15 minutes with . . .
In 2008, the Pasadena Playhouse produced Mauritius by Theresa Rebeck. The play premiered in Boston, opened on Broadway at the Manhattan Theatre Club in 2007 and this year ranked among the Ten Most Produced Plays in regional theater, according to Theater Communications Group. Playhouse press describes it as a mystery "filled with scams and double-crosses. . . . Two half-sisters vie for the rights to a recently inherited (and dazzlingly valuable) stamp collection [and] come face-to-face with a couple of machine-gun mouthed con artists who ensnare them in their own brand of beguiling trickery."
Mauritius marked the playwright's first Broadway production, and first Broadway hit, and coincided with the publication of her first novel, Three Girls and Their Brother last year. Three Girls did very well and is now out in paperback. This is the second time Rebeck has had a script on the most produced list. Bad Dates – a one-woman monologue written for Julie White (The Little Dog Laughed, Taper's Expecting Isabel, SCR's Dinner with Friends) – was on the list in 2005-06. We spoke to Rebeck by telephone the Friday before Mauritius opened in Pasadena, directed by Jessica Kubzansky and featuring Ray Abruzzo, John Billingsley, Kirsten Kollender, Monette Magrath and Chris L. McKenna. [Read the Theatertimes review.]
CRISTOFER GROSS. Have you thought what it was about Mauritius that landed it on Broadway? Is it the play? It's path to New York? Do you scratch your head and say,"Why this one?"
THERESA REBECK. Honestly, it's hard to ask a playwright that, don't you think? The other play that I wrote that had a big life was Bad Dates, and I was surprised. I mean, I believe in all my work, so it's always a surprise when one breaks out to catch the imagination like that. But I do think Mauritius has a great appeal for audiences. More and more I believe in plays that speak to the audience strongly on many levels. I'm trying to write plays that are funny, psychologically complicated, and have musicality in the language and a sort of intellectual rigor. I'm not somebody who likes plays that are meant only for a small or elite audience. I'm trying to hit it all: reaching the audience on all those levels. And I think Mauritius succeeded in doing that.
That actually was where I was looking with that question – the role of the audience in gauging if a play achieves its artistic self-worth. You call your play The Scene "a perverse retelling of Of Human Bondage," and I thought of that when I read a related Maugham quote just this morning: "Let no on think that entertainment is a cheap and shoddy thing, let him leave such a belief to the most snobbish and vulgar of the highbrows; entertainment is a form of pleasure and pleasure is in itself good."
REBECK. I think that is a thrilling quote. That's something I deeply believe – the truth of that statement. I especially believe it for the American theater and I especially believe it now. I feel that there have been times recently where people have been a little above the audience and I don't see that as a value. I believe in reaching people. You know there was one point where someone asked me what I was trying to do, and I said, "Man, I'm trying to hit it down the middle, like Charlie Chaplin or like Charles Dickens. I'm trying to create art that entertains." I believe in the power of an audience and a play being present to each other. I had one crazy review of Mauritius in which the critic said something about "the crowd-pleasing ambition." I mentioned this in the article that I wrote for the L.A. Times. I thought, why shouldn't I aim for crowd-pleasing? Why shouldn't it be? I think this is a conversation that is in the air now. But it's always been in the air around my plays.
Like the prejudice that an attractive person can't also be intelligent. As if they're mutually exclusive.
REBECK. Right. Right.
On the other hand, I want to jump to your play Our House, opening at Playwrights Horizons this month [March 2009] after its premiere in Denver last year [the play premiered at Denver Center Theatre in January 2008]. It broadens the conversation, making the case that when news delivery embraces entertainment so it is more attractive to greater numbers of viewers, it's a dangerous thing . . .
REBECK. I certainly am arguing that.
That's the point you're making.
REBECK. Yeah, it's one of the arguments. I became very concerned about the overlap of entertainment and news and the kind of crazy perversion of the word "reality" around Reality Television, and it was around the moment when a news anchor was named host for a reality show. I think it happened maybe ten years ago. There are many other aspects of this troubling development in play but that was the catalyst for the play . . .
I thought about it last night while watching a little Anderson Cooper reporting on the Narco violence in Texas. Maybe having had training in journalism and work experience in theater makes me sensitive, but there seems to be a lot of news these days that seeks the most dramatic narrative in a story, whether or not that serves the mission of reporting, and whether we as a society are responding to events as viewers of drama, or citizens needing to be better informed.
REBECK. The discussions get very surreal very quickly, and I've been working on it with director Michael Mayer, and the theater keeps asking when I will have the final script. But I keep saying you'll have it in previews. Something that I found completely strange and am now trying to work into the play concern what happened in Mumbai. We spent four days watching this siege and no one could ever tell me why these people were doing this. I mean, were they just mother fuckers who wanted to be on TV? And we're giving them the only thing they want, which is to be on TV while they slaughter people? Every so often I would say to my husband, "Can we get some info on Kashmir on here? I mean, surely that's what this is about, right?" And, no, we never did.
And, to your point about theater being popular, if "art" is maintained in creating "entertainment," then it's not a compromise. But in the competitive world of television news, too many reporters either don't understand what journalism is or accept that it must shift its weight to providing TV drama in order to build the viewership that earns advertising. So they appeal to an audience that is increasingly conditioned to want drama, and want thrills.
