Minding the Muse

Theresa Rebeck
Mike Lovett
Theresa Rebeck

A friend once told me, ‘Theresa, the muse is with you,’ says playwright/screenwriter/novelist Theresa Rebeck, MA’83, MFA’86, PhD’89.

“And I think it’s actually true,” Rebeck continues. “The muse is constantly on my shoulder saying, ‘You could write about that. How about writing this?’ One time when someone asked me about this, I said, ‘Yeah, I don’t f*** with the muse!’”

Writing for theater and screen, and writing novels, Rebeck has spawned a cast of characters who range from ruthless treasure seekers to harried single moms, wannabe saints to don’t-wannabe sinners, warring siblings to straying spouses. Jesus, Joan of Arc and Ben Franklin have all made appearances in her work, which is serious yet perversely comic, keeping audiences on their toes.

She’s been successful in all her media. A play she co-wrote was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. She created the TV series “Smash.” Her latest novel, released in February, is collecting praise (“Nobody writes more fiercely and honestly about show business than Theresa Rebeck” begins the cover blurb penned by Erica Jong).
But, early on, the drama muse was the first to beckon the Kenwood, Ohio, native. As a teenage actress and theatergoer, Rebeck fell in love with the idea of writing for the stage. It was the loftiest goal she could imagine.

“Playwrights, in my growing-up years, were public figures, public thinkers, the conscience of America,” she says. “I am not kidding. Arthur Miller was like a god.”

After getting a BA in English at the University of Notre Dame in 1980, Rebeck came to Brandeis, where she earned a master’s in English, followed by an MFA in dramatic writing.

She met her husband, aspiring playwright Jess Lynn, MFA’87, at Brandeis. She also met the late South African dramatist/director Barney Simon. She says he reminded her to look beyond the ego and frenzy of show business, and stay focused. After earning her third degree at Brandeis, a doctorate in Victorian melodrama, she and Lynn set off to live the hard-knock life of starving artists in New York City. Recognition was not long in coming for Rebeck. She signed on with the elite William Morris Agency, and within a year her breakthrough play, “Spike Heels” (with Kevin Bacon and Tony Goldwyn ’82), was in production at New York’s Second Stage. She was a playwright.

If getting started wasn’t hard, the starving-artist part held true. To meet the costs of big-city life, Lynn began stage-managing, and Rebeck took on temporary office work.

“I had a PhD in English literature, and I was being paid $11 an hour,” she recalls with a grimace.

William Morris suggested she consider the more lucrative road of writing for television, so Rebeck put out feelers. Before long, Gary David Goldberg ’66 and Sam Weisman, MFA’73, recruited her for their 1990-91 sitcom “American Dreamer,” which starred Robert Urich as a news correspondent who moves with his children to rural Wisconsin following the death of his wife.

The venture brought Rebeck face to face with a potentially muse-thwarting conundrum. Television encourages “collaborative” writing, removing creative control from the screenwriter and subjecting scripts to groupthink sessions, studio executives and endless meetings. Television also brings financial stability. When “American Dreamer” ended, the small screen continued to offer her gainful employment. What to do?

Rebeck chose not to choose. For more than 25 years, she has navigated the waters of two worlds, theater and television. She writes full-length plays on an average of one a year and has crafted some two dozen shorter plays. Although many were developed in regional venues across the country, 15 full-length plays and at least a dozen one-acters — a huge number for any playwright — have hit the New York stage. Rebeck’s Broadway debut was “Mauritius” (2007), a show about two half sisters struggling for control of a multimillion-dollar stamp collection. “Seminar,” which opened on Broadway in 2011, starred the late Alan Rickman as a disillusioned novelist who strives to pass his cynicism on to his creative-writing students. “Dead Accounts,” her 2012 Broadway comedy starring Norbert Leo Butz and Katie Holmes, focused on a brother, a sister and a $27 million heist.

