PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER With Seminar Playwright and "Smash" Creator Theresa Rebeck
By Kenneth Jones
November 19, 2011
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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 Playbill.com. Follow him on Twitter @PlaybillKenneth.