STAGE TO SCREENS: A Chat with Theresa Rebeck; Remembering Uta Hagen

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18 Jan 2004

This month we talk to Theresa Rebeck and recall an interview with the legendary Uta Hagen.


Since Theresa Rebeck, who's had much success writing for TV, recently had two plays—Omnium Gatherum (written with Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros) and Bad Dates—on New York stages, would that indicate a return to her first love? "I never stopped doing theatre," insists Rebeck. "It's interesting. I think people think you have to concentrate on one or the other. Right now, I have stopped doing television. It's what I've done to support myself and my family. I just got tired of it."

When she started in television, admits Rebeck, "I think I was a little ahead of the curve. Maybe not. I just know so many people now who do both. It's a very delicate balancing act. You can get overwhelmed by the demands of either world.

"The stage gives you more control over your own work; in television, there's a distressing amount of communal writing. Unless it's your show, you have no control over that. You're at the mercy of whoever's running the show. I find a lot of input from other people very stressful."

Her first TV work was "for a sitcom that didn't last very long, 'American Dreamer.' It had a fantastic cast—Carol Kane, Robert Urich, Maggie Welsh, Jeff Tambor. The network didn't believe in it. Then I did 'Brooklyn Bridge.'

"One thing I won't do in television is a sitcom. I find that world to be so neurotic and bizarre. My plays are comedies, but my work is character-centric. I don't belong in television comedy; I'm not a joke writer.

"The stuff that passes as comedy on television, these days, is all joke writing. I can't do it. I have admiration for people who can do it well—the guys who wrote 'Cheers' and 'Frasier.' They created sort of a blissful comedic universe."

Steven Bochco offered Rebeck a position on "NYPD Blue," which she considers her "breakthrough on TV. I worked for two-and-a-half years, and did about ten scripts. They pay you to be on staff, and then they pay you per episode. It's a lot of money, but that doesn't solve everything. People would say, 'What are you complaining about? You're making a gazillion dollars.' I thought, Well, you can still be so tortured that a gazillion dollars doesn't mean much."

Rebeck has also written for "L.A. Law" and "Third Watch," and was a writer-producer (until last January) for "Law & Order: Criminal Intent." Says Rebeck, "I was doing a number of plays at the same time. When you're working on several things at once, you never know what's going to hit the front of your consciousness at any given moment."

Does she have a set routine for writing? "I never did. I always write a lot. I sort of perversely enjoy it, in a way that other writers don't. Some people have a problem finishing things. I get anxious when things aren't finished."

She's known since "about the age of six" that she wanted to be a writer. "I did spend a lot of time thinking I wasn't good enough. I still do that. Sometimes, I'll say to my husband [stage manager Jess Lynn], 'I feel like a real writer now.' He'll say, 'Well, what do you think you are?' Writing is like a compulsion with me. I consider myself primarily a playwright, who does these other things. I wouldn't describe myself as a screenwriter."

Rebeck will have a screen credit for the forthcoming feature, "Catwoman." "It was an original screenplay, so I don't think they can take your name off, but it's Hollywood. You never know what happens. A lot of people ended up writing it. When they hire another writer, you get hurt, but it's budgeted [to use other writers]."

Her stage breakthrough was "a play called Sunday on the Rocks. It was picked up by one of the Boston theatres and had a very successful run. There was interest in bringing it to New York, but someone lied about having the money. It got me an agent. At [New York's] Second Stage in '92, I did Spike Heels, with Kevin Bacon, Tony Goldwyn, Saundra Santiago and Julie White [star of Bad Dates]. That's when I met Julie. She did The Family of Mann with me at Second Stage in '94. That was about my hellish adventures in sitcom land. In L.A., Julie did a one-act play I wrote, and then the film of 'Sunday on the Rocks.' That's when I started writing Bad Dates."

When Bad Dates (directed by John Benjamin Hickey) finishes its run at Boston's Huntington Theatre in February, "there is hope that it will play other theatres and maybe come back to New York. It did well at Playwrights [Horizons], but it wasn't clear if people could pick it up. Now, it's having a wild success."

Upcoming for Rebeck, the mother of Cooper ("he's almost nine") and Cleo (approaching three) are two plays. "This summer at Williamstown—it's their 50th anniversary—I'm doing The Water's Edge. It's a tragedy, with Kate Burton, who's wonderful in it. And at the McCarter in the fall, I believe, there's going to be a play named Gold." Wasn't that one of the titles for Sondheim's Bounce? "But it's not anymore," says Theresa Rebeck. "I figure it's up for grabs again."


In 1998, while Uta Hagen was preparing to star in what would be her final New York stage appearance, Collected Stories, the superb actress and I spoke in her Greenwich Village apartment. Even 60 years after having made her Broadway debut, she remained passionate about her art, and a listener instantly got caught up in her enthusiasm. Seated beside her throughout the interview was a toy poodle named G.B. (for George Bernard Shaw).

Determined to act since childhood, when she saw Elisabeth Bergner play Saint Joan, Hagen made her professional debut as Ophelia, opposite the Hamlet of Eva LeGallienne. She still expressed astonishment at the fact. "My next job was Nina in The Seagull, [her Broadway bow] with the Lunts, on Broadway. That sounds incredible, too. They were an enormous influence on my life." She admired "their passion for the theatre, and their discipline. It was a 24-hour-a-day affair, and I never forgot it—never!"

Hagen's first husband was Jose Ferrer, to whom she was married from 1938 to '48. With Ferrer as Iago and Paul Robeson in the title role, Hagen played Desdemona in Othello. "We did it from '42 to '45—Joe [Ferrer] and I and Paul. We opened at Harvard; then, we went to Princeton. There was such a to-do about it—the notion at that time in this country of a black man and a white woman onstage was just unheard of; that he would kiss me and hug me, slap me and strangle me, was an event."


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