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Theresa Rebeck on Women in the Arts and Her Production of “The Novelist” at DTF

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By Monica Sirignano and Dave Bower

Theresa RebeckTheresa Rebeck is a gifted writer. Though she is best known for her plays, many of which present a contemporary and often humorous view of relationships, Rebeck has also written successfully for television, film and literature. With writing credits that include “L.A. Law,”Third Watch,” “Law and Order,” the films Harriet the Spy, Gossip and the currently circulating Seducing Charlie Barker, two novels (the most recent of which was published this past May) and a vast repertoire of plays, Rebeck has proven herself a force to be reckoned with. In 2003, she was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for a play she co-wrote called Omnium Gatherum; her play Mauritius also ran on Broadway at the Biltmore Theatre in 2007. Rebeck, who resides year-round in Brooklyn and maintains a summer home in the quiet community of Dorset, Vermont, will be bringing her latest work, The Novelist, to the Dorset Theatre Festival stage from August 18th-29th, to round out this year’s festival.

The Novelist revolves around a weekend encounter between a novelist and his embittered actor son, whose volatile relationship is exacerbated by the appearance of a cunning young female assistant. Holding hints of Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull, the play explores a family dynamic that’s fueled by narcissism, in a way that’s both bitingly comical and touching. The show offers an all-star cast, including renowned actor, writer and director, Michael Cristofer.

In a recent interview, Rebeck shared with us some of her feelings about the play, the history of its previous incarnation and the role of women in the arts.

The Free George: The show you’re doing at the Dorset, The Novelist, is actually the reworking of a play called The Butterfly Collection, which was produced in 2000. Can you talk a little bit about the changes that the script has undergone since then?
Theresa Rebeck:
It’s been a very interesting process, because I wrote the original script ten years ago, and so it does on some level feel like I’m rewriting somebody else’s script, because there’s so much distance there. But structurally there are a lot of things that stayed the same and a bunch of things that changed. It’s so organic at this point…It’s sort of like Eccentricities of a Nightingale turned into Summer and Smoke, so it’s a new play that’s coming out of an old play.

A lot of things have changed. It is about this family, and within the story, there is a young writer and an older writer, a writer at the beginning of her career and one at the end of his career. But things have changed radically in ten years around fiction and novels. A lot now revolves around the internet and blogging. That wasn’t in the air then, and it’s been kind of wonderful to work with. The difference between these two writers, around what writing is, is even vaster now. Things like that, like time itself, have really informed the restructuring of the play.

The NovelistTFG: What propelled you to rewrite the piece? We know there was some controversy around The Butterfly Collection, when it ran ten years ago that was propagated by a misogynistic review in The New York Times, but was that the actual catalyst for revisiting the play?
Well, everyone knew at the time that it was a piece that had a kind of retarded thing happen to it. A lot of people said to me, “you really have to save this play,” but I couldn’t get anyone to help me save it. It wasn’t until three years ago when Celise Kalke, she’s one of the literary people at the Alliance, said to me, “Well, if you want to revisit this play, why don’t you tell people you’re really revisiting it.” It was her idea that if you do more work on the play, people will be more interested.

There’s a long history of plays that go through this kind of double birth, and this play is going to be one of them. That’s the way I have to look at it. Ten years ago, the story of that play was that it had this crazy thing happen to it, and it looked like it was going to disappear. I also had other people say to me, “Why don’t you turn it into a novel?” It’s so clearly a fascinating story, and a lot of my best work is in it. And then when I started presenting it to people, really wonderful artists started coming out of the woodwork and I thought, yeah, this is a play that deserves a sturdy life.

TFG: We know you don’t want to go too much into what happened then, but would you be willing to talk a little bit about your experiences as a female playwright and the obstacles you’ve come up against, because it’s pretty important.
Well at the time, what was truly shocking about what happened was the overt misogyny of the discussion, and the entire community was really upset by it, which I talk about in that speech [click here to read the Art in New York speech]. And I did get a lot of support from people who were very shocked. And it’s something that Julia Jordan has introduced, the facts of the numbers in regards to gender bias, in the past few years. A lot of people are finally saying we’ve got to stop pretending that this isn’t a problem. It’s very much a problem, and I’m someone who very publicly has been sort’ve assaulted on gender levels that in ways are inappropriate.

