Theresa Rebeck: "I Am a Populist" 

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Theresa Rebeck's latest play The Understudy is currently running to packed houses at the Roundabout. Starring Justin Kirk, Julie White (a long-time muse of Rebeck's), and Mark-Paul Gosselaar (yes, that Mark-Paul Gosselaar) the show follows the story of an understudy (Kirk), a movie star crossing over into stage work (Gosselaar), and a stage manager who used to be an actor (White). During the course of the play the group is trying to get through a rehearsal of a fictional masterpiece by Franz Kafka, encountering numerous problems along the way. The show is at times hilarious, consistently witty, and perfectly cast. It's not only a send-up of the always-a-bridesmaid reality of an understudy's life, it's also a cutting critique of show business, a celebration of the theater, and a heartfelt story of three people trying to make something of their lives despite less than ideal circumstances. Last week I spoke with Rebeck by phone about the play, her career, and her feelings about the theatrical glass ceiling she described in an op-ed for the Guardian last fall.

The L Magazine: I know you said in the article written about you in the New York Times in 2007 that you are a workaholic, but faced with the task of doing research for this interview, I have to admit that the amount of work you've written is kind of staggering. It would take me a year to read everything. You must have a few projects going all the time.

Theresa Rebeck: Yeah, my brain actually works like that. I know a lot of people who say they can't multi-task and I am the opposite: I can't not multi-task. It has something to do with the way my brain works. If I don't have things in there to keep it occupied, it turns on me.

Not only are you working on different projects, you're working across different media: theater, film, television, and fiction. You published your first novel [Three Girls and Their Brother] in 2003.

Yeah and I have another one coming out in the spring. It's called Twelve Rooms With A View. The communal nature of writing film and television is a difficult thing to negotiate. And I'm very grateful when it comes out well and I'm very grateful for how much money they pay me, but you do reach a certain point where you think, I don't want to have my work compromised. It's good to be in a place where I can really just sort of say, I'm sorry, I've paid my dues, I don't have to pay any more dues. I'm told that you have to keep paying them your whole life as a writer, but I hope that I don't have to deal with that as much anymore.

It does seem like you aren't necessarily fighting for opportunities at this point. It seems like when you write something new there are people who are interested in putting it on.

I mean, honestly, I've never become a critic's darling. In some way I haven't entered the art star club, which is really what I covet at this point. Because it does feel like that is another realm of freedom that has its appeal. At the same time, what are you gonna do, it's a complicated game out there.

What does that mean for you, "the art star club"?

Oh, you know, anyone who's got the critics on their side. It makes producers relax a bit because they feel like no matter what happens they're going to get treated a little bit more with kid gloves by the critics. And I'm not actually in that club and I really wish I was. Theaters will say to them, whatever you want to do, we've got a slot for you. And I don't get that offer.

I'm assuming, though, that you have a working relationship with a fair number of theaters.

click to enlarge Theresa Rebeck
Oh, yeah, absolutely. I am in a very happy position. I have options, I do. I get produced and it's a great thing.

What about that move into fiction, then?

Honestly, it was my frustrations with the difficulties of the theater world that led me to think, maybe you should try to write a novel. I'm told I'm not the only person that this has occurred to. Marsha Norman actually said, yes, we all do it, we all get frustrated and write a novel. I had to teach myself how to write a novel. I had been very curious about it for a long time. And it took me two years to write 50 pages. Then I thought, well, you can't sustain this—either write it or don't write it, but don't do this middle ground thing. So then I wrote the rest of it in 10 months. But at that point it had been living inside me for so long. You know that six-characters-in-search-of-an-author dilemma, I really felt that these were real people somewhere out there in the world and that it was my moral obligation to finish writing their story.

Once you finished it, how did you go about getting it published?

I was so pleased with myself for having finished it, I thought, "I actually have no idea how to get this published." I mean, I know how to get plays produced, but I don't know how to get books published. I was even considering the thing which you know doesn't work, which is going to the bookstore and buying the book about how to get your novel published. And then I thought, well, maybe I'll just post it online or something. I just didn't have any sort of plan, I was so pleased to have finished the novel. Then someone helped me and I ended up with a two-book deal. And so, having been put in that position, I forced myself to write the second book. And the second book was enormously challenging. It was the hardest thing I've ever done in my life. And it was the first time in my life that I understood what writers block was.

