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The Rep's production of David Auburn's The Columnist is just the latest triumph for the Ingram New Works Project

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Assuming you haven't just emerged from a decade in cryonic suspension, you've probably noticed that Nashville has been showered with a steady stream of media love over the past few years. The Black Keys' Dan Auerbach took Bon Appétit on a tour of his favorite local dining spots. Forbes magazine hailed us as one of "The Next Big Boom Towns in the U.S." Jack White did a three-night stint on The Colbert Report. GQ declared us "Nowville." And in January, The New York Times called us an "It" City. In fact, the rush to praise Nashville was the topic of a February Scene cover story, "How We Became the Bomb."

The most visible symbol of our arrival may be Nashville, ABC's glitzy prime-time soap opera following the careers of a couple of country singers and the political machinations of our fictionalized city's power elite. But last spring, while the network was shooting the pilot on a soundstage just north of downtown, another landmark cultural achievement for our city — one that could well wind up having a more enduring legacy — was transpiring, oddly enough, 900 miles away in New York City.

On April 3 last year, The Manhattan Theatre Club presented the world premiere of The Columnist — the latest work by acclaimed playwright David Auburn, whose Proof won the 2001 Tony Award for best play — at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre on Broadway. A dramatized biography of Joseph Alsop, the late journalist, influential conservative pundit and closeted homosexual known for his unflinching support for the Vietnam War, the play ran for three months, with John Lithgow earning rave reviews in the lead role.

You're probably asking, why is the premiere of a play about a Washington journalist, written by a New Yorker, starring a Los Angeles-based actor and presented on the Great White Way a red-letter day for Nashville's arts community?

The Columnist's path to Broadway really began in Nashville a couple of years earlier, when Auburn participated in the Tennessee Repertory Theatre's Ingram New Works Project, funded by Rep co-founder and philanthropist Martha Ingram to help playwrights develop new works. What began in 2007 as a simple artist-in-residence grant has evolved into a vibrant theatrical incubator that since 2009 has enabled 19 playwrights-in-residence to conceive, field-test and hone their scripts under the tutelage of the program's fellows — nationally known writers like Auburn, Oscar winner John Patrick Shanley (Moonstruck), Steven Dietz (Becky's New Car, Yankee Tavern) and this year's fellow, Theresa Rebeck, a gifted playwright best known for her television work, as the creator of Smash and a writer and producer on Law & Order and NYPD Blue.

The fellows, meanwhile, get a stipend that affords them the time to work on an original play of their own while they mentor to the up-and-coming talents. And perhaps most significantly, both fellows and playwrights-in-residence get access to professional actors, directors, designers and dramaturges, not to mention professional marketing and audience development resources. The culmination of the program is the Ingram New Works Festival, which features staged readings of the residents' and fellows' new works.

The Broadway mounting of The Columnist — which had its first staged reading on the Nashville Children's Theatre stage during the 2010 New Works Festival — is a huge feather in the program's cap. In particular, it's a testament to the determination of Rep artistic director René Copeland, whose persistence in bringing name writers to Nashville has helped it thrive. But it's far from the only success — several Ingram New Works residents have gotten their plays staged at theater companies around the country.

Still, The Columnist's Broadway debut is a clear signal that our city is developing a national reputation as a hothouse for the development of new plays. And Nashvillians currently have the opportunity to see the evidence for themselves: The Rep, the company that helped bring The Columnist to life, has mounted a production of Auburn's work, running through May 4 at TPAC's Johnson Theater.

Joseph Alsop, the man at the center of The Columnist, may be far from a household name, but in his heyday, from the mid-1940s to the mid-1970s, the Harvard-educated New Englander was a widely syndicated political writer and a hugely influential voice in the nation's capital. Alsop had the ear of presidents. In the 1950s, he wrote a column comparing the spread of communism to the falling-domino effect; at a 1954 press conference, President Dwight Eisenhower drew on Alsop's analogy, which came to be known as Eisenhower's "domino theory." John F. Kennedy was a frequent dinner guest at Alsop's house, and came there to unwind after attending the balls celebrating his inauguration.

Originally, Auburn wanted to write something about the role journalists played in the run-up to the war in Iraq. "I explored that subject in a number of different approaches, but nothing felt right," Auburn says. "But I had also been reading a lot about Vietnam, and Alsop's name kept cropping up. I didn't know anything about him, and I was surprised how famous and notorious he was as a leading pro-war voice in that era."