TFG: It seems like feminism is almost a bad word in our society.
I think people have been saying that, except now that Sarah Palin is tossing it around, you think, well maybe it’s coming back. If Sarah Palin is claiming that she’s a feminist, then it’s clearly not such a bad thing anymore. [laughs]

I was in college around the late 70s and early 80s. When I graduated, we were all told that it was a new world, and that women’s voices were being welcomed, and it was a shock to me to come out of the university system into a culture that was so blatantly misogynistic, which I do think show business is, and people have said to me over the years, “Don’t talk about it.” Men don’t want to talk about it and women want to talk about it, and now everybody’s talking about it, which I think is good.

TFG: That seems to be a major issue in this country, but why do you think other countries are more progressive in terms of the roles of women?
I don’t know. I think it’s one of the tragedies of America that it’s got these kinds of blind spots. I do think that we’re missing so much talent. Some of the best minds and the best writers and best thinkers are being overlooked on the basis of their gender. Some part of me wonders if it has something to do with the corporate structure that’s taken over this country so thoroughly. Corporations tend to be about their own power system, and within corporate power systems, there’s a lot of jockeying for position, and this was my experience when I worked in Hollywood—that the jockeying for position leaves the mediocre guys looking for who they can keep down, and the ones they go after are the girls. So that gender plays into Machiavellian politics in a way that is complicated and sinister and rarely studied.

TFG: Part of the problem seems to be that women tend to feed into this male dominant mentality as well, and we can at times be our own worst enemy, so how do you propose changing that viewpoint for women?
It seems to me that when there’s inequities built into the power structure that everyone plays into them. Sometimes people do say to me “but a woman did that,” and I think, women are misogynistic too. And I don’t know why that’s such a surprise. Jews can be Anti-Semites, women can be misogynistic. It’s sort of startling to me that we’re surprised by that, when the world doesn’t accommodate really simplistic equations.

One of the things that did happen these past few years, and I do really give a lot of credit to Julia Jordan for the work that she started doing at New Dramatists around this issue, because she became a great community organizer for us. This spring I had this experience where all the women playwrights and theatre artists were once again completely overlooked by the awards….completely overlooked except for one person, Annie Baker won an Obie, and everybody else was completely shut out. So, me and Marsha Norman, Julia Jordan, Tim Sanford and Gary Garrison, the Executive Director of the Dramatists Guild, we got together and created a women in theatre award that we called The Lilies, and it was an enormously powerful event for everybody. We did it at Playwright’s Horizons, and the place was packed, and a lot of great women were honored.

Everybody got an award, there were no nominations, no losers, there were only winners, and we really reconceived the structure of award giving in New York and created a truly celebratory event. And at the heart of it was me and Julia and Marsha. There was such an enormous joy in the community that three women had stepped forward and done this for ourselves and each other. I really think that women are just starting to understand how to organize ourselves.

TFG: That’s an interesting point—that we’re just starting to understand how to organize ourselves. It seems part of what’s resulted in the past comes from the way women have been conditioned.
A lot of very interesting things got phrased while we were putting The Lilies together. We were, at one point, interested in naming them after Wendy Wasserstein. And some of the people involved in the Wasserstein Estate didn’t want anything to do with this, because they were afraid that we were going to be a bunch of angry harpies, who were mad because we’ve been overlooked. So I thought, we’re not going to engage in that. So then we called them The Lilies after Lillian Hellman, who really was a tough, old broad and a great writer, and I’m really glad we did that.

But you know she is famous for saying “You may call me a woman and you may call me a playwright, but you may not call me a woman playwright,” and there is a world of trouble and complexity in that statement.

In fact, at the beginning of my career, a lot of people said to me, “don’t let them categorize you as a woman playwright,” mostly men said that. My mentor said to me, “don’t let them ghettoize you,” and I was not sure what that meant, that was a good 20 years ago. It seemed like a very old fashioned opinion at that time, because I thought, in my naïveté, what’s wrong with being a woman playwright? I am a woman playwright, what’s wrong with that? Then cut to 20 years later, I understand what he’s talking about. It’s extraordinary to me how tenacious that kind of urge to dismiss women playwrights has been. Now, having said that, I do think we’re shaking things up.

