'Smash' Creator Theresa Rebeck on What Makes Great Entertainment
Photos by Amy Lombard


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'Smash' Creator Theresa Rebeck on What Makes Great Entertainment

Theresa Rebeck has written for everything from Broadway to the big screen. We sat down with the writer—her own sort of triple threat—to talk about her life, career, and new novel.

In her home office, the Pulitzer Prize-nominated playwright—and creator of the cult hit Smash—Theresa Rebeck holds a figurine of small, anthropomorphized bears, all seated around a miniature table. The male animals look like TV writers; one even holds a pencil to his mouth.

"This is my table of dudes," Theresa says. "It expresses my love and terror of the whole experience."

"Did you use that on Smash?" I ask.


"You bet I did."

Although Smash gained a large online following for its musical sequences and plotline about the backstage drama of a Broadway musical production, NBC executives fired Theresa after the first season wrapped in 2012. The news sparked a series of nasty articles blaming the writer for the TV drama's production problems. Within a year of her departure, Theresa opened a play, Dead Accounts, on Broadway. Smash's second season ratings tanked, and NBC cancelled the show at the season's close.

Now, Theresa is back again with a new book—her third novel, called I'm Glad About You. The book follows her traditional motif: exploring the subconscious world of performers. (Smash charts two actresses battle for the role of Marilyn Monroe, and Theresa's earlier one-act, The Understudy, examines three actors at different levels of success.)

The new novel follows the aftermath of a Midwestern ingénue named Alison becoming infamous in New York. As she becomes well known, Alison finds her life unexpectedly interwoven with Kyle's—a doctor from her hometown who hates his wife.

"I was drawn to the subject the way Chekhov was drawn towards writing about actresses. It becomes something where you know the psychology [of performers]," Theresa says. "For the past 20 years, I've had a lot of plays done in New York and I've done a lot of television. It's the scene I swim in, so breaking out of that and writing about something else is actually challenging for me."


I was drawn to the subject the way Chekhov was drawn towards writing about actresses.

In Theresa's hands, Alison and Kyle's serendipitous story becomes both a juicy, funny page-turner, and a serious literary novel that examines the complexities of love and fame. " The lure of the power is something that I have not seen people resist, and perhaps we should," Theresa says. "I think that that's what this is about—that Allison keeps kidding herself as she moves ever more toward the center of the maelstrom."

Theresa herself has lived close to the heat, but she lacks the pretense most people surrounded by actors, directors, and agents have.

This is probably why she lives in a Park Slope, Brooklyn, brownstone instead of a mansion in Beverly Hills. In the living room, The Simpsons boxed sets and a Despicable Me 2 DVD sit on a shelf. The only sign of Theresa's career in Hollywood is a copy of Disney War—James B. Stewart's account of Disney corporate drama.

"I read [ Disney War] by the pool [at Walt Disney World]," Theresa says. "I was worried I'd be caught!"

Along with working on new plays and screenplays ("I have a lot of different kinds of writing in my head"), Theresa wrote I'm Glad About You in her kitchen one afternoon while her teenage daughter, Cleo, worked on homework. "It's slightly Dickensian at night here. Cleo does her homework there, and I sit in the kitchen."

It's slightly Dickensian at night here.


She says they like working in the kitchen to be close to Theresa's husband, who works in an office one room over. "We like being around him," Theresa says. Then: "Have you met him?"

Wearing a black turtleneck and drinking a coffee with steamed milk, Theresa shows me art in her dining room: a sign that says, "Power is not bigger than the story," and a $50 Van Gogh replica. She bought the painting online from a Chinese factory that duplicates the masters' works. "They caught the brushstroke," she says. "If it's only 50 bucks, you better buy it!"

She keeps the hallmarks of her illustrious career in her stairwell—where posters line the walls—and her third-floor office. The room features exposed brick, a twin-size bed, and a framed Playbill of her Broadway hit, Seminar. She says it was harder to get a play on Broadway than a TV gig, but she mostly wants to talk about her figurines—like the Pharaoh statue her mom bought her, from a scribe in Egypt.

Theresa's parents raised her in Cincinnati, amongst her six siblings. From a young age, she attended Catholic school. "The nuns in my grade school were really scary," she says.

At first, she wanted to become a novelist, but then, she attended a student matinee and fell in love with theatre.

"I found [it] electrifying, and so when I was in high school, I started acting," Theresa says. "I felt like I didn't know how to reconcile those two impulses [of wanting to write novels and act], so I literally thought, Writing and acting? You could be a playwright! I was very young—16—and it was a very clear moment."


I literally thought, Writing and acting? You could be a playwright! I was very young—16—and it was a very clear moment.

For high school, she went to the Ursuline Academy in her hometown. She remembers her nun teachers identifying as liberation topologists. "They were secretly agitating for women's ordination," Theresa recalls. "They were like, 'It's a new time!' and they so believed in us. They were the opposite of what you think of evil nuns—they were just amazing, great believers in [female students]."

The Catholic mystic Richard Rohr preached at the school on Friday nights. His teachings focus on finding your true self, and Theresa absorbed his homilies.

On the weekend, though, her family attended another church. The priests, Theresa remembers, preached that women needed to become moms, schoolteachers, nurses, or nuns. One day, Theresa says, she experienced a revelation: They're telling me to keep my mouth shut and stay in my place. They're kind of stupid, she thought. I do not belong here. This church wants nothing to do with me.