REBECK. Yes, and I do think there's an overlap between a kind of contempt for the audience that would have us producing plays that nobody really wants to see, and television's version that people are just so stupid that you have to provide them with complete insanity. I mean you look at TV and you think that's just insanity. There's no wisdom or knowledge. [Laughter] There's nothing except drama and events and sensation. Every now and then I do write pilots for television to support myself and get my health insurance points and my kids have health insurance, and after I wrote my last pilot I was actually told "this is too smart for our audience." And I thought, how do you know that? I mean, just because you're constantly feeding them dreck. Those of us who occasionally try to write for television wonder, well, why can't there be more "Battlestar Gallactica"s? Why does everyone act like that's just some sort of crazy thing? That was a big hit, and I loved that show and I thought it was one of the most intelligent things, like "The Sopranos" or like "NYPD Blues'" first two or three years. You know those things were successful. So why are we acting like you have to do something stupid. It just doesn't add up.
Another facet of this debate is the shift from paper newspapers to online newspapers, and the fear by many in the industry that Internet delivery of news reduces 'accidental discovery' of information readers aren't looking for. When readers open a broadsheet on their laps, there are four or five stories other than the one they are interested in. An Internet search may bring up just one story. However, you tell the story of discovering the world of Mauritius, which is rare stamps, by following a little cursor hand down a rabbit hole of links. So, the Internet certainly broadened your interests in a very useful way.
REBECK. I think so. I find it sometimes very terrifying. I landed on a Youtube thing once where all these people were responding with vulgar and vicious and I found that very, very disturbing. On the other hand, something like Slate, or Huffington Post, or The Guardian online I find really, really intelligent and immediate and complex writing about things that very much. I'm not sure how the Internet is going to change things?
Your first novel, Three Girls and their Brother, is available through eBook sales at Random House and Amazon.com. Has that contributed a decent percentage to sales?
REBECK. I actually try and stay away from those things because they'll drive me crazy . . .
You mean sales stats?
REBECK. Yeah, stuff like that, I mean it's like reading reviews: you just ignore it, or it could make you stop writing for years.
Well, it looks like it did well.
REBECK. Yeah, yeah. The book did really, really well. It's coming out in paperback in a couple of weeks and it also was named one of the 10 best first novels by and it won the ALA Award. I'm really fortunate. I'm very grateful.
I see that you won an Edgar Award for mystery writing for an episode of "NYPD Blue." Something Doug Hughes [Mauritius director on Broadway] said about your writing of that play, that made me think of the mystery writer's craft. Hughes said, "It's a great achievement, to earn an ending. And Theresa does something that I believe is the 10-point degree of difficulty with this script, which is turn it around in the last 30 seconds, there is some astonishment offered. And that is an extravagantly deft thing to do." Who does that? Hitchcock does that. Billy Wilder does that. It's earned. It's unsentimental. And it's richly satisfying. It's an accomplishment."
Is your ability to hold on to the audience's attention somehow akin to the mystery writer's skill?
REBECK. I do think so. I think it's something that has, honestly, developed over time in working in the theater. Because there's something about holding the tension of the story. I've learned a lot . . . I am someone who, whenever someone wants more exposition, says, you can't really want more exposition . . . .
[laugh] You think you want it . . .
REBECK. You think you want it: you really don't want it. The audience is not going to care, and it's going to come out of that character's mouth like a load of bricks, you know. And so more and more what I've become attuned to is this idea of forward motion. I feel like things must move forward at an almost breakneck speed. And, actually, in fiction my editor and my agent have both said to me, you know, it doesn't have to move forward quite that fast. Slow it down. But I think that's something that has become second nature to me. It started in working for television because television is very much about forward motion, but the more I learned to do it in the theater, the more it felt like a muscle. So I think it's as much about the muscle of moving the story ahead because it's my belief that the audience will follow you. And I think that I really believe that they're considerably smarter than people think they are.
Given this popularity and so many productions – at least nine regional productions according to TCG – have you come to terms with not being able to see every production or know the actors or even know the director?
REBECK. I can't do it. I just physically can't do it. I wish I could, and mostly because I think there is enormous generosity in actors and directors that the work is so much about making yourself present to each other, and to the writing, and to the directing that whoever your actors are, there is real joy in rehearsal when the playwright shows up. They really want to talk to you. And I like to make myself available to them. But I'm just not able to do it and also do my work. Sometimes I go. I have a long relationship with Hartford Stage and I always try to get up there and see what those guys are doing. They do a really good job with my stuff and their audiences know me now. I feel it's a beautiful thing when a playwright is part of a community. The audiences are very excited to see you and talk to you and hear what it's like to be a playwright, which is still a curious thing to be. Maybe now more than ever it's a curious thing to be.
So you won't be out in California.
REBECK. I don't think so, I'm trying to but I have Our House going up shortly at Playwrights, and there's something so reckless and immediate about the writing of that play that is going on right now, and casting is finishing up and then we move into rehearsals. I don't know. I would love to see it.
Well, you owe it to Our House to give it full attention. I hope that play has an impact.
REBECK. I hope so, too. Well, it's my job to see that it does [laughs].