Auburn's research revealed a man with a very complicated private life, which included a blackmail attempt by the KGB to expose his well-closeted homosexuality. "There were plenty of sources to draw on," he says, "and Alsop had a fascinating dramatic story. He was clearly a charismatic and flamboyant person I could build a play around."

The Columnist is Auburn's first play dealing with real-life characters and historical situations, so it was especially gratifying when Alsop's family attended the play in New York and praised the work. "They said that I had 'got him,' and that it was a fair portrait," Auburn says. "And I think it is a fair portrait of him — ultimately sympathetic, but warts and all."

Copeland is directing the Rep production, which features an outstanding cast, with David Alford — arguably Nashville's most important male actor of the modern age — in the lead role.

Prior to his involvement in The Columnist, Alford had no knowledge of Alsop. But Copeland urged him to read the script. And when he did, he realized it was, as he says, "a dream role."

"Alsop is a real person, and I didn't want to do an imitation," Alford says. "But I fell into a pattern of speaking, evident on the page — East Coast elite. And recently I saw a video of Alsop, and found I was already capturing his vocal inflections! It's been fun to learn about him."

Alford must grapple not only with Alsop's famously strong opinions — "He didn't care who he offended or what side of the political aisle you were on," the actor says — but also with portraying a gay man who lived in a time when homosexuality wasn't discussed.

"He was a product of his time," says Alford, "and he could not have had the influence he had if he had let people know of his sexual orientation. And that's what everyone did in that era. But the play's not about sexuality at all. It's about someone who is used to making an impact with his words."

Alsop could be cruel, bitter, insanely funny and witty — and Alford strives to make the audience feel a certain empathy for him. "They don't have to like Joe," he says, "but I want them to understand him. The play is also about a sea change in political discourse and reportage, and Alsop was really one of the last of his breed. ... I could not be prouder that this play that we first read in Nashville had a Broadway run."

Also in the cast is Jeff Boyet as Alsop's brother Stewart, a well-known Washington pundit in his own right; Jenny Littleton as his wife Susan Mary; plus Amanda Card, Patrick Waller, and, new to the Rep stage, Benjamin Reed as renowned journalist David Halberstam. Will Miranne plays a small role.

For Auburn, seeing his work evolve from its infancy in the Ingram New Works Project to last year's Broadway production to the current Rep staging has been satisfying. "The whole experience was a happy one," he says. "A beautiful production, a great cast and a good run in New York. Now we get to see it come full circle in Nashville — where it all began." (Read a review of the production, which opened this past weekend, here.)

It's a telling indication of our city's cultural zeitgeist that the actor playing the lead role in the Rep's staging of The Columnist is David Alford. For one thing, Alford is the same man who's beamed into millions of homes each week as Bucky Dawes, manager of fictional country singer Rayna Jaymes (Connie Britton) on ABC's Nashville. But even more significantly, Alford, who's also a playwright, served as the inspiration for the Ingram New Works Project in the first place.

The origins of the program go back to 2007. At the time, Alford was the Rep's artistic director, but he felt strongly he could serve the company better as a creative entity.

"I was interested in doing more writing," Alford says. So he persuaded Martha Ingram to make a grant to establish a playwright-in-residence gig at the Rep, funded at $50,000 per year. Meanwhile Copeland, then the producing director, took over as artistic director too.

Alford's play Clara's Hands was the first work produced under the Ingram aegis. For the 2008-09 cycle, Copeland went searching for a new playwright-in-residence, someone who could actually devote hunks of time to the process. That turned out to be Victoria Stewart, whose Ingram play Rich Girl — a contemporary take on Henry James' novel Washington Square — recently had its world premiere at New Jersey's George Street Playhouse.

At that point, Copeland worked on refining the Ingram project to, as she says, "get good bang for the buck." She decided to go after writers with national reputations to serve as each season's fellow, and establish a lab where emerging playwrights could benefit from the fellow's critical eye. Both fellows and emerging playwrights would have access to actors and staff support. In other words, Copeland sought to provide an artistic home for playwrights.

Fortunately for all involved, Martha Ingram has remained committed to funding the project. "As Tennessee Repertory Theatre continues to be a leading regional theatre," she says on the project's website, "it is thrilling to see the company collaborate with nationally recognized playwrights ... as well as foster the development of local playwrights through the New Works Lab that culminates with the New Works Festival. I am confident that this collaboration will not only have positive contributions to the Nashville theatre community, but also the American theatre landscape as a whole."