For undergraduate school, Theresa attended the Catholic Notre Dame College. In classes, she remembers boys saying, "I don't understand why a woman deserves an education." The conservatism further alienated her, and she decided to leave the church. She started socializing with an "intellectual underground." While her classmates watched football games, she walked around campus and talked to her friends—who also rejected the school's politics. "It was really sort of haunting," Theresa recalls.


But she still had to interact with conservative students on a daily basis.

In her early 20s, she used these conversations as the inspiration for one of her earliest plays, Sunday on the Rocks. The show is about four female roommates living together in their early adulthood; the conflict stems from one girl deciding to get an abortion against the wishes of her conservative roommate.

"It's a period piece now," Theresa says. "It's kind of ridiculous [that the play's story] is still politically relevant."

She went on to get an MFA in playwriting from Brandeis. After writing plays for small theatres, she scored a gig writing for TV, eventually working for auteur David Milch on NYPD Blue—a cop procedural that set the stage for The Sopranos, Mad Men, and other cable prestige dramas. Every week, the network show added unprecedented depth to crime drama.

You may be writing for television, but by God, it's gonna be great television.

Although Milch developed a reputation for creating a stressful workplace, Theresa credits him as one of her greatest writing teachers.

"You may be writing for television, but by God, it's gonna be great television," she says. In every scene, he instructed her to make sure a character had a motivation, even if they were simply walking down a hallway.

"If you had five people in a scene, everybody had to come in with one intention and leave with something different—it was just the fullest. He sort of innately has a full imagination about what writing can encompass," Theresa says. "I also really liked the work I did on NYPD Blue, and that was a weird environment, but, ultimately, I felt like the shows came out great."


After NYPD Blue, Theresa worked on other TV shows, and worked as a script doctor. She turned in what she remembers as an amazing script for Rosie O'Donnell's Harriet the Spy, but also recalls the director bringing in new writers to rework the film. "She tried to throw out my screenplay, which was truly shocking," Theresa says. "A lot of producers had to come in, so a lot of what is in the final screenplay actually is mine—but it was ugly."

Later, Warner Brothers hired her to write a first draft of Catwoman. She turned in what she describes as a feminist script. According to Theresa the studio first loved her concept—but when they sent the script back to her, several different writers were named on the final draft. She thinks if they had simply shot the original screenplay, it would have been a better film.

"It was one of those things, where it's hard to talk about gender politics, but you can't avoid it," Theresa says. "Warner brothers did not understand quite how to do it, so it kept moving through male execs who didn't quite understand how that might work because it was so terrifying to them."

Earlier in her career, she says, she would always ask her superiors what they wanted. She credits this to her Midwestern upbringing, and I'm Glad About You depicts the dichotomy.

"The other thing I think the book is about is how the Midwest and the coasts don't know how to talk to each other," Theresa says. "The Midwest sees itself as being morally superior to the East Coast, but the East Coast sees itself as being intellectually superior to the Midwest. There's kind of a disdain and non-communication."


In New York, Theresa has experienced people's disdain. The theatre world is gossipy. Theresa has been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for Omnium Gatherum, but insiders are jealous of the work Theresa's done on Broadway, and in TV. She is simultaneously a rich playwright—a true oxymoron—and underrated.

Meanwhile, in Hollywood, television reporters have described her as difficult to work with—even as male writers, like David Milch, are heralded as geniuses while running notoriously tough workplaces.

Theresa has had to say "no," and just focus on the writing, regardless of what other people say about her.

"You know, I have to tell you, there are some people, if asked to complete the sentence, 'Theresa Rebeck is…' they would say, 'stubborn.' I just think that what I'm up to is more complicated than that," Theresa later tells me, in an email. "Also, the ringtone on my phone is ' I get knocked down, and I get up again,'—that Tubthumping [Chumbawamba] anthem. My daughter put it on there."

"You know, I have to tell you, there are some people, if asked to complete the sentence, 'Theresa Rebeck is…' they would say, 'stubborn.' I just think that what I'm up to is more complicated than that"

Right now, when she's in the kitchen with her daughter, Theresa is working on a new indie movie she will write and direct. Bill Pullman and Anjelica Huston—who befriended Theresa while acting in Smash— will star in the film. Its $2.7 million budget is lower than that of previous films Theresa's written—but she loves low-budget indies' creative freedom. "I'm writing novels and I'm directing independent films now," Theresa says. "I've put my time in."

Before she leaves to see a Broadway production of Arthur Miller's A Room with a View, Theresa asks me if I'd like to watch dailies from Of Kings and Prophets. The ABC series retells the Biblical story of Samuel and David; Theresa serves as a co-executive producer—which means she's essentially a high-up staff writer. Watching the footage, she puts her hand over her mouth—the lead actor is so good.

When Theresa starts gushing about an actor, she can go on for minutes. I mention Anjelica Huston, and Theresa begins describing why she's one of the greatest actors of her generation. "I have to tell you when I was working on Smash, they had all the actors doing their thing, but Anjelica Huston got out there, and we were like 'Holy shit!'" Theresa says. "She really does go out there. She's like, chacoom! She has spent her whole life doing this—she was a super model." Theresa sounds like an addict, and that's because she is one.

"I'm addicted to the writing," she says.