When I run into Theresa Rebeck after the press night of her play The Way of the World at The Folger Theatre, she’s upbeat and energized. She told me a in a phone interview the previous week that she’s been tweaking and perfecting the show even during tech week. This is the benefit of not only being the playwright but also doing double duty as director; not only does she get to be creator but also visionary and coach. Rebeck, like her fashion-forward characters, wears those many hats very well.
The Way of the World feels relevant and in positive flux as a new play that one of the best lines in the show is an immediate reaction to life as we know it. When Rene (a flighty, frivolous, but ultimately lazer-focused aunt and caretaker of the young, trustfunder Mae) reacts to Mae’s declaration of giving all her money to Haiti, Rene responds, “You know that country is just a shh-shh-shh-shambles!” It’s a joke that can only exist now in a play that is a loose adaptation of William Congreve’s play by the same name, written over 300 years ago.
When I tell Rebeck how much I enjoyed the fun and lively nature of the show and that it reminds me a lot of one of my favorite things, watching a Bravo show, she laughs and says, “Yes! But still Restoration comedy!” That’s the joy of her new play and Rebeck. Her talent is so very versatile and she refuses to be defined by just one label. She’s the playwright of six Broadway shows, and many, many more off-Broadway and regional. She’s written six novels; written for TV on a host of shows, including being known by many for creating the NBC hit show Smash (and subsequently being fired off her own show); written many beloved movies from the 90s, such as Harriet the Spy and Gossip and won a truckload of awards. Lately, Teresa Rebeck has set her sights on directing alongside writing her plays (as she’s done with The Way of the World). There’s no reason why she shouldn’t start taking the helm of the ships she’s creating.
Brightest Young Things: What about the original play The Way of the World made you want to adapt it for modern times?
Theresa Rebeck: When I looked at it, it struck me as being very contemporary. I just knew this world in the way it was very gossipy. People were very all-consumed about money and the way they looked. There was a kind of commodification of the self. It was obviously about a bunch of rich people wallowing in the fact that they had so much money and were happy to enjoy that. I’d been out in the Hamptons [where the play is set] a couple times. It just felt like there were clear associations between the way people were behaving and I thought it was very funny. It’s sort of like a demented romantic comedy. A real mean romantic comedy, and it felt like the time has come to revisit that.
BYT: What drove you to want to direct the play on top of writing it?
T.R.: I started directing the past few years. I’ve done three movies and I’ve directed a couple of classics at theatres. It’s something I’ve really been drifting towards, not drifting, walking towards. Racing towards.
I felt like I had a strong vision in my head about it. The first time I had an offer to do [The Way of the World] was at Dorset Theatre Festival. They have a very short rehearsal period because they’re a summer theatre. I felt like I knew how to do it fast. It was such a complicated vision; I felt like I didn’t have the time to teach it to someone else. And then I really enjoyed doing it.
What I came to realize is that I’m friends with the best designers in New York. If I say I’m doing a play, I’ll call Alexander Dodge [set designer for The Way of the World] and my other friends. I have such good relationships with really brilliant actors. I realized that I don’t need a director anymore. I don’t need the middleman and I found it really fantastic to tell stories this way. It’s very much the way Shakespeare or Molière or Sarah Bernhardt would have done it. There’s one person deeply involved in the production who’s also organizing the production. There’s these people out there who say “hey, playwrights aren’t supposed to direct their own work” and I think that someone made that rule up. I love it. I really love it.
BYT: Even though The Way of the World is being called a more loose adaptation, how’s the process of adaptation different for you as a writer rather than creating a wholly original piece?
T.R.: I’ve done this a couple other times with a couple other plays. It’s what Shakespeare did, it’s what Molière did. It’s what everybody did in the 19th century: you just take what you want and throw everything else out. It’s a very loose idea of adaptation but it’s historically a completely valid and vital way to go at this stuff. It used to be done a lot more when there were no copyrights. I think it’s exciting to approach stories as stories and reinvent them.
One of the things that became interesting to all of us working on this play is that there’s times in this play where you feel the muscle of the Congreve and then there are other times where you see the muscle of real contemporary echos. One of the things I learned from Congreve that’s just a timeless, interesting truth is that you can pretty much do anything in a play. He’s very loose. He’ll start a scene in a chocolate shop and then people will just walk away and somebody else shows up. It’s very reckless and creative. And it feels very postmodern to me. And sort of insane in that it supports the recklessness of the [character’s] behavior structurally. You just don’t know who’s going to show up or what’s going to happen next. He seriously ends scenes in the middle of scenes.
The original play is four hours long, with twenty-two people in it. You can not do that play anymore. It just doesn’t make any sense. In the [original play] a lot of things are covered, like the character of the Rake. This figure of the Rake in Restoration comedy becomes a romantic figure. He’s basically kind of a bad guy. He sleeps around, he’s after everybody’s money, and yet, especially in this version, he’s supposed to get the girl. In the original, you don’t see what goes on behind the veil. I think in our world you see much more of what’s going on behind the veil. There are also a couple fops and I transformed them into a more contemporary version. There’s a girl and her gay best friend who are gossipy. As you can see, it’s much more contemporary storytelling, but there are still the malevolent fops who stir the pot the whole time. It’s got a lot of things tossed into the soup and a couple of plot points and that’s why you’d say it’s a loose adaptation. The thing I did a couple weeks ago, because I thought I could use a little more Congreve, so I went back to the original and found a couple phrases that show off the arch wit and threw them into the play. A real Congreve scholar will know the six lines I stole straight from Congreve.