Here's how it currently works: The fellowship provides a $15,000 stipend to an established writer with a track record. In exchange, the fellow works on a new play of his or her own, then makes two trips to Nashville — once in January for a weeklong symposium working with the writers in residence (who have been drafting their plays for several months), then later in the spring, when a 10-day festival of play readings brings everyone's works together for public viewing. This year's Ingram New Works Festival is right around the corner, May 8-18.

The remainder of the grant covers the expenses of running the program — things like paying actors, travel, housing, staffing and marketing.

Stipend or not, convincing an acclaimed playwright at the peak of her or his career to make the time commitment and do the necessary schedule juggling can be a challenge. But Copeland can make a very persuasive sales pitch.

"René contacted me via email," says Rebeck, the 2013 Ingram New Works fellow. "I had been really busy and thought I would have to say no. However, she was politely persistent, she explained the program, sent me all the dates. Plus I knew these playwrights who had already worked with the program, and that impressed me."

Despite her success in television, Rebeck says, "I think it's most accurate to say I'm a playwright." She's no stranger to the mentor role, having previously served in an advisory capacity at Cherry Lane Theatre and Lark Play Development Center, both in New York.

Rebeck is using her fellowship to work on Fever, a contemporary drama set in a bar. So far, she says she's enjoying the experience. "It feels extremely fruitful in what it does. And I note the high quality of the Nashville actors who help with the readings."

Auburn, the 2010 Ingram fellow, also attests to Copeland's determination. "The Rep was doing [my play] Proof that season, and I got a call from René," he says. "I was recruited, as it were. I'd never been involved in a program quite like that. I'd done some teaching with New York area high school students, but Ingram was new, because now I was working with aspiring playwrights and working writers."

Auburn had already begun work on The Columnist when he accepted the fellowship, but the play was far from complete. "I wasn't sure how it would come together," he says, "especially facing the pressure of a deadline for public performance. But there's nothing like the fear of public humiliation to get you to buckle down!"

Like Rebeck, Auburn also notes the high quality of the actors who performed The Columnist's play reading, most of whom have landed in the new Rep mounting.

As for his mentoring approach, Auburn says, "I try to approach it as a colleague, to do whatever I can to be a good sounding board, to tell the writers what I'm hearing and help them get closer to the kind of play they want to write."

Steven Dietz, a versatile author of a wide range of works and a professor of playwriting and directing at the University of Texas, was the 2012 Ingram Fellow. Dietz started his career as a director at The Playwrights' Center in Minneapolis, where he directed staged readings of new plays, including the works of August Wilson, Lee Blessing and others.

During his Ingram fellowship, Dietz worked on Rancho Mirage, a comedy about an ill-fated dinner party in an upscale housing development. Rancho Mirage premiered last fall at the Olney Theatre Center in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C.

Like Auburn, Dietz chose to approach the playwrights-in-residence on a collegial level. "In some way," he says, "I felt like I was doing what I have done throughout my career, which is working with my colleagues. I never felt like I needed to be the teacher. I hope I was speaking from some level of expertise but not speaking as a person who would 'solve' their play. We were sharing the struggle to revise and illuminate their work. It was about finding out what they were after, rather than telling them what their play should do."

Having a well-regarded playwright swoop down on Nashville to be an Ingram New Works fellow for a few weeks each year has no doubt been an exciting development for our city's theater scene, but it's the lesser-known playwrights-in-residence who are the real heart of the program. They are the budding talents who will be creating the stage works of the future, and so far they've made remarkable strides in what is clearly one of the most difficult artistic endeavors on the planet: Writing a quality play and getting it staged.

"Our goal is to make a contribution on the national level, but more so on the regional level, where there's not that much support," Copeland says. "We're interested in putting the money behind the playwright, who must submit a résumé and work samples that indicate they are seriously pursuing a career. We offer them the opportunity to enter the gestational phase of a new work. Here, they get a place where they can fail — in order to succeed."

Among the Ingram grads is Mary McCallum, familiar to Nashville theatergoers through the many plays she has workshopped on her own locally. She worked on Hunger in Paradise under the mentorship of 2011 Ingram fellow John Patrick Shanley. McCallum continued developing the play at the National Black Theatre Festival in Winston-Salem and at the DC Black Theatre Festival, and Hunger just closed its first full-scale production on April 14 at Atlanta's New African Grove Theatre Company.

"We had several read-throughs with all the participating playwrights, then actors perform the work," McCallum says. "Then there are rewrites and the staged reading. It's a great development process — and a great learning process. I like readings and feedback, but I'd never done that with other writers. Also, being in the program helped me find the title of my play."

Playwright Joe Giordano is another Ingram success story. His play She's Dead recently received its first official production at the experimental MadLab Theatre in Columbus, Ohio.

