A Vermont Voices Q&A With Broadway Playwright Theresa Rebeck
Updated: Mar 22, 2022
Listen to the full interview at Old Mill Road Recording here.
Vermont-based playwright Theresa Rebeck has had four shows on Broadway. TV and Film stars ranging from Katie Holmes to Alan Rickman have championed her work. She has been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize and named by Newsweek as one of their “150 Fearless Women in the World.”
A regular presence at Dorset Theatre Festival (DTF), this summer, Rebeck directs her new play, Dig, at DTF. She sat down recently with Producer/ Publisher Joshua Sherman to discuss her work, her influences, her life in Vermont, her newest play, and how to fix a Broadway show from a gurney.
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Sherman: Hi, Theresa. Welcome. First, let’s cover the basics. Where were you born?
Rebeck: I was born in Cincinnati, Ohio.
Sherman: And how did you get interested in theatre?
Rebeck: When I was young and going to Catholic school, for $5 you could go to the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park and see the student matinees three times a year. And so that’s really what I remember - in terms of falling in love with theatre - was going to those student matinees.
Sherman: Who are some of the playwrights that inspired you?
Rebeck: Well, certainly, I was in love with Arthur Miller from a very young age. He’s such a mighty moralist and such a profound narrator of America, the American culture and the American wounds and I liked his, you know, his theatrical scope. I liked Tennessee Williams a lot. And Moliere and Shakespeare.
Sherman: Did you know (at such a young age) that you wanted to be a playwright?
Rebeck: I sort of decided I was going to be a writer before I even knew how to make a decision. And I was thinking I would write fiction, write novels... or stories or, you know, just be a writer in a kind of amorphous, idealistic way - and in a very young way. And then when I was in high school, I started acting in plays. And I came home - I think I was 16 - and I said to my mother, “I think I’d like to be a play- wright.” And she went gray. You know, she looked very shocked. In retrospect, I do think that was a slightly insane thing to say. It seemed very logical at the time. It doesn’t seem so logical anymore, although I think it’s more common now for people to decide to do this. You know, there just really was no container for it. And playwrights didn’t come from Cincinnati! ... So, you know, the culture has really changed around the whole idea of being a playwright.
Sherman: You went to college at Notre Dame - but pursued graduate school at Brandeis. That’s quite a cultural shift.
Rebeck: It actually wasn’t. Other people have observed that to me, but the fact is, they’re both theologically-centric schools. At both places, you know, there was a core curriculum that included theology and philosophy, which I think actually marks them as a different kind of education from a stateschool.
Sherman: Where to after Brandeis?
Rebeck: I moved to New York.
Sherman: And how did you move forward in your career once you got to New York?
Rebeck: It’s a perplexing question... This wonderful man named Granville Burgess really liked [one of my early plays], and he hunted me down and said, “We should do a reading of this.” And then...some things, sort of, started to add up, but in very sporadic ways.
Sherman: And have you revisited any of those early works?
Rebeck: You know, just this week, we had a reading of Spike Heels, which was my first play that was done in New York. And there are some people thinking about reviving it. And [the reading this week] was thrilling. A lot of the things I was writing about at the time, were very honest about what it was like to be a woman in her 20’s in America - and honestly - it was startling to me how people weren’t ready to hear that. But now [people] can hear it much more clearly... In my youth, I got tagged - in a kind of negative way and very quickly - as being a “feminist playwright”. And I thought, “You know, that implies an agenda.” And that wasn’t my agenda. My agenda was always the truth, you know, which I think is any writer’s agenda. I mean... I’m always fascinated by, the work of Spike Lee - because he so powerfully insists on telling his stories from his point of view - of his race and gender and class. And he includes the, you know, the community of the world in that - but stands where he stands and tells it from [his] point of view. And that’s honestly what I thought I was doing... I was writing plays about what it’s like to be a woman and what women’s lives actually look like. And that didn’t seem like a political gesture. It seemed like a storytelling gesture. Sometimes there’s a kind of gut reaction against that truth - that I stepped right into the middle of - because I was young... and so, I took a lot of grief for that play. And it was painful to me...
Sherman: Resilience is so key to success in the theater (and really, to life in general). How did you rebound after that experience?
Rebeck: I had already written several other plays. And so there was a road ahead of me... And so I didn’t actually have to face the difficulty of that ques- tion until a couple of later moments in my life. And a lot of times, people ask me, “Why are you so pro- lific? Why are you doing so many different things?” You know, I write for film and TV. I also have started directing. I’ve started writing fiction. I did finally go and start writing novels. And I think that - for me- that was a way of always maintaining an identity as an artist - and not be someone who had to succumb to a certain kind of trial ... there were other places to go. My husband [said] to me, “You are not a play- wright. You’re a storyteller.” And I thought, “Well, I’m actually both of those things.” I just didn’t want to be told that I couldn’t be a playwright . . . I didn’t want to be told that. I started looking at all the other kinds of writing that I was interested in. And all the other kinds of work I was interested in, as like an escape hatch - so that if things got really too exhausting to stand up too in one area, I could go concentrate on a different kind of work.
