Photo: Journalist Joe Alsop, the subject of David Auburn’s THE COLUMNIST
In this 3-part feature, PerformInk continues its INSIDE series and takes a look into American Blues Theater’s production of THE COLUMNIST through blog posts written by the people behind the scenes. To read past INSIDE articles, click here.
Part One: Interview with Philip Earl Johnson (Joe Alsop) and Kymberly Mellen (Susan Mary Alsop)
By Assistant Producer Elyse Dolan
From the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning author of Proof, THE COLUMNIST is a drama about power, sex, and betrayal. At the height of the Cold War, Joe Alsop is the nation’s most influential journalist – beloved, feared, and courted by the Washington world. But as the 60s dawn and America undergoes dizzying change, the intense political dramas Joe is embroiled in become deeply personal as well. For this article, Elyse Dolan interviewed two of the actors about the show. THE COLUMNIST runs February 17th through April 1st at Stage 773.
WHAT EXCITES YOU MOST ABOUT PLAYING JOSEPH ALSOP & SUSAN MARY ALSOP?
Philip: I am most excited about his ferocity. The more I read and learn, the more I admire his ferociousness in the pursuit of truth, of course the truth as he saw it. To his credit, if time proved him wrong he was quite willing to admit his error, but until then he was fearless in his opinion of what needed to be done in the highest levels of our government. He played rough with the biggest dogs because, in his mind, the fate of America was at stake, and as an ardent and passionate patriot, his duty was to serve and protect. I see that mission as his prime motivation for everything that he did in his public life.
Kymberly: I am most excited about working with American Blues Theater, under the direction of Keira Fromm, in a Chicago premiere of a new David Auburn play, opposite actors I have wanted to share the stage with for some time. The fact that the character is a woman as complicated and contradictory as Susan Mary Alsop is icing on the cake!
WHAT RESEARCH SURPRISED YOU ABOUT YOUR CHARACTER’S REAL LIFE?
Philip: I am surprised by how simple he really was. He was brilliant, capable of understanding the most subtle and complex political trends, yet it all came down to a few simple rules. He had a few simple rules he always followed when writing his column, such as always reporting at least one fact that had not been know before. He loved his country above himself and put himself on the front line of the Korean War long after he had already proven himself, because that is where the story was. He was simple in the fact that everything was better with champagne. Every action is justifiable when you are in the right and he was, along with The United States of America, always in the right. That hubris, tragically for him, was his undoing in the end.
Kymberly: How commonplace marriage infidelity was among her social class during this time period! It was a free for all, for women and men, with the only rule being use of discretion. Susan Mary had a privileged childhood as a diplomat’s daughter, a previous marriage, and a long-term passionate affair producing a son who is not even mentioned in this script – all prior to marrying Joe. Her understanding of what it meant to be a homosexual was quite naive. She honestly thought she could convince Joe otherwise once they were married. She had the intelligence and skill to be a diplomat or politician herself but those avenues were not open to her as a woman at that time. She relished the opportunity to see “history on a boil” around her dinner table where international policies were set.
IS IT A DIFFERENT PROCESS TO PORTRAY A HISTORICAL FIGURE ON STAGE, AS OPPOSED TO CREATING AN ENTIRELY FICTIONAL CHARACTER?
Philip: The process is different because there is a lot more factual research and information available. The actor has to understand his speech, his carriage, his mentality, and his motivations, which were real, though still open to interpretation. In the end though, that is just the filter through which the work flows and it must be rooted in the truth of the actor who is playing that historical figure. Otherwise it cannot connect with the audience.
Kymberly: Perhaps if the character is well known to contemporary audiences, but I don’t think when you say “Susan Mary Alsop” that most people have a face or biography come to mind immediately. That gives David Auburn as playwright and myself as an actress flexibility to craft a story from the angles we are most interested. I love to do research! And although I had several additional resources at my disposal in terms of biographies about Joe and Susan Mary (American Lady and My Three Fathers: The Elegant Deceptions of My Mother) – at the end of the day, The Columnist is its own focused narrative. My job is to tell the story of our play, not cram all of Susan Mary’s life into a few scenes.
IN YOUR OPINION, WHY IS IT RELEVANT TO TELL THIS STORY TODAY?
Philip: In my mind, any story that has universal themes is relevant. Here we have a giant, in mind and influence, who falls, quite quickly to the ground and becomes irrelevant. It is tragic. It is a cautionary tale. However, what he did before his fall was great and important, even outside the realms of journalistic academia, and he deserves to have light shed on his story. His motivation was noble, though his judgment was suspect.
Kymberly: I am always interested in getting inside the private life of a politician or press figure who lives in forced denial and handles cognitive dissonance with such adamancy. We’d all like to be flies on the wall in famous households. Can you imagine the discussions Donald and Melania have around the dinner table and marital bed? According to Trump, they have never fought, while Melania says she constantly rebukes Donald for his bullying Twitter attacks. Surely the truth lies somewhere in between, as it does in Joe and Susan Mary’s marriage. And also who didn’t assume they could change some aspect of their spouse when they first got married?! Ha!
WHAT PROJECTS WILL YOU BE WORKING ON NEXT?
Philip: I have known I would be doing this role for a year and have not done a play in that time so that I would be able to do this project, such is the financial reality of being an actor with a family. I have no theater on the books and will go back on the road doing my silent European style clown act, MooNiE. Within the year, I expect to create a new memoir based version of that show, a show that I have been doing for 27 years in over 7,000 performances. It will be a synthesis of my new found love of personal narrative storytelling and the stories of the adventures and misadventures of a life as a clown and actor, and the physical routines that I have been doing since I started.
Kymberly: I teach acting full time at The Theatre School at DePaul University. While performing in The Columnist, I’ll be directing several studio productions in addition to my regular classes. I enjoy coaching actors in the city for audition preparation, so please contact me if I can be of use to you!