Theresa Rebeck: "I Am a Populist" 

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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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