PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER With Seminar Playwright and "Smash" Creator Theresa Rebeck

By Kenneth Jones
19 Nov 2011

Hamish Linklater in Seminar.
photo by Jeremy Daniel

When the seed of a play is forming, do you see characters first? Do you see situation first? Do you see conflict first? What is the germ? In Mauritius, were there two sisters you knew you wanted to write about?
TR: No, it wasn't the two sisters that came first. It was the girl in the stamp store who came first. At some point you start to see a little movie in your head, and the little movie is actually of a stage play. So, I'm always telling everybody, "Don't see a movie-movie. See the stage-play movie." Do you know what I mean? Like, I can see the people acting it out, and then I write it down, sort of like that. Sometimes people say to me, when I'm working on something, sometimes people give you notes or thoughts, and they say, "She should do this," and I go home and try it out, and if she won't do it, then that's it. I can't force them to do it because then the writing thins out. I think a lot of people…write from the outside in. They make their characters do things that they want them to do, and I'm a little more like, "I wonder what they're going to do next?" Like, I've got six characters in search of an author and I kind of throw them around.

Is that how Seminar came together as well?
TR: Yes!

You said, "What will they say to each other?"
TR: "What will they do?" [Laughs.] And, then you do have some control. I'm not saying abdicate control to these crazy pieces of my brain, but I do not force actions on them. I let action rise out of character, really.

Do you sometimes wish you could clone yourself when you're working on a play in New York and working on "Smash" and working on another play in L.A.?
TR: This year was the first time I thought, "I wish there were two of me right now." It's been wonderful this whole time, but I will say that what gets squeezed out is the fun. You don't have time to hang out on the set if you're not working, you know what I mean? Everything just feels a little bit to tight. There's work to be done. Where do I have to be because I have to be getting that bit of work done. It's like that a little bit. It's O.K.! I'm still having fun.

Well, it's better than the alternative — not working.
TR: Well, it's certainly extraordinary. It's an extraordinary moment for me. I can't deny that.

The other side of writing career is loneliness, right? That is, solitude.
TR: Very much so. It's not like that right now. It's a time for me that's crowded with people and I can already feel my interior life wondering when I'm coming back. It started up again, and I thought, "No you be quiet for a little while, because it's fun to not be alone." [Laughs.] I was like, "You be quiet" because it's nice to be around people so much in a way, but you do get lonely.

Lonely in that your primary intimacy is with the computer and your imagination. But that's the most fun, I would think — the creative act.
TR: I certainly do enjoy it. I do. A lot of people talk about how much I write, and I'm not trying to prove a point or anything. I'm constantly curious about a lot of things, and it's a way of exploring my curiosity. I am curious about a lot of things. I'm perplexed and engaged.

You can't turn it off, right?
TR: No. Actually, working on "Smash" there was one point when this writing staff that I work with was talking about [the writer character that Debra Messing plays on the series]. And they said, "Maybe she gets writer's block," and I said, "I don't believe in writer's block," and they all burst out laughing. David Marshall Grant said, "We know you don't!" But, I don't believe in writer's block. It's not the neurosis I engage in. I know a lot of writers who get terribly anxious about the idea of finishing things, and I have the opposite neurosis, where, for me, the excitement is in pushing through to an ending and then seeing what you have and going back and engaging with the thing itself. Not holding back.

When I talk to my creative-writer friends, often writer's block means something is happening in their life that is preventing them from having the mental space to write. It's not about, "I can't figure out what the character will do."
TR: Right. Although, I do find fiction writing to be very complicated in a way. It's a really tricky form. I'm always sort of amazed that people survive it.


Hettienne Park in Seminar.
photo by Jeremy Daniel

Can you give a glimpse of what you do on "Smash"? I know that you wrote the pilot, so you're considered the creator. Do you write the "bible" for the whole season?
TR: Yeah, I'm the creator of the series and I'm also the show-runner, which means that I'm in charge of the writing, so basically everything is under my vision, the whole season.

That means creating the entire outline for the season and then assigning the staff to do it?
TR: Yeah, it's political. There's a lot of people around, there's a lot of voices. But yeah, I'm in charge of the writing side, and that means I'm also in charge of the editing side, so when cuts go in, I'm the authority on it. Sometimes if there is something in an episode that doesn't quite work, I'm the one who has to fix it. I pretty much write on everybody's episodes, and then I write some of my own, just so that it has a consistency of voice. It's what David Milch did with "NYPD Blue" or what David Kelley did with "LA Law," Aaron Sorkin in "West Wing." It's the writer's voice that gets associated with the authorship of the show.

You're the bottom line? You're the one to say, "She would never say this and we've gotta to cut it…"?
TR: Yes. That's very interesting. That has come up a lot. It is important to me and increasingly important to everyone else that this show stands firm in that area where action rises out of character. I really do feel like there's too much television where action drives it and plot drives it. We want a lot of rockin' good plots, but we're being very, very religious about "If she wouldn't do that, you don't make her do that." So, it's a very organic way of working. It makes me really happy. It makes me happy to be steadying my writing staff around that principle.

Did you find you had to school yourself on the community of musical theatre or is that part of your community already?
TR: It is part of my community already. I had been working on something with [Marc] Shaiman and [Scott] Wittman before this happened, and I did work on another musical that went through a couple of workshops and then there was rights situation that sort of stopped it in its tracks, and then I also did another musical with a wonderful contemporary composer Kim Sherman called The Two Orphans and we did that at a couple places outside the city. I have had experience in this world certainly enough, and some experience with the Broadway world.

Kenneth Jones is managing editor of Follow him on Twitter @PlaybillKenneth.


View Playbill Video's preview of the show: