Omnium Gatherum by Theresa Rebeck and Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros, Variety Arts Theatre, 2003. Photo: Joan Marcus. From left: Dean Nolen, Jenny Bacon, Joseph Lyle Taylor, Kristine Nielson, Edward A. Hajj, Melanna Gray, Phillip Clark.
The Select Equity Group Series on Playwriting
I met Theresa Rebeck several years ago, when I invited her to speak to a class I was teaching at Columbia on the work of a new generation of playwrights. They included Tony Kushner, Kenneth Lonergan, Jon Robin Baitz, Peter Parnell, Frank Pugliese, Alan Ball, and Rebeck. These playwrights were also invigorating the writing of the independent film movement and television, and Rebeck was one of the first playwrights to move easily among these three forms of dramatic storytelling. After earlier plays like Spike Heels and Sunday on the Rocks, Rebeck wrote a series of scripts, for films including Harriet the Spy and Gossip and for such television series as NYPD Blue, Law and Order: Criminal Intent, and The Webster Report. Her recent play Omnium Gatherum (written with Alex Gersten) was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and Bad Dates has been produced all over the country.
I don’t know of many contemporary American writers who have had the kind of season Rebeck just had, with three major new plays debuting: The Bells , a play inspired by the eponymous nineteenth-century melodrama, premiered at the McCarter Theatre last fall; The Scene , a story about the tangled relationships of a group of emotionally lost New Yorkers, was the critical success of the Humana Festival this spring; and her contemporary take on the Agamemnon story, The Water’s Edge, ran at the Second Stage Theatre this past summer. What is striking about each of these plays—and indeed about all of Rebeck’s work—is that they tackle tough questions about us as individuals, and about our society. They are political, but never didactic. The story is always rooted in the humanity of the characters and in the power of the language. Rebeck is funny and principled, and her work reflects these qualities.
In October, Rebeck’s new play Mauritius will premiere at the Huntington Theatre Company’s Wimberly Theatre in Boston, and in December, The Scene opens in New York at Second Stage. Her book Free Fire Zone: A Playwright’s Adventures in Film and Television will also be published this fall. This interview was conducted by phone between Los Angeles and New York.
Evangeline Morphos Your play The Water’s Edge just finished a run at the Second Stage Theatre. BOMB’s editor, Betsy Sussler, went to see it and said, “Please tell Theresa it’s amazing—so bold and brave.” The play begins as a modern drama, and halfway in, it turns into an ancient Greek tragedy! At what point were you aware of the scope of what that story was getting you into?
Theresa Rebeck I was hoping to reinvestigate the Greek model of Agamemnon, where trauma is not something anyone seems to be able to recover from. They do their best to boldly push through what’s happened in the past … but it’s impossible for them to do that. And I thought for all their involvement in ritual and religion, those Greeks were pretty acute about human psychology as well. I reread Agamemnon—I check in with the Greeks periodically—and I was looking at the Oresteia trilogy thinking, there’s all this commentary about the return of the king and the ownership of the kingdom, but isn’t this about the fact that he killed his daughter?
EM Whenever I teach it, I always talk about the choice Agamemnon makes. Is he a private or a public man? Is he making the choice a father or a king makes?
TR He sacrifices his daughter for a kingdom. Which makes him public, really, only public. And to his wife, Clytemnestra—the queen—that’s intolerable. For a mother, that’s the ultimate betrayal. While he was off in Troy, Clytemnestra sat there thinking about killing him. I was really fascinated by that aspect of the story. She thought about it for 17 years, and then she did it. She wasn’t processing that anger; she was nursing it.
EM A modern position might be: you go to therapy, you talk about it, it’s curable. In this play you seem to be looking at those things that are not curable.
TR The story is that in her it wasn’t curable and because it wasn’t curable, the violence continued. When you cling to violence like that, it creates a continuum. That’s what’s so terrifying about the world today. In the case of the husband and wife in The Water’s Edge, it’s certainly clear that they could not let go of their grief and rage at the tragedy of that death 17 years ago, and so that rage will continue; it will move into the next generation. When you don’t let go, there are no survivors.
EM The Water’s Edge is about a family, but the way in which the violence finally occurred struck me as political. As if we’re not coping with that part of ourselves as a society. You’re asking your characters to be accountable.
TR The father, Richard, keeps trying to hide behind the tragic accident, when in fact he was responsible. He excuses himself by saying that because he was distracted by work, he’s not responsible for the fact that his daughter drowned on his watch. His wife, Helen, believes that his position is unacceptable. Along this psychological axis, where does the responsibility lie?
