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

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19 Nov 2011

Theresa Rebeck
Theresa Rebeck
Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

The current Broadway world premiere of Theresa Rebeck's comedy Seminar coincides with her leading the writing staff of the new TV series "Smash." The prolific playwright gives Playbill a few minutes.

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Does playwright Theresa Rebeck ever sleep? We didn't ask the question when we chatted with her by phone from the set of TV's midseason series "Smash," but we should have. As creator and show-runner of the coming NBC drama, about the characters and passions involved in the making of a Broadway musical, she oversees the writing staff of the series and guides its plot, language and tone. It launches in February.

This fall, in addition to crafting the first season of "Smash," she prepared her new play, Seminar, for its current Broadway run starring Tony Award nominee Alan Rickman as a salty editor who runs a private class for aspiring novelists (played by Hettienne Park, Jerry O'Connell, Lily Rabe and Hamish Linklater). There was also the September world premiere of her Poor Behavior at Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles. Need we mention the planned January 2012 world premiere of Dead Accounts at Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park?

The Pulitzer Prize nominee — already the author of The Scene, Bad Dates, Omnium Gatherum (co-writer), Our House, The Understudy, The Water's Edge, Spike Heels and Mauritius — is prolific. And swamped, but in the best way possible. She spoke to us in late October, the day before Seminar began previews at the Golden Theatre.



I realize the craziness of trying to talk to you on your first-preview week and during "Smash" production.
Theresa Rebeck: [Laughs.] Yeah, that's O.K. There's a little minute here.

I was intrigued by the idea of Seminar for a lot of reasons, but partly because I took what was an influential writing class when I was an undergraduate, where we read stories in a group and we would go around in a circle saying what we remembered about each piece. It was a very humane and helpful and kind experience, and that doesn't sound like it's the the dynamic in your play.
TR: No, it's not quite like that.

Can you characterize the situation in Seminar?
TR: It's a private writing seminar. There's a genius writing teacher out there who will take on private students once a year for a 12-week seminar which costs $5,000, and you meet in somebody's apartment. It's sort of loosely based on…these things actually happened. This is historically accurate. There were a couple of big writing teachers who have used that form of class, It probably still goes on, but I knew about it from my own past.

These students are together? These characters are together at the same time?
TR: Yeah, it's a very small class. It's a four-person class.

For Seminar, did you draw on aspects of yourself, what you were as a young writer in the '80s?
TR: I wasn't a young writer in the '80s. [Laughs.] I was a young writer in the '90s, I think. Oh no, maybe I was a young writer — yes, I was a young writer for some of the '80s.

At Brandeis.
TR: Yes! I'm, like, wait a minute — when did I go to college? Yes, that's accurate.

 

Alan Rickman in Seminar.
photo by Jeremy Daniel

Do you pull from what your own insecurities or strengths were from that time? Do you channel that?
TR: I think what I'm channeling from back then is that feeling of desperation we all had that we so terribly wanted to be writers, and the mystery of how you achieve that was so deep in us. You know, we were terribly confused, so the idea of getting even close to someone who has experience, has access, has knowledge, was a big hunger. I remember when I was at Brandeis, Geoffrey Wolff, he was a great fiction-writing teacher. He was the writer-in-residence, and for those of us who wanted to be writers, you were so excited to be in the same hallway as him. It had that kind of hunger in it. I've also drawn on a lot of student experiences throughout the years.

And, when you are that hungry, you sort of give your power over to that person.
TR: You give your power over, yes, to a lot of people. [Laughs.] You don't have any power, and what you have, you just toss away — willy-nilly.

Novelists are all, essentially, freelance writers trying to pitch something, right?
TR: Yeah. You know, I have started writing some fiction, but I don't know that world. A lot of work I did on the play was research, and I know a lot of fiction writers, and I'm in relationships with them. But it's a different world from the theatre. They are adrift in a lot of ways, the way playwrights often seem adrift to me because of that freelance [state] — how do you get a foothold anywhere in the universe becomes the question.

Weren't you in seminars similar to the class in Seminar?
TR: No, I was not. I mean, yeah… let me think. I was in a similar situation in graduate school… I was in seminars like that, and I was in some work situations where the head-writer had that kind of influence over the younger writers — that kind of unholy influence.

Not always healthy.
TR: Yeah, not always healthy. Let's put it that way.

I like how vague you're being. That's good.
TR: Well, you don't want to give it away. I'm serious! There's a lot of intrigue around how people learn, and it is true that, for some teachers, teaching is an abusive act. I think that the culture or I think that there are certain people in the culture who want to imbue that abuse with deeper meaning, and I'm not necessarily arguing with that, but I'm not necessarily accepting that definition whole-hog, do you know what I mean? So, I really do think that it's important to let the audience decide for themselves. Let the people come see. Let that discussion come out of the play, out of the experience of the play. I rarely take sides, you know. I'm always interested in the fact that people want to believe I've taken a side, and I don't believe that I'm taking a side here. Something else I can talk about: I do know about myself as a teacher, and I know sometimes I can be pretty rough. O.K., here's what I can say: In one class, I was getting a lot of stuff from students that was really not good, and I finally yelled at them, and said — it just burst out of me — "You listen to me. Being a playwright is probably going to ruin your life. If it's going to ruin your life, at least say something. Swing for the fences. Whatever you're writing should be worth ruination of your life and every person who knows you!" [Laughs.] Do you know what I mean? But, there is high stakes for me in the act of writing. It's a very, very rough and distraught universe that people don't know — there's a lot of despair and disappointment, as well as sort of moments of joy arising. And, so, it's a much more complex act, becoming an artist, than it is generally credited as being. Does that make sense?

 

Jerry O'Connell and Lily Rabe in Seminar.
photo by Jeremy Daniel

It sounds like your response to them is blunt and candid and some people confuse that with confrontation or abuse.
TR: Yeah. And, there are some people who go, "That was just abuse!" [Laughs.] You know what I mean? With some of my writing teachers, you just go, "Oh, O.K. That's just abuse, man!" But, there's also the blunt, candid version. The question is, should young writers be pampered?

Are you able to generalize about some of the shortcomings or trends you see in the work of playwriting students, when you teach? Is it television writing? Is it non-theatrical? What do you tell young playwrights to avoid?
TR: My issues are that I would say that it's "too filmic" rather than "too TV." I think that there's a lot of great stuff going on TV; that the stakes and the writing chops have gotten a lot higher in television, while in film they've gotten lower. And, also, people's experience in film is in smaller scenes and less psychology so that the emotional stakes and also the performance of the language deteriorates around this kind of model. So, my feeling when I'm teaching playwriting is make it bigger — you should be swinging for the fences more. The stakes should be higher. I have them read classic plays a lot because I feel like there's a lot to be learned from all of it.

Classics.
TR: Some people go, "Who's your best teacher?" And, I'll go, "Probably Molière." You know? It's so funny, I'm always stealing from Molière and nobody ever notices. I steal from him willy-nilly.

Continued...

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