Theresa RebeckTFG: You think things are changing now?
I do. I think Julia’s very cautious and is so knowledgeable about all this stuff. I have to say, a lot of people give me all this credit for being an advocate for women playwrights, and I do advocate for them, and I do feel that this is a travesty—honestly it’s a joke. The level of stupidity around this discussion just continues to alarm me. That’s all true. Having said that, I did avoid it for a long time. I was afraid, and I didn’t want to be the poster child for women playwrights. I was hiding from this, and it wasn’t until I finally decided for myself to move forward, because I was so marked by the way people discussed my work, by the way the critical discussion was closing around my plays. It was so clouded and perverted by this kind of misunderstanding of what a “woman playwright” is.

Sometimes I get the craziest reviews, where people say to me, “What are they talking about?” And I say, “I don’t know?” And that happened so many times, that finally when I was asked to do the Art in New York speech this spring, they told me I could do whatever I wanted. And I thought, I don’t know how to talk about anything else. So, on some level I was created by the system. I have not been a very courageous spokesperson until recently, because I didn’t want this job. Now there’s no way to avoid it, because of my history.

TFG: You had mentioned in your speech that in 1918 there were actually more plays being staged that were being written by women than there are now. That’s pretty fascinating.
Yeah. It is. That was also one of Julia’s statistics.

Something else too is that when questions were raised about representation of minority writers in the theatrical community, rightly people rushed to address it. There was a lot of great energy in the community about wanting to invite minority voices in, and I think that was correct and powerful, and some unbelievably great writing has been supported because of that. Wonderful writers have gotten the support they needed and are important American playwrights now. But when the same questions were raised around women writers, the level of hostility to the question was astonishing, and we’re still dealing with it. And what I find interesting is, why we are so able to address the issue around minority writers, and so hostile regarding questions around women writers?

I really believe that if you take that energy and vision, which supported really important American writers, and apply it to questions around women writers, the same thing would happen, you’d see an explosion of really serious talent and relevance. The other thing I start to really question is how relevant a theatre can be that is so closed around questions of gender, which is one of the big questions of the survival of the planet at this moment in time.

TFG: Absolutely. Kind of a case in point would be the 2008 nomination race between Clinton and Obama. Hillary ran into some of that as well.
Absolutely she did, that’s well documented. That was another thing that happened in the past couple of years that really raised the question again in a powerful way. It was so ugly what was being said, that you had to say, this is completely inappropriate.

TFG: So what do you think about Kathryn Bigelow being the first woman to win the Academy Award for Best Director for The Hurt Locker?
The thing that was great about that moment is that it raises the question. But on a certain level, I still keep thinking, come on, one in 85 years, and we’re making such a big deal out of it? I mean, I don’t know, I don’t work a lot in film, but the numbers are dreadful, truly dreadful. And sometimes I get very frightened by what I see out there in the culture, and I know because it’s being created by such a phallocentric and really clubby group of guys out there. And I want my culture to be better [laughs].

I have a son and a daughter, and I don’t want them looking at these stories and thinking, why are girls just sex objects? Why are we still at this place? It just seems horrifying to me, and I don’t want my children to have to struggle within these ridiculous, constraining stereotypes, and I do think they’re perpetrated by the studios and a kind of corporate mentality that is not really interested in anything except…I don’t know, there’s something really pornographic about it all that really upsets me.

TFG: Along those lines, there’ve only been four women who have been nominated for Best Director, including Kathryn Bigelow. Barbra Streisand has been very adamant about recognition for female directors, yet the Academy Awards just seems to ignore this.
I’ve served on some awards committees. It does make a difference having women on these committees who are committed to raising these questions. Honestly, when we decided to do the Lillies, the thing that was truly remarkable to me was how many men in the community rushed toward wanting to support this. So it felt like it wasn’t the boys against the girls, which I thought was an enormously important thing to know about this discussion, that in the community of artists, men and women are on the same page.

I said to a friend of mine recently that I sort’ve feel like culture is a projection of the minds of people in power, like when The New York Times tells me what is important art. And I go and look at it, and I don’t get it. And then there are things I think are really wonderful that The New York Times just dismisses. Then I start to question things like history, is history a projection of the power structure? And you know that Howard Zinn obviously would say yes, so I do think that’s more what it is than anything, that there seems to be something in power structure that’s extremely uncomfortable with gender.