Sherman: So – when was the first time that you felt validated as a playwright?
Rebeck: It probably was when Alan Rickman said he wanted to do a reading of my play, Seminar. And so we did it. We did a private reading with Alan in the central part. And I had a group of younger actors who I worked with on other projects and we gathered and read it at The Lark [Theatre Company] in one of the rooms and it was a powerful experience for me. And then ... for him to say he wanted to do it and take it to Broadway was truly extra- ordinary. I learned a lot from that guy.
Sherman: So what were some of the things you learned?
Rebeck: He had a very rigorous process. And he was constantly pushing at things to see if it could go deeper. And then there would be moments where he would stop himself and go, “That was too far.” There was one moment [in the play]. This one thing thing he did. And I asked him, “Why did you stop doing this one thing? I loved it!” And he said, (im- personating Rickman’s deep resonant voice and calculated pace) “It’s a lot of work.” You know, I mean, it was like four words. And he finally just was like, “I’m not doing that. it was too much work. for FOUR WORDS!” And I don’t blame him. And I liked the way he listened. I think I learned a lot about listening from him and about authenticity and constantly going back and standing on the most authentic choice. ...And I’ve [seen] many productions of that play. And I always want to say to everyone, “Slow Down. You’re not going as deep as you can. You are not showing as much of the interior life of these people as can be shown - and still keep it aloft and funny.” You know, I always felt - even before that - that the best comedy left a lot of blood on the floor. And then [Alan] actually said that. ...We’d never talked about that [before], but he said, “You know, comedy needs to leave a lot of blood on the floor,” and so, I felt like I was well matched - and encouraged to keep reaching for a kind of excellence in the theater that was both psychologically rigorous and curious and accessible. He really felt like a lot of theater gets a little too easy. And he was never one for that.
Sherman: Do you find yourself simplifying or “dummying down” your work? Or do you think you should make the audience work a little?
Rebeck: I believe that the human experience is universal on some level. ...And I’m not interested in plays that are only written for a certain kind of audience. I think that’s really a mistake. And... I don’t think that audiences should be disdained either. ...I write seri- ous plays that have a kind of comedic bounce in them. And I listen carefully during previews to what I can learn from an audience. The whole idea of previews was built around listening to the audi- ence. “Do we lose them here? Does that scene go on too long? Does it not go on long enough?” And ... the workshop process is all about that. And then - when you’re lucky enough to get it into production - [during] previews, you’re listening to what the audience is telling you about how they’re hearing - or re- ceiving - what you’ve written... I mean, there are times when I go, “I don’t care if they get that or not” or “I don’t care if I get that laugh or not.” But sometimes there are things that you do care about. Like, if they’re laughing in places that you don’t want them to laugh - you can kill the laugh. THAT’S SOMETHING THAT ALAN TAUGHT ME; how to kill a laugh.
Sherman: Can you share an example of a scene from one of your plays that required re-working. You know, a moment during re- hearsals in which you said, “This is not working”...?
Rebeck: Yes. Last year, when I was working on Bernhardt/Hamlet, we had the great Janet McTeer play- ing the title role... She had read an early draft of the play, really liked it, and really wanted to com- mit right away. But because of her schedule, we had to bump up the production to the fall. It would have been better to be doing it in the spring,... but we had to move it forward. And so the fact is,that play was being done cold on Broadway. It’s happened to me twice. Everyone says “Oh, you must never open a play cold on Broadway” - and that’s not been my experience. And I think that things get overdeveloped in the theater and it breaks people’s hearts and strength, and so I’m always excited when someone says, “Alright, we’re just taking it. We’re go- ing to put it on Broadway.” It’s always a good day when someone says that to you. But one of the things that happened was right before we went into previews, I had an emergency back surgery. And I was going through all sorts of insane shenanigans to make sure that I could get to the theater. I figured out how to get myself to the theater - and they put a gurney up in the back of the theater - NOT for me to lie on - but for me to LEAN on - just so that I could watch and take notes (at a time when I could barely stand...or walk!) I mean, it was really a serious situation. But it was pretty clear that there were two scenes that were underwrit- ten. I had to figure out how to fix them under this extraordinarily challenging circumstance. They just weren’t working the way they needed to be working. I hadn’t completely solved them. And so I went home after, like, doing that twice. That whole time is such a blur. But I literally was lying in bed, writing scenes,and then sending them the theater via the Internet, and then they would put me on like, FaceTime. ...And they would, you know, do the scene and then [ask] me, “Why are we doing this now?” And I thought, “Because we have to! We have to fix it. I can’t- IT can’t move forward. You can hear that they were slightly underwritten.” And ...one of the scenes just wasn’t achieving what I needed it to achieve for one of the characters. So I literally had to do all that from bed... You’ll go to great lengths to fix something in previews.