BYT: You’re an incredibly prolific writer and you have a family. How do you fit all the projects you’re working on into your daily life?
T.R.: A lot of writers get very neurotic about finishing things. They don’t want to get to the end and it gums them up. My neurosis goes in the other direction. When I get to a certain point in the script I experience terrible anxiety because I feel so strongly that I’ve got to finish that so it kind of drives me to the end of things. When I teach, it’s extremely important for me to make sure everybody understands that until you get to a place when you can write The End, you don’t have anything. That was something I understood very early on. I’m also a big believer in revision. For me, getting to the end of a first draft is a big relief. Then I know I can go back and make it good.
I read that book Outliers and I agreed with that idea that writing is kind of like playing the piano. My kid is a jazz pianist so I had a kid in my house for twenty years and when he played a lot he got real good real fast and when he stopped practicing it all fell apart and that is true for writing. I do know that I’ve put in my ten thousand hours and at a certain point your own technique knows more than you do. I’m one of those people where I do not know what I’m writing until I start writing it.
BYT: Did you always want to be a writer?
T.R.: I was one of those kids who was saying, “I’m going to be a writer,” when I was six. It feels like a decision that was made somehow not by me. When I go to high school, I was starting to do a lot of theatre. I thought for a minute I might be an actor and then I didn’t want to have to audition all the time. Auditioning sucks. So I fused theatre with writing: play writing. It was like A+B=C. The naïve part of my brain was saying “this way you can have control. You want to make art? You can make it.” Of course at that point in time I had no idea what it took to “get your play done.”
BYT: You work in a ton of different forms as a writer. How do you decide which idea takes what form?
T.R.: In theatre and in fiction they announce themselves as such. The marriage of form to the content appears. I’ve written a couple big studio movies, which was kind of no fun. It looks like more fun than it’s going to be because there’s so much politics involved in it. When I started doing independent features that was more fun. I did one that’s based on one of my plays (Poor Behavior). Then I wrote a movie for Anjelica Huston that’s coming out in March (Trouble). Those things also announce what they are. Now I’m starting to work in short form. That’s something that’s new to me. I kind of dig it. The short answer is that they announce themselves. They tell me what to do.
BYT: An excerpt of an essay you wrote appeared in Entertainment Weekly, which addressed a lot of the issues about being a woman in the television-writing industry. It became a pretty buzzy article. Did you feel any fall out or support from that piece?
T.R.: People remain very interested in questions about what happened around Smash. I don’t find myself compelled to talk about it really. I’m happy people liked the show. I was really proud of the show. The way it fell apart, the way that I got fired, for awhile there was a lot of ill will around it. And those guys scared me. And I didn’t want to talk about it because I was scared. And now I feel vindicated. I didn’t write it out of any thing other than how to face my own ambitions. I did feel like a lot of information in it was things people needed to consider.
BYT: I feel like that essay was pretty prescient in terms of the #TimesUp movement. Do you think things are going to change?
T.R.: I think things have to change. The stuff that goes on in these [television] workplace environments, so many of them have been so deeply misogynistic and mediocre because of that [misogyny]. I’ve always suspected that level of misogyny that is enabled in these environments is about protecting mediocre people in the workplace.
I was really stunned at the job that I worked at after [Smash and] people told me I was too crazy to get hired, the showrunner and the other writers were deeply mediocre and we’re so misogynistic and narrow in their thinking. I spent some time at that place saying to other staff “you know you can’t do this anymore. You know this right?!” And they didn’t seem to know it. And now people know it.
The other interesting thing about that work environment was that I worked near another show where I had a lot of friends. I would leave my offices and go over and see my friends on this other set, a very successful show. When I arrived everyone would be cheering, and saying “Theresa’s here!” Stars and writers. And then I’d walk back to my own workplace and get treated like a pariah because of my gender. I just thought that this cannot continue. This is incoherent.
I spent a lot of this fall as all this stuff was coming out on a real industry wide level, it made me angry. I’m still figuring that out. We all know it’s like this. People saying “we didn’t know”—you did too know! You knew. Everybody knew. I read a piece recently that said if women didn’t go along with [this treatment] cheerfully then they were marked. That stuff is true. We were all talking about it. I wasn’t the only one trying to be a good worker bee who was also insisting on respect in the workplace. I do think things will change. We have to keep pushing it to keep changing things. It can’t just change a little, because if it changes a little then it will just go back.
BYT: Do you think this is happening in the theatre world?
T.R.: I always say, why aren’t there more plays by women? Why not more women designers, directors on Broadway? It’s disgusting because you make very, very little money unless you hit that point. The dirty little secret of the American theatre is that most playwrights will never work on Broadway. If no one is doing new plays on Broadway, then we’re fucked.