It doesn't seem like that's something you've experienced with your theater writing.

Actually at one point I said to my husband, "I don't understand this, I could fall out of a tree and write a play before I hit the ground and I can't get a sentence out." It was really, truly a terrifying process. And my agent, who's this wonderful woman named Loretta Barrett, and who was very much leaning on me, she just kept saying over and over again, "The second book is the hardest one. You guys get yourselves through the first one on inspiration and you don't care that you don't know what you're doing. Then when you get to the second one, you really know that you don't know what you're doing." She explained the whole thing. "And then the third one," she said, "is so much easier." And sure enough, as soon as I finished the second one, which was torturous for me to write, the third one was suddenly all there in my head. I knew how to do it.

Anyway, I think that's part of the reason I write so much, because I find it's the only way that I learn anything about writing. I have to just keep doing it. I'm not one of those writers who dislikes writing. I pretty much like it. And I become kind of an unpleasant person when I'm not writing. I think I'm a much better writer now than I was when I started, so that's exciting to me. And I'm excited about what other challenging things I could do. I'm really interested in comedy right now. The Understudy is very comedic, it's got a lot of other stuff going on, but I've started thinking a lot about Molière, and those Shakespearean comedies, and the buoyancy of the universe, which is attractive to me. I think a lot of people think comedy is something simpler. We've gotten a little too trained by sitcoms to think [comedy] is something simplistic or pat or sentimental, with a couple of good jokes thrown in. I think that comedy is so profound. So I'm excited to be looking at that right now.

Something that intrigues me about your writing is that while it's really smart, there's also a lot that's popularly appealing about it, which some people in New York City would consider a demeaning thing to say. But there's something really wonderful about the surface of The Understudy, about this group of wannabes trying to get what they want. It's funny because in that New York Times article you said you like to write about poor behavior, but it seems to me that you really enjoy putting your characters in sort of desperate situations, in situations that can't possibly give them what they want, but they're trying to find some way to make that work for them.

Yes, they're losers. I'm more interested in life's losers than life's winners.

And then, of course, in The Understudy, you have this great analogy comparing an understudy to one of Kafka's characters. Have you gotten any flack from Equity [the union of stage actors] for comparing them to Kafka's Castle?

Oh, no. [Laughter.] Honestly, I think that most audiences just react to the little bit they know about Kafka and most people don't really understand everything we're doing. I mean, some people do. It's a comic version of that disempowered terror that Kafka writes about so potently.

And it's not just that they're losers, because that would be an easy choice, it's that they're really struggling to make something of it.

They're fighting. They're fighters. You know I think that I am a populist, which I believe is the right thing to be if you're a theater artist. You said that thing about accessibility being a dirty word in New York—I think it is a tragic, tragic mistake for people to embrace that idea in theater. Because too much theater, I believe, sets the audience out and says basically, you're not welcome here. I don't think that's ever been an appropriate thing to say when you're inviting people in to pay a lot of money and share in your world and make a community for two hours.

I think theater is such a delight, even when it's tragic, there's something so beautiful and energizing about that experience. And it's intellectually provoking and emotionally and spiritually provoking. Why would you create a world where the audience that's been invited in can't participate? That actually seems like poor sense to me. My experience is that audiences are moved by people striving for something. One of the things that actors always talk about is that you shouldn't cry very much, that it's very bad to cry on the stage a lot, that what you want to do is suggest tears and move beyond it or have the performance on the brink of tears but not give in. And then the audience cries.

So the audience can let go where the character can't. That's fascinating.

Yes, it is fascinating. That's actually what I think the whole enterprise is about: to bring them with you and to let them feel what you're doing.

One thing that really stands out in the Roundabout's production of The Understudy is the casting. Starting with the character of Jake, I feel like Mark-Paul Gosselaar is perfect for that role and he plays it very well.

I think he relates to the guy. And you know, that's his first time on stage.

It's a great crossover role for an actor to take because he can use the fact that he's moving into a new medium. And it seems Mark-Paul does use it, to great effect.

