Revisiting David Auburn's The Columnist


Nashville Repertory Theatre revisits David Auburn's The Columnist

Tennessee Rep's production of The Columnist

Article written by Fiona Soltes - The Tennessean

For Pulitzer Prize-winning, raised-in-the-South playwright David Auburn, an impending trip to Nashville is a bit of a homecoming.

So, too, for his work The Columnist, on Broadway just last year. The piece, developed in Nashville Repertory Theatre’s Ingram New Works Project, tells the tale of revered and feared journalist Joseph Alsop, and it returns to the Rep this month for its regional premiere. It last appeared locally in 2010 as a staged reading, with professional area actors, scripts in hands, and input from the audience encouraged.

“I’m thrilled about it,” Auburn says. “The play, in a lot of ways, got finished at all because Nashville has this terrific program. They called me up about a year before I came down, and told me about the residency. At the time, I had only about half of it written, and I wasn’t quite sure what to do with some of the material. But knowing I had this public presentation coming up, well, there’s nothing quite like the fear of public humiliation to get you to finish something. And working on the play, there was a very artistically satisfying process. I had a very good company of actors, I felt like I made friends and got a lot of great ideas. It was a terrific experience.”

The piece, an intelligent portrait of a complex figure set against the backdrop of changing times, was the first that Auburn (Proof, The Lake House) had ever written about a real person. Alsop, an Ivy League-educated syndicated newspaper columnist from the 1930s to the 1970s, was considered by many to be the most powerful journalist in the country.

Heavily tied in to politics and wielding influence even in the White House, Alsop is the face of journalism’s bygone era. The play is set in the 1950s-60s, highlighting an untimely tryst at the height of the Cold War, in addition to Alsop’s staunch support of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War.

“He didn’t toe a party line,” says seasoned actor David Alford, who read the role of Alsop in 2010 and portrays him in the upcoming production. “He was a truly liberated thinker, and he wrote what he believed to be true. Joseph Alsop was maddeningly complex, and supported what he believed in. He wasn’t trying to make his paper, his readers or the administration happy. In fact, he went out of his way to do the opposite. ... We don’t have nearly enough of that anymore.”

Alford, most recently seen as Rayna James’ manager on the TV show “Nashville,” says he’s looking forward to playing Alsop again — even if he’s challenged to realistically portray, he says, “someone more intelligent than me.” Another test is to find the humanity in a character who in real life many found a distasteful, acerbic bully.

He’s joined by Jeff Boyet, Amanda Card, Jenny Littleton, Benjamin Reed and Patrick Waller for the production, with Auburn on hand to see it unfold. Auburn says he’s done more work on it since it was last in Nashville, making it longer and, he hopes, “richer.”

As for Nashville Rep, Auburn says it has done “what you wish and hope theaters would do: have that commitment to new work, and a sense of ownership over it.”

“It’s great when theaters do revivals of plays that have already been successful,” he says. “But the real test of a theater is how nervy they are in giving audiences something new. Nashville Rep is one of the very first theaters to do this play after Broadway, and that takes courage, initiative and guts.”

Read more of Fiona Soltes' The Tennessean article here. The Columnist production runs from April 20th to May 4th, 2013 with previews April 18th and 19th at Nashville Rep's performance space in Johnson Theater, TPAC. For tickets and more information on our production of David Auburn's The Columnist please visit our website here.