwright to hear the play and make adjustments. It was very invigorating and exciting to help him with this.”
After its time here the script was further developed through the Manhattan Theatre Club and ran last year on Broadway with a cast led by John Lithgow.
Former Tennessee Rep Executive Artistic Director and Artist-in-Residence David Alford has the lead role of Alsop in this mounting. Others in the stellar cast include Jeff Boyet, Amanda Card, Jenny Littleton, Benjamin Reed and Patrick Waller.
Alford read the Alsop role at the Ingram New Works Festival in 2010. “It’s really not all that significantly different,” says Alford, who’s become well-known to television viewers through his recurring role as Bucky Dawes in the ABC drama Nashville. “I think David Auburn is a tremendous writer and that he obviously takes a lot of care before he shares it with anyone, even readers. There are some differences but not any major structural differences.
“I think the play is masterfully constructed and presents the very challenging subject of a very complex man. What surprised me is how relatively unchanged it was from the first reading, which is fine because I thought it was very successful then. Obviously when you go to stage a play there are things that will be shifted or adjusted but in general it’s pretty much the same piece and an incredibly strong piece.”
Alsop was a man of fascinating contradictions – a closeted homosexual who married a female friend in an era when his sexuality could have destroyed his life and career; a patrician conservative who befriended a young and untried President Kennedy but became increasingly bogged down with others who supported American involvement in Vietnam until the bitter end; and someone who loathed Red-baiting U.S. Sen. Joe McCarthy while being an ardent anti-communist.
His personal life –which for the Groton and Harvard-educated Alsop included not only his marriage arrangement but a difficult relationship with brother and fellow journalist Stewart Alsop – and his increasingly strident columns seemed to bring him more sorrow than joy in his final years, though he was focused more on the art world toward the end of his career, such as when he delivered six lectures at the National Gallery of Art on The History of Art Collecting in the summer of 1978.
“He’s really a polarizing figure. Some people really despised him while others really loved him. He could be incredibly charming, witty and quite entertaining – his dinners in Washington were sort of legendary with the people who would come and call him a friend – but he could also enrage people,” Alford says. “Particularly toward the end of his life his political commentary became quite vicious and personal. He could do that in arguments, too, if he felt for whatever reason that the arguments weren’t going his way. He could attack and be very personal. So he’s an interesting fellow…and incredibly complex. A lot of that comes from the time he was born and the somewhat wealthy family he was born into. Nevertheless he felt ostracized and an outsider when he was young because of his sexual orientation…I think it was the source of a lot of anger that he wasn’t able to be himself.”
“That’s what you’re always looking for, somebody who embodies complexities and whose contradictions are there on the surface. It would be hard to imagine someone who had more warring elements within him,” Auburn explains. “A lot of the play came out of wanting to ask, ‘How does this work? How does this person operate in the world?’ How was it that someone who was so acerbic and had such a volcanic temper could be so well-liked? How was it that someone whose politics were so repulsive in some ways could also be so compassionate and have such a complex understanding of the world? Those are the kind of things you want to dig into as a dramatist.”
“I think that’s the genius of this play,” says Copeland, who helms this production. “Even if you didn’t know who Joseph Alsop was, you’re still going to be completely compelled by his character and this story. (Auburn) has managed to give us a window into these people as humans so that’s what you really connect with while couching the story in a fascinating historical time period.”
“The first task is always to tell a compelling story and to make the characters live on the stage. But that’s complicated by the fact that these are historical people and historical incidents,” Auburn says. “Ultimately you hope you can do both – that you can be true to the facts but also put something on stage that is more than a documentary and has actual dramatic life to it.”
“I think it’s a pretty staggering achievement in writing. And not just the dramatic elements in the story that keep an audience interested throughout … but that he’s also managed to do it using real people,” Alford notes. “Even the Alsop family told him he’d done a pretty fair job of capturing the essence of Joe. What’s even more impressive to me … is that David Auburn wanted to challenge himself to write a piece about a fellow whose political views were the opposite of his own. And he wanted to craft a piece…where people if they didn’t like the character could at least empathize with and understand the character … even if they completely disagreed with him.”
Working on a play that got part of its start at Tennessee Rep has “enriched our process in ways that have been unique because we were part of earlier drafts of the play,” Copeland explains. “So we could see what things were the same, what things were changed, what things had evolved since it left our ‘nursery.’ We have an appreciation of what went into making the structure of the play above the appreciation we’d have if we were just getting the script of a play we hadn’t worked on before to produce it. It’s been a blast and so invigorating artistically for us.”
Finding the balance between history and drama has created some wonderful moments and lines in the play, such as when Stewart calls Joe a “reckless arrogant prick” and Joe replies, “Now arrogant I will accept, and the other too, gladly, but I have never been reckless in my life – “
“I really only had the information that they had screaming arguments. So then it’s my job to figure out the argument,” Auburn says when asked about that moment in the play. “So it’s about finding things that are specific to the moment and the character. I just thought he’d react that way. He was a person who was careful about words so he wouldn’t just lob it back, he’d do something with it.”
There’s also a good contrast between Alsop and a young former Tennessean journalist named David Halberstam. “He was such a young man at the time the play takes place, such a fiery and passionate person,” Auburn notes. “One of the things that got me started on the play was the thought of contrasting him with Joe and writing about the antagonism with them.”
What about the future of the Ingram New Works Project? If recent events are any indication the sky’s the limit. “I think it is an astounding thing,” Alford says. “For many, many years the Rep has tried with lesser and greater measures of success to produce new works. René’s success has been shifting that focus. Instead of trying to directly create the work or sponsor the work or commission it, she’s tried to be of assistance to playwrights in developing new work. That was her idea to shift in that direction and it’s paid almost immediate dividends for the reputation of the company.”
Tennessee Repertory Theatre’s production of David Auburn’s “The Columnist” opens Saturday (April 20) and runs through May 4 in Tennessee Performing Arts Center’s Johnson Theater (505 Deaderick St.). There is a discounted ($25) preview performance tonight (April 19) at 7:30 p.m. A First Night Supper Club option is available Saturday ($90 for those who already have tickets for the 7:30 p.m. show; $115 for dinner, show and other benefits). Subsequent performances are at 6:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays and 7:30 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays as well as 2:30 p.m. April 27 and May 4. There are talkback sessions after each Friday night performance; ‘Rep Unclassified’ after each Saturday Matinee performance; and meet and greet the cast after each Saturday night performance. Tickets (Starting at $42.50; student tickets start at $11.50 with valid ID) and more info are available through www.tennesseerep.org.
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*Photos by Britanie Knapp of David Alford, Jeff Boyet and Jenny Littleton in The Columnist courtesy Tennessee Repertory Theatre.