Yes, it's a brilliant piece of casting. He was looking to—this is the story as I understand it—he was looking for other opportunities because he felt like he just kept getting sent in for the same thing, for young lawyers with integrity or young cops with integrity on all these television shows. And finally he said to his agents, you've got to let me do something else. And he ended up switching agents, I think, and the new guy over at Paradigm, because there's an agent behind this story, this new guy said to him, you should go in for this play. We had Justin, we had Julie, and we were looking for someone to play [the role of] Jake. Mark-Paul came in and read for it and gave a staggering audition.

I was not in the room, but they had everything on tape, and I remember thinking, wow, Mark-Paul Gosselaar came in to read. Because a lot of them, at that point in their career, they won't come in and read for you anymore. And it was his yearning to do something, you know—he's very much that guy [Jake]. He wants to be more, he wants to take himself and his career more seriously. He doesn't just want to be a pretty boy. And it turns out that he has every right to want that because he is gifted. I think that there's so much confusion in show business about categorizing people, about saying you're a TV star, you can't be a stage star. I find it very classist and very narrow in its thinking. And you know, perversely, they don't do it in England. And I think it's something to do with the fact that TV, film, and theater are all in the same city—all centered in London as opposed to here.

And there's not the same drastic money division. You don't get paid very much, in comparison to L.A. money, working for the BBC.

Right. So there's something cultural going on here where we develop these assumptions and biases that are thwarting, in a sense. But anyway, I think [Mark-Paul] is just the greatest and Scott [Ellis, the director of The Understudy] is actually the one who saw what that was. And I think that Justin Kirk is also a brilliant piece of casting.

Yes, he plays that role [Harry] very well. And then talk to me a little bit about your relationship with Julie White, because you've written for her in the past, you've worked together a number of times in the past. And I gather that's not uncommon for playwrights who have been in the game for awhile. The first person that comes to mind is Christopher Durang and his work with the actress Kristine Nielsen. They just worked together in his recent show Why Torture Is Wrong, and The People Who Love Them. He's written for her and worked with her for years, and the match is ideal. It's almost as if her voice is so present in his mind that he can write less with her on stage because he knows what she can do.

Yeah, it's pretty alarming. I think that's a very apt comparison—that Kristine does for him what Julie does for me. It's alarming how much they know what to do with what you give them and it's alarming to watch. I thought [Kristine] was brilliant in [Why Torture Is Wrong]. I don't understand how she does that.

Another thing that's interesting to me about midcareer writers such as yourself and Chris Durang, is that I've noticed a lot of questioning of the role of the theater and the business of it in your writing. You talk about turning to novels and Marsha Norman saying you all do it. Do you think that's a product of where you are in your career or do you think that's a product of theater having a little bit of an identity crisis right now, despite Broadway having one of its best years in decades? In The Understudy it seems to show how much you love the community theater creates and the joy in performing. In some way it brings to mind Waiting for Guffman. There's such a giddy happiness, despite this crushing bureaucracy and the realities of making a living in television or film versus the theater.

For me there's a central question that every theater artist has to ask themselves and that is, how do you stay in this world and be happy. Because the thing itself is so beautiful. You know, actually Justin [Kirk, who plays Harry in The Understudy] said to me, that being out there and doing this play was like heroin. This play is very close to my heart, I feel very powerfully like [The Understudy] is an achievement for me. I like being at the theater and I feel a little unmoored when I'm not there. I think that's maybe why I lost those 70 pages [while copyediting Twelve Rooms with a View]. And all three of those guys say there is something remarkable and spiritual happening out there—that feeling of joy and the craziness and the delight of playing that play. The core of the action is surrounded by a lot of very dysfunctional elements. In fact, the people who control the community, they all know that we're heroin addicts and that they've got us. [Laughter.] There's a lot of unhappiness in the community about how plays get selected, a lot of people feel like the best plays are not being selected.