Giordano acknowledges that an intensive theater lab including frank critique can be a challenging experience. "Ingram is not always a completely positive process," he says. "I'd never written a play in a workshop environment like that. For example, John Patrick Shanley did not like my first draft, I could tell. ... Reading aloud a first draft I'd finished a day or two before — that's nerve-racking. But the difference between my first draft and the festival version was huge. The feedback I got was instrumental."

After the staged reading of his play at the Ingram New Works Festival, Giordano tweaked the script a little more, then started submitting. "Out of 700 submissions," he says, "MadLab chose four — and one was She's Dead. I was very happy with the staging."

Lauren Shouse, now pursuing grad school at Northwestern University, played a key role in the Ingram program, both directing staged readings and conducting feedback sessions.

"It's a pretty unique program, especially in regional theater," Shouse says. "I know that Dietz, Shanley and Auburn were very surprised that such a program was happening in Nashville. Also, there were different levels of proficiency for the mentors. Dietz did a master class; Shanley not so much. The fellows all came in with completely different ways of working."

Scholar and dramaturge Christine Mather is another Ingram playwright. Mather, who used the experience to work on Now You See Him, speaks passionately about the program.

"There are a lot of barriers if you want to be a playwright, and one of the biggest is just getting someone to see your work," she says. "One of the great things about the Ingram program, though, is that they look at your résumé and writing and then they trust you, which is wonderful — but scary."

Mather also points out the challenges playwrights face getting their works formally staged. "You have to be very persistent in getting it out there. On the other hand, you can't undervalue the chance just to see your play on its feet, to have an artistic workshop where you are welcome to ask questions about the presentation of your play.

"It seemed to me that, for all of us, we developed plays that would not have happened if not for the workshop. Those particular plays and the direction they took were very much connected to the kind of feedback we got."

The most tangible sign of the Ingram New Works Project's success may be the recent announcement that Larries, a play written and workshopped in the Ingram program by accomplished local writer Nate Eppler, will be opening the Rep's mainstage season in the fall.

Eppler may be the poster boy for the Ingram program. He's a sharply gifted writer who has already had numerous full productions of his works, including Long Way Down and Sextape. Eppler has participated in the past four residencies, more recently taking a direct hand in administering aspects of the program. And he's keenly tuned in to national trends.

"The Ingram program is part of the push in the American theater in general toward embracing new plays," Eppler says. "Yet I don't know another program that identifies playwrights, brings them in, and lets them work on a first draft of a play for a full year. Other programs are much shorter."

Eppler sees a bright future for the local theater scene, in part due to Ingram's efforts to foster local playwrights. "I really believe in Nashville," he says. "I like being here, and I like the burgeoning theater scene here. ... The more we put Nashville playwrights on the stage, the more we feel ownership of the work, and I see a very cool thing when audiences recognize things are coming from within their community. There is an emerging local art scene in all areas, and I'm glad to see the theater scene explode with the same velocity that the others have."

Yet for all his enthusiasm, Eppler is realistic. "Writing a play is a monumental endeavor," he says. "The margins are small. You have to be really committed to it. ... You are competing with those who are writing all the time professionally, against those who have theater-related jobs, and then there are all those people who are writing plays everywhere else."

Still, few other cities have programs like the Ingram New Works Project. "The Ingram program was unique in my experience," Auburn says, "bringing together local playwrights to work together with local actors at the major theater in the city. It's very nurturing in and of itself. It's a smartly conceived program, and I don't know of anything similar."

Furthermore, the project appears to have staying power. Alford convinced Ingram it should be funded three years at a time — and the Ingram Charitable Fund just re-upped the grant through 2016. At $50,000 a year, that means Ingram has now committed $450,000 to the project.

"David was farsighted enough to know the program should be for a three-year sequence," says Copeland. "Having the three-year commitment is so freeing. You can take a little risk. And really, the program itself is a work in progress."

Perhaps it takes someone from out of town to put in perspective just how lucky Nashville is that the Rep and Ingram are so committed to the development of local playwrights — someone like Dietz, who had no ties to our city before his 2012 Ingram fellowship.

"It's a credit to the Rep that they are onto something that is an enormous missed opportunity throughout the majority of the rest of the American theater," Dietz says. "There may be no general shortage of play development, but to have Theresa Rebeck and David Auburn taking time to work with playwrights at a regional theater ... well, it's huge that it happens in Nashville."

See also:

The Columnist: A review

Email arts@nashvillescene.com.

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