Interview with Playwright Theresa Rebeck
By David Gardner
David Gardner: How did The Understudy come about?
Theresa Rebeck: I had been asked to write a monologue or a short one-act for a fundraiser at Playwright’s Horizons, and I wrote this monologue that was pretty crazy — it went a lot of different places. But there was something about it that I liked: you didn’t know who this person was, you didn’t really know what was going on, and that became the seed of the opening monologue for The Understudy. And the confusion, the sort of mystery around it — are people there, or are they not there in the house — was built into that moment. And when I decided that it was an understudy rehearsal and that he would be the understudy, I then had to come up with what’s the play. And I’ve also had a life-long fascination for Kafka: I love his work, and I felt like the kind of mysterious, you know, surreal tragedy of his work could echo in a comedic way. That’s what I was interested in — could the things that were at stake tragically in the play being rehearsed be turned upside down and remain the same existential issues, only presented in a comedic way in the play that held the other play. Who is running the show here, and what does it mean to be human, and why are we so out of control of our lives?
And that there are these mysterious forces out there that seem ever further away, but that, moment-to-moment, we experience a complete loss of control over our minute-to-minute reality. And it’s expressed in a totalitarian way in the Kafkaesque universe, but in our universe it’s the capitalistic system and the way power moves around, you know, storytelling in these corporate ways, and in the currency of celebrity, which is so enormous now. So that I felt like the powers that be that were making decisions that affected the tangible reality of these two actors and the stage manager would be—they weren’t, like, the guy in the castle, or the judge, or the guard, they weren’t those people—they were, like, the movie star who was careless about how he threw his power around, or the producers, or the director. Or the whole notion of how capitalism holds art.
You know, I’d read everything Kafka’d ever written, and I’ve read all the— I’ve read biographies of him, I’ve read his autobiographical writings. I know a lot about Kafka, from a long time ago. My understanding of Kafka has matured over time. I am so moved by, not just the beauty and the strangeness of the work, but the beauty and the strangeness of him. If you read the biographical writings, when people talk about him, they talk about what a striking person he was, and that he was very kind-hearted, and someone with real happiness in him, and loved the theater. And I feel like The Understudy is a kind-hearted play in that, it’s about love, on a certain level. You fall in love with these guys who are falling in love with Kafka. There’s a great affectionate center to this kind of nutty play that I think comes from Kafka’s spirit.
DG: Did you envision this as a three-person play?
TR: I don’t recall making a conscious choice only to have three people in it. Mostly what I was conscious of was that I was writing a comedy.
DG: Do you have a specific thing that you hope that an audience member would leave feeling or thinking, after seeing a production of The Understudy?
TR: Sometimes people just have a great time, and that’s enough. Other times, people are filled with curiosity about Kafka, and you know, different aspects of it cause people to think. At one point someone commented about my work that it’s not political. And I thought, well, it’s always about culture, and I see culture as being political. I mean, when we were doing the play at the Roundabout, with this whole subplot about movie stars on Broadway, practically right across the street was A Steady Rain, with Daniel Craig and Hugh Jackman. And now this season I have a couple plays that look like they could be going to Broadway, but all I’m hearing is, can you land a movie star? And I do find that disheartening.
DG: Why do you write comedy, in general?
TR: Well because I’m funny. That was a discovery that I when I was young. And I find comedy beautiful. And maybe that’s part of it, is I really do, I find it extraordinarily beautiful when people laugh. And that, if you can have a beautiful scene and a laugh, why wouldn’t you do that? And I also think that comedy is—that if tragedy is about death, then comedy is about redemption, that comedy isn’t less than tragedy. It’s bigger than tragedy. That’s what I think.
DG: So that last scene, in The Understudy, when Harry and Jake are dancing, it becomes so serious—
TR: Yes, I think the whole play is serious, but I, I think—yes, I think it’s beautiful, I think that they engage in the beauty of art. I think that they enter the art for its own sake. And that there’s joy in that, and that joy is the stuff of comedy. I think that comedy—especially when there are those huge laughs—suggests to the audience that there is such a thing as communal joy. I think that’s why so many traditional comedies end in marriage, because marriage is a moment of communal joy in those situations. And I think that that’s what several hundred people laughing at the same time is about, is about communal joy. Which is why I don’t like comedy that’s about nothing. I really see it as a big thing and deeply felt—you know, my plays tend to be emotionally large. You know, they’re not trivial, you know?
DG: You did your graduate work on Victorian melodrama: does that factor in, because that’s all about big emotions?
TR: I think so. The thing is, I like story. And I feel that story rises out of character, and that character and story is what really people go to the theater for. I like it when there’s an intellectual component to things, I think that’s necessary, but I think that theater is a lesson in empathy. That basically people want to see themselves up there, they want to identify with somebody on the stage, and that they also really appreciate a galloping narrative.
And I also believe in a musicality of language. You know, I do find myself annoyed when I can’t hear a song in the language. And that’s something I’ve just realized recently, that I like there to be a sound to it, you know, there’s that ding to it where you go, “Ah, that’s it.”
DG: What do you say to playwrights who are just starting out, who are still trying to figure out the form, aren’t really sure what they can do with it yet?
TR: I’m a big stick-with-the-basics girl. I think people should understand how to build a character and express character, how to complete an action, what obstacles are, pay attention, make sure the sound of your dialogue is good. What else do I like, you know, story, how story rises out of character. Like a character has a need and an obstacle, and what that character’s gonna do to get what he or she wants, and then how the other characters fold into that, and what their needs are. I think all of that is really the nuts and bolts of it, and that, if you’ve got all that, then you can do anything else. I mean, I look at like, Endgame or Waiting for Godot, which are truly Expressionistic weird experiences, but their character work and the language and the action and the forward motion is all in place. I just don’t think it’s— I think that too many young writers are—there’s sort of something in the air, still, from postmodernism, that’s all about being unconventional, and that people are thinking about that too much and that a play can’t exist without those building blocks.
DG: When you were just starting out as a playwright, what helped you get through the difficult times?
TR: I am a big believer in going and taking a step down and working for no money with people you, you know, doing one-acts that are small. I was in a lot of one-act festivals when I was just starting out. The Naked Angels theater company had these things called the Issues Projects, and I used to do them all the time. And I also was a part of HB Studios, and we would have a one-act festival every year. And I had some of the greatest experiences of my life, was working on those – minute play, a very short rehearsal – and some truly beautiful work was done. And that kept me believing in what I was doing, in the essence of the thing itself. When you get confused is when you’re thinking about where you fit in, like, how come so-and-so is having a big play on Broadway and I’m not. It’s hard, it’s very noisy, the show business culture is very noisy with envy and competitiveness. And that is a distraction. But I like writing, you know: I find it a pleasant thing to do, and working with other artists who I believe in, and taking joy out of all those things. Those are the things of our life that give us joy! You know? And they don’t cost anything.
DG: If you could have been anything else, what would you be?
TR: A police detective.
TR: Well yeah because somebody asked me that question a long time ago and I couldn’t think of anything, and I gave a really lame answer. And then I went home and I thought, “That’s not the right answer, what is the right answer?” And then I thought about it for a long time, and it was partially because of working on all that crime drama in television for a while. Now that I really did enjoy, was thinking about crime and finding— and detectives, and I think there’s something sort of powerful about that image of a person who is unearthing the core of what happened here. And that it’s an act of justice, that it’s a searching for justice for the victim, but it’s also a searching for truth of human behavior. And I think that human behavior is truly mysterious, you know, but can be understood.
David Gardner is a Ph.D. candidate in English at the University of Pennsylvania.