A TALK WITH THE PLAYWRIGHT: THERESA REBECK
Theresa Rebeck keeps testing the water and growing as an artist. For the past 15 years, her plays have been consistently inventive, provocative, and contemporary. She is a multi-talented writer – of plays, novels, comic essays, scripts for television, and a doctoral dissertation on Victorian melodrama. She is also a prize winner – with recognition from the Mystery Writers of America and Writers Guild of America for her work on "NYPD Blue," and the National Theatre Conference, Peabody Award (television), Eliot Norton Award, Hispanic Images Award, William Inge New Voices Playwriting Award, among others. She and co-writer Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros were finalists for the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for "Omnium Gatherum," about a demonic, post Sept. 11 dinner party. "Mauritius," her first Broadway play, premiered last season. Her loyal following will tell you about the comedies featuring contemporary women almost on the verge of a nervous breakdown – what with their uncomfortable spike heels, unexpected pregnancies, manipulative roommates, and stalking men.
This season she has two new plays running, "The Understudy" at Williamstown Theatre Festival (July 23 - Aug. 3) and "Our House," a satire about the media and reality TV at Playwrights Horizons in early 2009. "The Understudy" explores the competition between actors during a rehearsal of a newly discovered play by Franz Kafka. One of the two actors is a handsome action star waiting for a new Hollywood film deal while the other, the understudy, struggles to find work.
She and I talked about her work in a lounge at the Williamstown Festival after a performance of "The Understudy" which received cheers and rousing applause. Theresa Rebeck is direct, down-to-earth and passionate about her work.
YOUR LAST TWO PLAYS WERE ON WEIGHTY TOPICS. WHY A COMEDY?
I had been in a really dark period. I was working on several plays in a row where murder happened. And my sister said something: "Why don't you just write a comedy? She had seen "Bad Dates" and really enjoyed it. I thought it might be good to revisit a comic universe, where there is just more bounce. When I put the ideas of the play together, there is a slight absurdity behind the world that I was looking for. A Kafka play on Broadway!
HOW DID THE PLAY COME TOGETHER FOR YOU?
I write about actors a lot. I like actors. It seems that every writer has one or two subjects – and one of my subjects is actors. Other playwrights write about actors: Chekhov always wrote about actors, and Shakespeare, and now me. So I was sort of thinking about that stuff, and I thought it would be funny to do a Kafka play. I'm also interested in lost masterpieces. You know the way we [grow] culturally, those moments when something great appears or disappears. I actually wrote a while ago a one-act about the lost Vermeer that was stolen from the Gardener Museum.
So all the pieces kind of came together one day when I was walking down the street. But if they did [a lost Kafka play on Broadway], somebody's impulse would be to put action stars in it. I have a lot of friends who are actors, and I'm sort of intrigued and perplexed by their lives. I think this comedy is very affectionate. I love the theatre. Some one said to me: Are you critiquing? I said: I'm not critiquing anything. This is a love letter to the theatre. I love those three [characters] up there?
WHAT'S YOUR PROCESS? DOES AN IDEA COME TO YOU OR ARE YOU WRITING FIRST ?
I think about things for a long time before I write them. I went through a period where I didn't know what the ending was. And I kept getting into trouble. I would write things and not really know how to finish them. So then I became very clear on what the ending was going to be. But I decided that was getting kind of boring. Now I kind of know where things are going. And I write without knowing fully where it's going to take me. I think that the more you write, the better you get at it . Now I can relax the rules.
The process changes on everything you work on. I think most writers are probably the same way. The writing teaches you things about what it is you are writing. At this point if I do some television or film, they always want you to write all these treatments out. So you explain ahead of time what you're writing. I found that really peculiar when I first did it. I continue to find it peculiar. They get obsessed with these treatments. Once I told the story 18 times, I don't feel like writing it.
And there' s a hidden subject in everything. You think you're writing this thing and then if you let the writing explain itself to you, whatever the hidden subject is will rise up. When we were working on ["The Understudy"] more and more I realized this really is a love letter to the theatre. I want it to be that. I heard one actor say: You know I can't believe people want to do this all the time. I'm one of those people who want to do this all the time. I was writing about that., about what that is to feel the love of every detail. [Something like] watching the actor find the [spot]light. I love stage management.
The more I watched ["The Understudy"] I [realized] this play is about the broken heart and how it teaches itself to survive disappointment. I love the moment Bradley [Cooper]'s character (the action star) is so deeply disappointed. A friend of mine saw the play and said: I can't believe how much you made me feel about a movie star not getting the movie. Because you love him. I mean by that point in the play you think he's a beautiful actor. You need someone in that part who has that artistry in them, that glamorous persona. [Jake, the character] wants to get through as an artist, and this is a very deep disappointment to him. And to see the other two people in the play so moved by [his loss]. Everybody in the play has to survive some kind of deep heartbreak. We all thought, at one point when we were working on it that it was hilarious. We were surprised at how moving it ended up being.
WHAT ABOUT YOUR REVISION PROCESS?
Some things need more revisions. It took me a long time to write "Mauritius." Some of the plotting was very delicate. The first draft took me eight months. And then you go back and you work on things. It didn't have anything near the level of revision that ["The Understudy"] has had.
For "The Understudy" I wrote the first draft really quickly, like in two weeks at New Harmony Project (a writers colony in Indiana). I kind of wrote it on a dare. It was a very raw first draft so I did a lot of revision. It was more plastic, more malleable than I usually do. I would take huge chunks out and move new stuff in, whole subplots. I used to have much more of the Kafka play. But the more I listened to it, the more I [realized] a little bit of Kafka goes a long way. You want the audience to fall in love with the play within the play -- and the way to do that is to let it sneak up on them. So there were things like that that I figured out. I didn't really have a lot of readings. I had two readings. Scott Ellis has been a very practical kind of director. He really just goes: What do you think? And then I say: I think there's a little too much of this. And he says: You're right. He's very non-directive but responsive. I like working with him.
DO YOU CHOOSE YOUR DIRECTORS? HOW DO YOU WORK WITH YOUR DIRECTORS?
It's a collaboration between the playwright and the theatre, choosing the director. Scott came on because Nicky (Nicholas Martin, Artistic Director of Williamstown Theatre Festival) had called me. [The play] was just about ready to start being seen. Nicky's a friend, and I talk to him about this stuff. So he called up and said: I'd love to do it, And I said: Great! Because I love working up here [in Williamstown]. It's fantastic, like a giant workshop with the best actors in America to work on a new play. He sent it to Scott Ellis, who is also a friend of his, and he said: Scott really likes it. And I thought: I always wanted to work with him. It was easy. Nicky has such a firm understanding of me as an artist; he is a great mentor.
"Mauritius," was going straight to Broadway. Manhattan Theatre Club (the producers) were very concerned. They wanted someone with experience. They had a short list of who they wanted me to consider. Doug [Hughes] was on the list, and I always wanted to work with Doug. So that's how it works. Often the theatre helps. I had known Doug and Scott from other situations.
YOU ARE WRITING A SECOND NOVEL AND A MUSICAL, ARE HAVING TWO NEW PLAYS PRODUCED THIS SEASON, STILL WRITE OCCASIONALLY FOR TELEVISION, ARE MARRIED, AND HAVE TWO CHILDREN. YOUR PRODUCTIVITY IS VERY IMPRESSIVE.
A therapist once told me a workaholic is someone who works all the time to no effect. I like to work. I come from the Midwest. My ancestors were farmers. Discipline is highly valued. I value discipline.
HOW DID YOU ARRIVE IN THEATRE AFTER FOLLOWING AN ACADEMIC PATH TO A PH. D.?
I was writing more and more for the theatre. I had done a lot of acting in high school and college. There was one point where the acting and the writing started to come together. It was pretty clear to me right when I finished all that course work, when I had finished all the requirements except the dissertation, I wasn't going to be an academic. It wasn't a lifestyle that suited me. But I was afraid that if I didn't finish the dissertation I would carry it around with me my whole life, and any time things were not going right, I would think: Finish the dissertation. I didn't want to have that hanging over my head.
Actually I do have a compulsion to finish things. Some writers have the compulsion not to finish things. Sometimes I actually finish things too quickly and then have to go back and fill them in. But mostly when I'm talking to writing students, I do tell them to get the end. A lot of people don't know how to write the end. You can always go back and revise -- if you can get to the end.
DO YOU WANT TO SAY ANYTHING ABOUT "OUR HOUSE"?
I'm very pleased and excited it's coming to Playwrights Horizons. Tim Sanford saw it when we did it at Denver Theatre Center this year and really fell in love with it. That is very exciting to a writer, when an artistic director has that kind of excitement. I love working with him. He's very uncomplicated in a lot of ways. He has a strong reaction to things, so when he gets behind a play, you have a wonderful passionate intelligence at the service of that particular story.
It's about reality television and the way that has skewed consciousness in America. I think there are overlaps with these two plays. I think a lot about our culture, who we are, how we tell stories, how we examine ourselves or don't examine ourselves. Those are political questions. It's a much darker comedy, a satire.
CURRENTLY YOU ARE WORKING ON A SECOND NOVEL AND THE BOOK FOR A MUSICAL, "EVER AFTER," WHICH IS EXPECTED ON BROADWAY IN SPRING 2009. HOW WOULD YOU DEFINE YOURSELF?
My husband long ago counseled me to see myself as a writer. If you see yourself as a writer, that's what you do. I've always been intrigued and excited by both the form of the musical and the novel. I actually wrote ["Three Girls and Their Brother," the newly published novel] three years ago. So even though it looks like wow, a novel and a musical, it's not actually true. Random House asked me to do a second novel. I find it very challenging, unbelievably difficult compared to writing for theatre. You know I'm very practiced. I say to myself: Relax. It's your second novel. Of course, writing a play is easier. I've written fifteen of them.
I'm a playwright. Plays are the center of who I am. But you know, Chekhov wrote short stories. Michael Frayn does it. And Oscar Wilde. It's a very short list, but a talented list. Henry James wrote bad plays. And Dickens too. But they wrote brilliant novels. Oscar Wilde did well with both. That's my hope. I still occasionally write pilots [for television ]. I like television. I like film too. The forms aren't all that different although I do feel it's not the center for me -- the way theatre is.