TFG: The statistics you talk about in your speech are pretty harrowing as well.
They are. There’s this 17 percent number that everything seems to stick around, that the numbers of women don’t seem to get past—across science, academia, playwriting, and in fact in film, you don’t even get up that high. It’s something like eight percent of screenplays are written by women. That means 92 percent are created by men. So, you can’t look at these numbers and think that’s not a distortion; that is a distortion.

TFG: What advice would you offer a young, female playwright who’s just starting their career?
I have always been an advocate for taking a step back. Don’t always shoot for big productions at big theaters; shoot for a good local production. Grassroots theatre is some of the most powerful theatre out there.

The thing abut being a theatre artist is that you have to work with actors and directors to see your work done, to get any better at it. I think that’s part of the reason that we’ve lost a lot of women playwrights over the years, because if you can’t get your work done, then you can’t develop it as an artist in the theatre; you can’t do it by yourself. You can’t keep writing plays and putting them in the drawer and get any better. They have to move into the hands of actors and directors, which is what was so electrifying about what Dina said [Dina Janis, Artistic Director of the Dorset Theatre Festival]. I was having trouble finding someone who would take this on. People were very frightened by the texture of the misfire ten years ago, that it was politically controversial. And Dina just fell in love with the play.

The NovelistTFG: She fell in love with it immediately?
She did. And it’s very exciting what she’s doing with the Dorset Theatre Festival. Years ago it was known internationally as a place where new and exciting work was done, and she wants to bring that aspect of the project back into its life.

So I would say to young writers, just start smaller and other things will come out of that. Be sure you get your work done, and if that means doing it in a small out of the way place, so what, you’ll still get great audiences. Theatre is local, theatre is always local.

TFG: Where did you first start out with your plays?
I worked at this really small theatre in New York called Alice’s Fourth Floor, that was run by a couple women for three or four years, and it was a beautiful, crazy little place to do work. I also worked at Naked Angels, where we did these one-act festivals. I did a lot of one-act festivals, and then I worked at HB Studios. And sometimes I go up and I work at the Lark, because they’re doing some small producing now in developmental forms.

TFG: You mentioned that the Lark basically saved you when all of this was going on.
Yeah. They did, they very much did. The thing that’s great about the Lark is that it stays so focused on art and artists. So much of our culture is infected by celebrity and who’s hot, what the trend is. And at that level, distortions creep in, and it’s not about the work as much as it is about subversion.

TFG: You also have a vacation home in Dorset, and you run a writer’s colony here.
Yeah, we spend a lot of time here. I have two kids, so we come up here for summers. It’s too hot in New York. I run the Theresa Rebeck Writer’s Colony once a year up here, and I invite eight writers to come up for a week, and we all write and read each other’s stuff and talk about art.

TFG: How long have you been doing that for?
Three years. Every now and then I have somebody new, like this year my friend Susanna Sonnenberg came up, she’s a non-fiction writer, so that was a new kind of experience, but mostly we work on theatre, everyone’s a playwright. Rajiv Joseph came up here, and Ronan Noone as well. We work on our plays, we read each other’s stuff, and we get to act a little bit. At the end of the summer, everybody comes back and we’ll do readings of scenes for the community, but this year we’re going to do two full readings of new plays that have been written here.

Read our review of The Novelist during its run at Dorset Theatre Festival.

The Novelist runs August 18th through August 29th at the Dorset Theatre Festival, located at Cheney Road (off Route 30) in Dorset, VT. Cast includes: Mary Bacon, Liam Craig, Michael Cristofer, Kathryn Grody, Jennifer Ikeda and Stephen Barker. Directed by Jeremy B. Cohen. The show will premiere at the festival. Though it will have full production values, it will continue to be workshopped throughout the run. Performances are at 8pm Wednesday-Friday; 8:30pm on Saturday; and 3pm and 8pm Sunday and Wednesday, Aug. 25. Tickets are $42-$37 (12 and younger free); call 802-867-2223, or visit

–Monica Sirignano and Dave Bower are Publishers of The Free George.

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