EM In Agamemnon, Clytemnestra has been plotting murder all along. Has Helen been plotting as well, or is there a turning point for her in the second act?
TR There were collisions of opinion on this during rehearsals. This playwright really thought she had been plotting it for the 17 years he’d been gone. When he shows up, the question for Helen is: Am I actually going to do what I’ve been thinking of doing for all these years? And her terror is that she really might. When confronted with the tension of the actuality of it, there was some hesitation on her part. Whereas Kate Burton, the actress who played Helen, felt that she decides on the murder during the course of the play. So we had a lot of discussions and disagreements about that.
EM To an audience it came across seamlessly. What happened was both shocking and then suddenly very right. At the beginning of the play when I saw the bathtub onstage in the garden, I took it at face value—Richard remembers giving the children outdoor baths in the summertime—and I was dumbfounded at its ultimate use in the second act. Helen stabs her husband in the bathtub just as Clytemnestra stabs Agamemnon. I jumped in my seat, as did a lot of other audience members. It’s an incredibly bold gesture, dramatically, to put something that large and powerful onstage. I wonder if drama has lost the willingness to put the huge feelings out there.
TR Well, I worry that it has, and I’m not interested in small theater anymore. You can really ruin your life being a playwright; there’s a lot of struggle in it, so when I write, I want it to mean something, to have a large effect. I’ve actually said to students, “Listen, you better write something worth ruining your life over.” (laughter) A lot of people say theater needs to be metaphoric or poetical—non-naturalistic—which I think is a mistake. You have to embrace the notion of theatricality, and there are many ways to do it, but for me theatrical means strong. The Water’s Edge comes off as startling because it’s strong; it’s surprising; there’s disturbance in it. People were really rattled by the play on a deep psychological level. That is, to me, theatricality.
Austin Lysy, Mamie Gummer, Tony Goldwyn, and Kate Burton in The Water’s Edge.
EM I’m thinking about another play of yours that is about an equally strong subject— Omnium Gatherum, which you wrote with Alex Gersten right after 9/11. You were looking at the issues: What is going on in our society? What are our positions? Do we hold them strongly enough? Do we have the right kind of discussions about them? That play was an extraordinary event.
TR I’m always circling the question, What is the truest way to tell the story? It’s taken me a long time to understand that not everybody is interested in the truth. Many people are more interested in a lie or a reassuring version of reality. Obviously, I don’t have a corner on the truth, but I’m interested in digging it out. I went to Brandeis University, whose motto is Truth: Even Unto Its Innermost Parts. I find that a staggeringly beautiful idea. With Omnium, we were trying to get to the truth of what it was like to be in New York City the year after those terrible events. And to acknowledge that even people of passion, who were struggling to understand the terrifying time we live in, were having trouble understanding on any level what had happened. Because the more we looked at it, the less it became a lesson about that specific event and more about: What do you do, how do you act as a moral and constructive person, in a world that’s evolving in truly terrifying ways?
EM And who we are as a people?
TRWho we are as a people in a world complicated by the kind of crazy intellectual commentary that everyone rushes toward. During those days right after 9/11, Alex and I both watched television obsessively, trying to understand the images of what had happened, and listening to commentators put ever more bizarre interpretations on something that simply kept escaping meaning. Our cast of characters, and the movement of the play, was built out of that experience, and what became more and more clear in the writing was that the grasping for meaning was not going to be enough here. All of them, and us, were really going to have to make a real leap, across wide gulfs, to try to understand each other’s truths—even if they are frankly incomprehensible—if we are to survive as a people, and a planet.
EM What you and Alex did in that play was expose how difficult it is to arrive at a truth about a situation when all the rules have changed. We all come to the table with our personae, our set of beliefs. What 9/11 did was ask us to confront them in a new way. You couldn’t just have the same conversation. It was a dramatic moment in America and it should have revealed the truth about character, society, our city—
TR And then we so quickly snapped back into fantasy. I do think there are forces at work in America that don’t want us to understand each other or ourselves. The way that fact bled into the play lent it a surreal element. Honestly, Alex and I, attempting to define for ourselves the whole experience, ended up feeling that living in New York was like being at a dinner party in hell. Even while everyone was struggling for understanding and meaning, we also kept trying to shroud ourselves in the comforts of our very little city—dinner parties and fine wine and the prestige of being at a fancy party.
EM And the false comfort of having a closet stocked with gas masks or bottled water or enough canned beans for a six-week siege. It was ridiculous.
TR Yeah. We are ridiculous.