Rebeck’s many theater awards include the Pulitzer nomination, for the post-9/11 reflection “Omnium Gatherum,” co-written with Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros. In 2010, she received the PEN/Laura Pels International Foundation for Theater award for an American playwright in midcareer.

Meanwhile, she has scripted episodes for nearly a dozen blockbuster TV series, including “LA Law” and “Law and Order: Criminal Intent.” Her work on “NYPD Blue” earned her the Mystery Writers of America’s Edgar Award and two Emmy nominations. In 2011, Steven Spielberg tapped her to create the series “Smash,” which showcased the excitement and heartaches of mounting a Broadway musical, and starred Debra Messing ’90, Anjelica Huston and Katharine McPhee. Rebeck left the show before its second season, and it foundered after her departure.

NOT FOR THE MEEK: Writers have to plumb their characters' dark sides, says Rebeck. To do that, they have to know something about their own.
Mike Lovett
NOT FOR THE MEEK: Writers have to plumb their characters' dark sides, says Rebeck. To do that, they have to know something about their own.

She has also been a screenwriter for a handful of movies, among them “Harriet the Spy” and “Catwoman,” and has begun to try her wings as a film director.

Some observers have taken swipes at Rebeck for her multi­faceted career, referring to her as a TV writer who wants to be a playwright, or pointing to the stage as her nobler calling, implying that television made her a sellout.

Both characterizations are unfair, says Rebeck. “The politics in television can be challenging and frustrating, but it’s a good way for writers to support themselves. In theater, you make less money, but you have more control. You own your copyright. People can’t change your scripts.

“I’ve had some wonderful experiences in television and some really terrifying experiences in the theater,” she adds. “You can’t assume one is good and the other bad. Once when I was working for ‘NYPD Blue’ — we were doing amazing television — somebody implied I had sort of sold out. I looked around at what was playing on the stage, and I realized nothing out there at the time was as good as what we were doing.”

Having had early prose aspirations, too, Rebeck decided a few years back to give novel writing another try. “Three Girls and Their Brother” was published by Random House in 2008. Labeled “a deliciously wicked satire” by People magazine, it told a sometimes comic, ultimately cautionary tale of four wealthy New York teens plucked from relative obscurity and catapulted to instant fame in the worlds of modeling and show business.

Her second Random House novel, “Twelve Rooms With a View” (2010), tells the engaging story of a feisty housecleaner from a New Jersey trailer park who suddenly finds herself and her siblings the possible heirs to a historically significant $11 million apartment on New York’s Upper West Side.

“I’m Glad About You,” released by G.P. Putnam’s Sons this year, recounts the lives of high-school sweethearts who part company to pursue mismatched passions: Alison wants to be a famous Shakespearean actor; Kyle wants to set up international medical clinics for the disadvantaged. When each achieves a sorry parody of the original wish (she’s a sexually objectified actor in erotic TV shows and a failed adventure movie, and he’s a pediatrician in a suburban hell), their friendship keeps them sane — and keeps them apart.

Rebeck, whom Newsweek included in its 2011 list of “150 Fearless Women in the World,” admits she likes to explore her characters’ dark sides (not for nothing did she title one of her plays “Poor Behavior”). In doing so, she confronts meanness, betrayal, greed, treason, murder, the monetization of actors and models, and the exploitation of children. She once told The New York Times, “I’m interested in what drives people to poor behavior. I do believe that there are monsters out there, and that they are monsters.”

Despite her love for her work, Rebeck — who is mother to son Cooper, a Columbia University student, and teenage daughter Cleo — isn’t quick to recommend her career path to others.

“Writing is a heartbreaking profession,” she says. “To be a playwright, you have to stay so pure, and you have to be so honest. You have to face your own demons and your own inadequacies all the time.

“I find I no longer want to teach very much, because I hear myself telling students, ‘If you are going to ruin your life by becoming a writer, you’d better have something to say that is worth ruining your life over.’”

Theresa Pease is a freelance writer who lives in Falmouth, Massachusetts.