Jan 2, 2010
I Interview Playwrights Part 101: Theresa Rebeck
Hometown: Cincinnati, Ohio
Current Town: Brooklyn, NY
Q: Can you tell me a little about The Understudy now at Roundabout?
A: It's a backstage comedy about an understudy rehearsal for an undiscovered Kafka play which is running on Broadway, starring two action stars. It was a complete fluke that our play ended up running in New York at the same time Daniel Craig and Hugh Jackman did A Steady Rain. We thought that was pretty funny. Anyway we are running now until January 17. The play stars Mark Paul Gosselaar as Jake, the movie star, Justin Kirk as the understudy, and Julie White plays the stage manager.
Q: What else are you working on?
A: I'm working on a new play for The Magic Theater in San Francisco. It's based on a one act I wrote in 1992. I'm also working on commissions for Denver Center Theater and Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park.
Q: You have also written TV, films and novels. What sort of mental adjustment has to be made to move from one medium to another? Which come(s) most naturally?
A: Well, it is easiest for me to write plays. I like every aspect of working on them, the first draft, the characters talking in my head, taking it all apart again for later drafts, readings and rehearsals. On the other hand I HATE the politics of New York theater and it's really taken a toll on my interior life. I like writing novels because it takes so much more time and it's a much less brutal world, politically. My editor and publisher, Shaye Areheart at Random House is extremely rigorous with me but so kind and supportive--which finally I feel like writers need. And then there's television, which can be brutal as well. But I like how fast television is, and right now I'm working with collaborators who are wonderful.
Q: The life of a writer has ups and downs. Do you have any advice on how one navigates that?
A: I actually have written a whole book about this, Free Fire Zone. So for my full answer to this question you should go read that book. The thumbnail answer is that Show Business truly can and will drive you crazy and so you have three choices: 1. Quit; 2. Stay in it and be driven crazy; or 3. Stay in it and figure out how to be happy and sane in spite of the horrors. For me that means a lot of things like going to the gym, taking yoga classes, meditation, reading the Tao Te Ching, going to the movies. Trying not to care that other people are more famous and successful than me. You just have to work on it every day: Don't get driven crazy by Show Business.
Q: What kind of theater excites you?
A: I like theater that tells a story, that has great acting, that has beautiful language and at least a few really good laughs. I want to be emotionally moved and intellectually provoked. I want to see something that opens my spirit and moves me to empathy.
Q: What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?
A: I think that young playwrights should spend more of their time working on the basics of playwriting--scene work, dialogue, character, action. I think they should try to hear the rhythms of language in their own idiom. I think that they shouldn't worry so much about being "unconventional." A friend of mine recently confessed that younger writers are being taught, in some programs, that anything "conventional" is not cool. I think that's catastrophic thinking. Too many young writers spend so much time trying to be post modern that they don't finally write about anything at all.
Q: Plugs please:
A: I have a new novel coming out in May, Twelve Rooms With a View. Also I want to reiterate that I think Free Fire Zone really is a good read for anyone in this crazy business. I tell a lot of funny stories about horrible things that have happened to me, and there's also lots of useful information in it, like what the difference is between a studio and a network, or how to talk to movie stars. You can get them both on Amazon, or Barnes and Noble.com.