EM The media seems to be shying away right now from raising any difficult questions or subjects. And a lot of self-censorship is beginning to happen in film and television based on what are perceived to be new guidelines for the FCC. You write for television. Are television and film writers asking themselves what they can say? And in some ways, is theater becoming a more open place for these discussions?
TR That’s a good question. Especially since I’m out here in L.A. right now, desperately trying to figure out how to get home to Brooklyn. My sense is that the writers who work more exclusively in television and film, many of them do want to use film and television in a much more provocative and political way. But it’s hard to get those concerns past the powers that be at the networks and the studios. The execs are very concerned about that FCC stuff, but no one else really cares all that much. The corporate level tends to react to bureaucratic concerns in a way that the artists don’t. (laughter)
What always strikes me as startling as a citizen and as a storyteller in this country is the stuff that they don’t get offended by. I find it appalling the stuff they do get offended by. I’m working on this new show for CBS and we have been told, in no uncertain terms, how far we can go in terms of representing sexual behavior. Now at the same time, I’m driving around the city seeing billboards everywhere of naked men and women, for blue jeans or T-shirts—really ridiculously explicit billboards, and apparently no one has a problem with that. But we’re only allowed to write a shred of a sex scene for television? Even between people who really care about each other, and whose experience of sexuality is a big part of their marriage? It makes no sense.
EM Well that’s the disconnect between what we say we’re protecting people from and what is actually happening in everybody’s day-to-day experience.
TR Oh, I’m sure.
EM The discussion of celibacy could not be admitted because celibacy, by implication, implies non-celibacy! (laughter)
TR The question is: Is it affecting storytelling? The answer would have to be yes, and in more absurd and inexplicable ways.
EM Ironically, and increasingly, people are thinking of television as a writer’s medium.
TR Television in a lot of ways is a writer’s medium.
EM But as this self-censorship continues, do you think that we’re going to be turning to theater more because at the moment there isn’t as much censorship in that medium? Audiences know the truth is out there, and we want someone to be telling it.
TR Yes. I think that theater is and should continue to be a place where people come to get a powerful and edgy and intelligent, contemporary version of a story, the kind of story that is being squeezed out of television and film because of those bureaucratic concerns. We do need a little bit better PR about it all though—everyone talks about how ticket prices for the theater are too high. But great theater is being done that doesn’t cost a 100 dollars a ticket! People still want to gather and see stories told to them. We need to tell people it’s absolutely going on in a way that is lively and accessible, not too expensive, not boring. When I’m working in the theater, people come up to me and say, I didn’t know theater could be so interesting! We have to figure out how to get the word out.
EM We felt that sitting in Second Stage watching The Water’s Edge. Leaving, both Alan and I thought, “My God. We haven’t seen something like this in a long time.” I was looking through the list of plays you’ve recently had produced: Omnium Gatherum, Bad Dates, The Bells, The Water’s Edge. The Scene is coming up. Look how prolific you’ve been. Companies all over are doing your work.
TR Yes, I’ve had a lot of work that was piling up on my desk finally move into production, which is great, but a little overwhelming. I do consider myself pretty fortunate, obviously, to be able to work; it’s a struggle for so many playwrights to get their work done. Now that’s it’s happening to me in such a big way, it feels great that the work is actually reaching an audience.
EM I saw a terrific production of your play Bad Dates in a tiny little theater in Nantucket last summer. That is a play that can be done anywhere again and again.
TR The Bells, which I recently did at the McCarter Theatre, is a play I’d love to see done again, but it’s going to be a struggle to get a second production. The Bells really is about America. I want someone to take it on. The Brits and the Irish write so much about their history, but people aren’t used to seeing that come out of American writers. I wish producers would loosen up and get more interested in that.
EM The Bells is based on a melodrama of the same title that was popular in the nineteenth century. I remember seeing photographs of Henry Irving in the original production.
TR Yes, that’s right.
Austin Lysy and Kate Burton in The Water’s Edge.
EM You talked earlier about looking to the Greek classics for form—and you used that classical structure in The Water’s Edge. What brought you to look at the form of melodrama?
TR I was working on melodrama as part of my dissertation [at Brandeis, in 1988] and found it very moving. It’s extremely theatrical and I liked the strength of the storytelling. The nineteenth-century critics hated the form. On the other hand, people would go to the theater four or five times a week. What was it that made the theater so vital? I came to realize that these plays embraced a powerful, muscular kind of storytelling. They also were in their essence surreal. Lots of strange things happen and the stage pictures were quite magical, and apparently overwhelming. People in the audience would scream in terror. The stories contained a lot of gestures, like women collapsing or fainting. I became interested in the image of the woman’s body and unconsciousness. I looked at those acting manuals where they had very codified gestures.