Sherman: Even on a gurney.
Rebeck: Even on a gurney. I wasn’t LYING on the gurney!
Sherman: No. I know - you were LEANING on it.
Rebeck: I was LEANING on it.
Sherman: Yes. An important distinction.
Rebeck: IT IS!
Sherman: In that example, you felt the scenes were underwritten. I’m sure there are times when the scene is not underwritten. You’ve heard the scene fully in your head - but either the actors or director have had a different take on it. I’m sure that, sort of, makes you pull your hair out - because you feel like they’re miss- ing the point.
Rebeck: Yes, that’s a challenging situation. That’s why you have to be really careful around casting. ...You know, if it’s not sounding the way you want it to, you can’t even hear it. So, you can’t tell if it’s working or not. ...That does happen sometimes.
Sherman: You’ve worked in TV, film, theater, fiction. Does your process vary based on the format? Tell me about your process for writing.
Rebeck: The process is always pretty organic. I have trouble writing outlines in film and television. They’re in love with these treatments and outlines, and I find them dreary, and I’ve never been very interested in writing those things, because I feel like they interfere with a more organic and intuitive process. So, I try to stay away from those things. It’s not always the right thing to do to avoid the whole outlining, but that’s just the way my instrument works . . . I feel like there’s a different part of my brain that writes different things. You know, I call the part of me that- the person WHO WRITES, “Writer Girl”, and she won’t always do what I tell her to do. So that’s part of the issue with these treatments; when she gets really sick of them, she just won’t do them . . . So, when people ask me, “Can we have another draft of this?” I say, “You know, I’m really sorry, but Writer Girl is not interested in doing that anymore.”. And I feel like her agent. Do you know what I mean? Like, I’m her agent and sometimes I feel like it would be great to just ask her to do that. And to just write that. It would take, like, 10 minutes really. And . . . sometimes I hear myself talking to my- self going, “Come on, just write this treatment, it’ll only take ten minutes.” But she’s really tired of all the treatments and the way the processes around writing in a corporate environment waste your time and your spirit. And so she’s just not interested in that anymore. Sometimes I feel like Writer Girl actually is the one who’s really in charge of the plays.
Sherman: Have you explored other art forms?
Rebeck: I play the piano.
Sherman: You do?!
Rebeck: Yes, actually, I play pretty well. Adam [Guettel] doesn’t even know this. I was classically trained. My son is trained as a jazz musician - and I can’t do what he does. That’s mystifying to me. But, you know, I can play like Rachmaninoff and Chopin and all that stuff. I can’t play, like, the really hard Beethoven. That stuff is out of my range. But I play the piano. Sometimes I knit.
Sherman: Let’s talk about Vermont. How did you find your way up here?
Rebeck: Well, my husband and I had saved up a little nugget of dough, because we wanted to buy a place outside the city. My son and daughter were very young. ...And we had been looking and we knew that we didn’t want to go out to Long Island. We’re not beach people. And so we were looking at some other places, and we had friends who lived in Dorset. And we visited them several times. And I finally said, “We like it here. Why don’t we look around here?”
Sherman: And how long have you been up here?
Rebeck: Sixteen years.
Sherman: So tell me about your experience with the Vermont theater community?
Rebeck: Well, you know, when I first came up here, I didn’t know Dina Janis, who [now] runs the Dorset Theatre Festival. And we got to know each other, but she was not running it then. And I had really hoped to become involved with the theater - and it didn’t hap- pen right away. And then Dina stepped in as the artistic director. We knew each other by that point, and we had had a lot of conversation about developing a community of people who were inter- ested in producing and writing new plays in Dorset. ...Dina and I - and a lot of other people - are very interested in theater here, and are hoping that we can continue to draw people up to this remarkable place - and see it as an arts destination.
Sherman: What was the first show that Dorset produced for you?
Rebeck: The first show that Dor- set produced was, The Novelist, and it was a re-write of another one of my plays which got a really crazy, destructive review - for a play that many people thought then - and still think- is one of my best plays. And I couldn’t get anyone to give me another chance with it. And Dina agreed to do it. Dina has been extremely successful with just throwing down and saying, “We are doing new plays here. Not everything is going to be a ‘new-ish play’ that’s been successful in other places and has the imprimatur of some kind of review system.” So ... there was a lot of good energy around developing work, and ... that was the first one that she did. And then she also did a couple of other plays, like Mauritiusand The Scene. That was the first time I did a play with Tim Daly. And then Tim asked me to consider writing a play for him and [his sister] Tyne [Daly]. And so I wrote Downstairsfor them. And then Dina did that. ...And this summer, I’m doing Dig.
