Nobody's Fool: Theresa Rebeck On New Play and Corporate Storytelling

Theresa Rebeck, prolific playwright and creator of the NBC TV show "Smash," talks ventures into new territory with her latest play, the farce Fool.

Theresa Rebeck
Theresa Rebeck (Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN)

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Theresa Rebeck, who has had an unprecedented 15 plays mounted in New York ( Poor Behavior, at Primary Stages, being the latest New York production), leaves contemporary times for her 16th, something called Fool. It takes place in a medieval castle's kitchen, which functions like a Green Room where servants hang out and are plagued by upper class invading their space, making them bow and threatening to chop off heads.

The event at hand is a jester competition, where two kings have their court cards square off. One is a girl in disguise, in love with her king, in danger of discovery.

"I've never written a farce before so this was extremely challenging," she admits. "At one point, I wrote David Ives and said, 'OK. I don't really know what I'm doing,' and he sent me a copy of his version of A Flea in Her Ear and said 'Actually, no one does.'" The results world-premiered in Houston earlier this year to an encouraging reception and now heads for Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park for additional tooling.

"There are little truism about the theatre, and one of them is 'Comedy is about us, and farce is about them,' and I couldn't figure out how to make it about them because I couldn't not inhabit the characters. I couldn't get them to do things for the sake of farce, so it had to slide into a warmer version of comedy and then slip back into farce. Ultimately I think you'd define it as farce — a very human kind of farce."

Characters always come first in the plays of Theresa Rebeck. They don't jump through the hoops that farce demands, so naturally they don't jump through the hoops of corporate television — thus, her fast exit from "Smash," the series she created.

"I really want to write a book about how corporate structures interact with storytelling," the playwright seriously contends. "No one's ever done this, and it's everywhere. We're all in a situation where we're negotiation with corporate rules.

"People in the press have asked me, 'How well do you 'manage up?' — meaning 'How well do you interact with the people who are above you in the food chain on a corporate level?' And I'm thinking, 'Is it my job to 'manage up'? I'm a storyteller.

"This is something people have erased. Storytellers used to be shaman. When storytelling entered the culture, it entered as a holy act. We were the interpreter of the gods. When theatre erupted, it was like part of a religious ceremony. Now we're at a time where storytellers are subject to corporate interests. We're constantly being asked to distort the stories for something the corporation believes it needs. And the people you negotiate with — they only care about what their bosses think, not what kind of story you're trying to tell. Their realm is not our realm."

Consequently, for the prolific Ms. Rebeck, television's loss is theatre's gain.