EM Right, with each gesture having a one-to-one correspondence to an emotion—
TR Something very expressionistic was going on. In fact, you could draw a straight line from melodrama to silent film right into German Expressionism. They were all using the same set of ideas about theatricality at their core—a physical gesture or image representing a psychological state. Everyone dismisses melodrama because the psychology and the language employed by those original pieces were pretty depleted. I thought, What if you take that stuff out and replace it with a more contemporary understanding of, say, the interior life of the character, and connect that to a more musical sense of language? The hope is that you’d come up with something more mysterious, and epic, and less predictable. So I remade The Bells, setting it in the Yukon during the waning days of the Alaska Gold Rush, and the play was finally about the way, in American history, we’ve seen people commit terrible violence, in the name of domestic security, on peoples of color. It’s very much about the way America justifies its fascination with violence in the world. And we found that if you stay on the psychologically grounded side of melodrama—never allowing yourself to tip over into that too-large land of gesture that doesn’t rise out of a very real emotional reality—the form does work; it becomes epic rather than silly. It was a very European production: Emily Mann directed, Eugene Lee did the set, and Frances Aronson did the lights, and the acting was amazing. We staged it on that big, big stage—
EM It’s a barn of a stage, isn’t it?
TR Which was a truly electrifying place for it. The production ended up looking like a cross between Charles Dickens and Robert Wilson. In the second act, when Mathias goes mad and starts killing other people, the whole stage picture completely deconstructs. It has a very expressionistic ending where he finds himself locked in the memory of what happened forever, in this final image of himself and the man he killed. The audiences at McCarter didn’t understand it, and some of the critics latched onto the fact that it was based on an old melodrama, and of course, melodrama is stupid. They couldn’t release themselves from the tag. That was a shame. Melodrama has not yet found its revival. Years and years ago, Peter Sellers did a re-imagining of The Count of Monte Cristo. I was working on my dissertation and I flew down to Washington, D.C., to see it.
EM I went to see it as well. It knocked my socks off!
TR It blew me away. But neither he nor I seem to have convinced the world to go back and look at the form. So I’m trying to poke around and see what I can do about getting another production for The Bells. Also for an earlier play, The Butterfly Collection—that play also needs to have a life.
EM Tell me about your book.
TR Oh, my book. It’s called Free Fire Zone: A Playwright’s Adventures in Film and Television. Smith and Kraus is publishing it this fall. It’s basically about being a working writer in theater, film, and television: how to survive (if you can) in all three worlds. I have students who just want to know what the world of being a writer is like: How do you get an agent? How do you get a pilot made? Their questions are all over the map. No one’s told them anything.
EM Do they even know what the day-to-day life of a writer is like?
TR They don’t know anything! So, some of the book is about writing, because you don’t want to be so cynical that you wouldn’t even talk about writing and why we do it. What do you think you want from your life, that you would try to be a writer? A lot of people fantasize about the act of writing and think that it’s going to change their lives on some level: “I’ll be fulfilled, I’ll be famous,” I don’t know what. People don’t take the craft of it seriously enough before they go at it. So that gets addressed. Then you have to know things like how the power structure works and who the producers are and how to talk to actors and what kind of lies you’re going to get told, and what kind of lies you have to learn how to tell, and then of course how to keep your sanity through all of it. That’s what I wrote my book on.
Pun Bandhu, Christopher Innvar (in background), and Marin Ireland in the world premiere of The Bells, 2005, McCarter Theatre. Photo by T. Charles Erickson. Courtesy of The McCarter Theatre.
EM Let’s talk about your new play, The Scene, which was just performed at the Humana Festival in Louisville.
TR It’s going to be at Second Stage this year. I’m extremely proud to be working at Second Stage again, and for a lot of reasons. Carole Rothman has excellent taste as a producer, and there aren’t many anymore who have the commitment that she has, year in and year out, to really support American writers, at this important time, when we have to be heard.
EM The Scene got sensational reviews. I just read it. It strikes me that you’re dealing with so many complicated issues of how men and women operate today. You do a lot with four characters. It’s not unlike The Water’s Edge in that it’s seemingly a contemporary play about relationships but it goes into much deeper areas: where does power lie, what do we expect of men and women? What was your experience at Humana with it?
TR I love Louisville, and it’s close to Cincinnati, where I grew up, so there’s a familiarity to the territory. And you’re truly away from both coasts in a way I find invigorating.