Sherman: Tell me about Dig.
Rebeck: I love this play! Dig is a play about- (Rebeck pauses - and starts over.) It takes place in a plant store and it asks the ques- tion, “Can a person who seems unredeemable be redeemed?” Or can a person who’s- (Rebeck trails off again- and starts over.) Dig is a play about deep trauma, and whether or not a person who’s been through the most horrifying life experience ever can be nursed back to life. That’s the primal question of the play. And it takes place in a plant store.
Sherman: Plants, of course, require love and care, right?
Rebeck: And they can be easily killed. The play takes place in this plant store that’s called Dig. It’s just the name of the store. And the guy who runs it is named Roger. And he’s a very prickly guy. This is his universe - and he has things the way he likes them. And he’s very good with plants. And, he doesn’t want anyone messing with that. And then someone comes into his life who’s the daughter of a friend of his, who’s been through a really terrible trauma. And the question becomes, “Will she kill herself?” And, you know, both of them are very prickly people. So it’s not a gentle or sentimental play.
Sherman: And do you feel that your job as a playwright is to JUST ASK questions to an audience, so that at the end of the play, they turn to one another and say, “What do you think?” Or is your job to help provide your opinion - because you want to share your thoughts on it? You know, is your job solely to provoke the question? Or is your job as a playwright to potentially share a possible answer?
Rebeck: Yeah, that’s a good question. I think my job as a play- wright is to tell a complete story. And to allow the questions that rise out of that story to just rise out of it. I don’t feel like it’s my job to answer those questions. But I do feel it’s my job to do right by [the characters] in the play - and to tell a complete story about those people.
Sherman: You’re not only writingDig. You’re also directing it. What are some of your tricks as a director for both getting the end result that you’re hoping for - that Writer Girl is hoping for - while also allowing the cast to explore other ideas?
Rebeck: I think that the best work comes out of really profound listening, which I started to learn more and more recently, by listen- ing to designers. And it’s been a deep pleasure and great opening of my instrument and my heart - I hate how pretentious that sounds - but it’s been a great opening of my heart and mind to be working directly with designers, who come at storytelling from very different points of view . . . I mean, these are mighty artists. And we spend a lot of time talking about the world of the play . . . Listening to and watch- ing and responding to what is coming to you unlocks the deeper colors of a play. And so when I’m directing my own material, I do feel pretty careful about who I’m going to cast. There are six people in this play. And five of them are people I’ve worked with multiple times. And so there’s a kind of shared un- derstanding of the kind of story- telling that I do in the theater. You know, there’s a kind of emotional openness of heart that’s required; a dexterity of language; and ability to nail a laugh . . . There’s a real muscle around the ability to tell a joke in the worlds that I build. I mean, even though this is a really terrifying - emotionally terrifying play - there’s a lot of comedy in it. And so, I generally, make sure I have the right actors.
Sherman: Do you think your tal- ent is genetic? Or based on your ex- perience? Or a combination?
Rebeck: That is actually an excel- lent question . . . I think a writer is like a musician. You have to have an ear. On the other hand, I do believe in that thing that Malcolm Gladwell says about 10,000 hours; if you put in your 10,000 hours, you’re go- ing to be pretty good at what you do. I mean, I play the piano . . . If I practiced, I got better... There was one summer when I was, like, 16, and I was playing three or four hours a day - and I got really good, really fast. And so I do believe that there is a workmen-like aspect to this task that we set ourselves.
Sherman: You grew up in a very religious family. It’s in- teresting that when you first started to describe Dig, you said it’s about redemption - and “Is a person redeemable?” My mind automatically went: “Oh, if someone is a bad person, is it possible for them to potentially be saved?” But then you rephrased your response from the other perspective: “If someone has been damaged by an atrocity, can they rediscover human- ity?” And those are two very different thoughts. But your initial instinct was to use the word, “redemption”. It struck me as fascinating, given the beginning of our discussion regarding your Catholic up- bringing. Do you still think in terms of redemption?
Rebeck: I certainly often think in terms of holiness and grace and creation. I think I have a spiritual question at my center. I don’t have a religious question at my center. I am pretty clear on what I think about religion . . . But I believe in spirituality. And I believe in the beauty of the earth. And that we are called to be creative beings and to care for each other. I believe in all of those things. I believe in justice. I be- lieve in humanity. And I think those are spiritual beliefs.
By Joshua Sherman M.D.
Photo By Bryce Boyer
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