I actually think it's an interesting time because I don't think the critics have as much power. There is more of a communal response to things because of the internet and that's making a lot of people happy and a lot of people nervous because they feel like they can't control the audience as much, but controlling the audience hasn't done anything for anybody. I think that the mistrust of the audience is something that's always concerned me. It's true that these are people who watch TV and film, but these are also people who get it together to show up at the theater and pay a lot of money. So I don't understand why we think that we need to look at the audience with contempt. I think that's a huge mistake, which I do not make and most of the artists that I work with do not make. Also there's very few people in New York who control the stages, which makes it a very political situation. The rest of the country so completely looks to New York for what is happening in the American theater and that's not necessarily the best, that's very much a bottleneck situation, it always has been, for as long as I've been working with it. So there's this tremendous anxiety about getting those very few spaces to work. People are hungry for the work. It makes for a kind of crazy political situation surrounding something that's quite great to do. Sometimes people say to me, "Why do you do it? They don't pay you? You could be writing in Hollywood for money." And I think, "Really? Really? You think the only reason to write is for money?" Because that's the assumption, that the only reason you would write is for money. But that's not my assumption.

That's something I feel like a lot of people I talk to struggle with, this question of who you are writing for, what it means to be successful in theater, and who the audience is that dictates success. And I hear you saying that you have to constantly deal with that question throughout your career as a theater artist.

I think that's true. And to some people it's not a question, they know who they are. Somehow their stars line up and there's lots of critical approval and there's lots of opportunity. Good for them, honestly. It doesn't happen to many people and I think we all forget that. There's something about cultural constructs that needs for that to be a small group and I know deep in my heart that it's a cultural construct and that it's on me that I've wasted so much time having tremendous anxiety about why I'm not in that club. I think you just have to keep checking in with yourself about who you are and why you're doing it. I said to my friend Marlane [Meyer, television writer], a really interesting woman who is a terrific playwright and doesn't do it anymore, I said to her, "I'm so tired of resenting people who don't even know I'm alive." Which made her laugh. And I know there are people out there who resent me who I don't even know. We're wasting our time. We need to stick to the task at hand.

That seems like a good segway into the op-ed that you wrote a little over a year ago for the Guardian about Broadway's glass ceiling. Looking at what's on Broadway and Off-Broadway at the moment, the statistics are not necessarily any better this year than last year, as far as the number of female playwrights being produced. However, some of the strongest work that's up right now is by women: your play, The Understudy; Sarah Ruhl's play, In the Next Room (or The Virbrator Play); Yasmina Reza's God of Carnage; and also the new play by Liz Duffy Adams, Or. What's interesting about those four plays is that not only are they all really smart and all comedies, but they're also really engaged with theater as a form. They aren't reproducing another product for the stage, they aren't rehashing characters from some other media; not only are they works of theater, they are in some sense about theater. You have four women writers engaging with and expressing a love for a form which puts up enormous hurdles for them to get that work onto a stage, whether the audience believes or understands that those hurdles are real or not.

Well, you know, I find those protestations [from people who don't believe that the hurdles are real] a little bit disingenuous. If you said that about blacks or homosexuals you'd be labeled as what you are, a bigot. I mean, the numbers are the numbers. Either there is a playwriting gene on the Y chromosome or there are unfair obstacles in the system. One or the other. [Laughter.] I find that the discussion which keeps us not considered as fully or as seriously as our male peers ignores excellence in order to keep itself afloat and that is terribly damaging to the whole enterprise. I also feel like right now we need to be inviting people in, we need more people to come. People ask me, how do you think we can get people in, and I think, 1) do more plays by women, because I think people want to see them, and 2) I think we need to bring ticket prices down.

And what about this question of women engaging with the form in really significant ways when they're having such a hard time getting their work on the stage. Do you think that there's any correlation there?

I do actually. Sometimes I teach, I don't teach often, and I was teaching a class at Columbia and I felt like the stories they were imagining were not strong, they were versions of sitcoms, they had no stakes. And I actually said to these students, "Listen, being a playwright may very well ruin your life. If you're going to do this thing that will ruin your life, make it worth something. Tell a story that has enormous size and potency. Don't do it for a couple of lame jokes. It will break your heart when no one wants to do your play. You'll seethe with rage when writers less talented or committed than you win all the awards. This could really break your heart, and in fact your soul. So make it the mightiest cry you can make it." And I think that takes different forms. For me it was a cry of joy at this point in my life. And I think that for women writers the commitment to the form goes deeper and deeper because we strive so hard to be heard.

(photo credit: Carol Rosegg)

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