There’s something releasing about doing a play in the middle of nowhere. Louisville has a passionate community of people who are interested in the arts and surround the festival and its participants with support and affection. In addition—and adding a certain level of difficulty for everyone—the festival is from February to April. That’s pilot season. So all those actors and writers and directors have to abandon the machine for three months, and frankly there’s something really beautiful and freeing about it. Now, I’m sure that Marc Masterson, the artistic director, and Zan Sawyer-Dailey, his sidekick, are going to laugh when they read this, because they’re always tearing their hair out to find actors who will actually go to Louisville during pilot season. But when you find them, you’ve found gold.
EM The issue of how important casting is struck me in The Water’s Edge. You had an amazing cast. You needed actors who are capable of rising to the language and the story, and who have the willingness to go out there with the emotional level of the play. I imagine that this is also true with The Scene.
TR With The Scene, yes, those issues tended to be crucial—the play had to be dark and real and very funny, all pretty much at the same time. My director, Rebecca Taichman, really understands the necessity of that, and she kept pushing. And we had wonderful actors who went to the extreme in delivering both the comedy and the vast emotional ride.
EM What did you learn from the Humana experience that is going to change or be modifed in the New York production? Or did you discover something that you realized you had to keep?
TR There’s a rawness to it. It has to be very, very dark, and very, very funny. There was some big circling of the jokes; they are what you have to truly hang onto. At one point I said to Rebecca, it’s like The 21 Balloons. The characters escape from an island that’s exploding on a raft buoyed by balloons. For me those balloons are the laughs. The raft is the play, and everybody’s desperately trying to survive on it. They won’t survive if the balloons don’t keep them afloat. Sometimes dramatic actors don’t want to reach for a laugh. But in my plays, believe me, you have to reach for the laughs; nobody can be above a laugh. Humor in my plays is built on desperation. You can either tell a joke or you can commit suicide. I honestly believe that the act of finding humor in real despair is both courageous and life-affirming. Some people think that comedy is a less-serious form than drama. I would say, far from it.
EM There’s the illusion of a rebound—a kind of elasticity. It seems as if in Rebecca you have found a director who gets your work and finds the right tonality.
TR I feel very grateful to have found her. I’ve had a hard time finding directors with whom I feel completely in sync. A lot of playwrights feel that way. It’s such an important relationship in terms of how they deliver the play and how they relate to you.
EM If the director is only concerned about their own style, and not finding the appropriate style within the play, that’s when things run into trouble.
TR The things that go on. A lot of directors look you in the face and say, I’m not used to talking to a living playwright. They joke among themselves about how much trouble playwrights are when they’re not dead. They’re only half kidding. There really is a sense right now that the director is the auteur.
EM It’s a kind of film envy. It’s in the training. Students are not taught to work with new playwrights.
TR One director I worked with made it clear to me that he considered the fact that he was doing a new production of one of my plays in New York not that important to him because he had to share authorship of it with me. In fact, his real work would be a play that had no playwright attached to it. And I thought, really? (laughter)
EM What you said earlier about laughter coming out of desperation reminds me of Beckett. Often productions of his plays are afraid of finding the laughter in them. You were recently quoted in a New York Times article about Beckett’s influence on the theater, as saying that “there is an element in the theatrical community that looks down on a more story-centric and traditional playwriting, and who use Beckett as a club to beat those of us who are moved by a well-told story.”
TR I think that in many ways Beckett is a straightforward storyteller, as well as such a radical absurdist. His best-known works, like Endgame and Godot, are traditional stories with a very simple beginning, middle, and end. There’s something in the human spirit that yearns for and responds to a well-told story. Somewhere in our DNA we know that stories are out there to help us understand what we’re doing here on this planet. We hunt them out the way people seek out enlightenment.
EM As we’ve been talking, you keep coming back to this issue of storytelling. I wonder how you see it playing out in the three mediums that you write in.
TR Once in a while I say, “I’m an artist,” and people get startled that I use the word artist to define myself. For some reason we’re not used to that word anymore, which seems a shame. Especially because I don’t know what else you’d call me, or people like me. Writer would be another accurate word. So would playwright. But the one I use a lot, that covers film and television as well as theater, is storyteller. I am somebody who sits around and tells stories at the dinner table, narrating my day. I tell stories all the time; my head is swimming with them. In that sense, I am a neoclassicist and would define myself as one. I am interested in beginnings, middles, and ends, and the elegance of that. I find it graceful and hopeful and life-affirming. Stories teach us so much. I really do see them as a sort of humble, human way to struggle toward enlightenment.