Interview with Theresa Rebeck

Working Theater’s Director of Audience & Community Engagement Tricia Patrick interviewed Theresa Rebeck about Dropping Gumballs on Luke Wilson and her NYC directing debut

Gumballs rehearsal

How did you come to direct Dropping Gumballs on Luke Wilson?

I have known Rob a long time. I used to have a small writing colony once a year at my house in Vermont and he came and started working on the play there. We would walk around the hills of Vermont and talk about this play. I admired everything about it from the beginning. I think it is such an absurd and yet very real story. And then it kind of went away for a while. He was working on it for a much larger cast and then over time he started to understand how to do it for a smaller cast. He called me last summer and said he would like to come up and work on it with his cast. I directed a reading of it for him at that time and then Mark came up to see it and it turned out that our schedules worked out so I could do it.

As a famous playwright, what draws you to directing?

I like being in direct relationship to the storytelling of it all. I like actors. I like talking to actors. I like every aspect of the theatrical event. I really like being involved with designers and thinking about the world dimensionally in that way. And I actually started directing because, you know you can’t always get the director you want and I got tired of sitting around and waiting and working out everybody’s schedule. So I started directing and found how I enjoyed everything else. Sometimes when you are a playwright, you basically bring the play and everybody just sort of takes it away from you. And that is no fun. This is much more fun.

So you started directing your own plays to have the agency to get it done, in the way and time frame the that you wanted it done.

Yes, but also a couple of other people at the Alley, Sandy Robbins at the Rep Theater of Delaware, people started saying to me, “you really should be directing.” I was not the only one who had that thought. You know it is not for every playwright. I think a lot of playwrights don’t live in a more social space.  It is a natural task for an introvert and I sort of move between those spaces. Quite frankly the other thing is, I just got lonely. I just got lonely sitting at home writing plays all of the time or writing screenplays and I just thought, this is really no fun. Everybody just gets to go off and have all of fun and I am stuck at home doing all of this work, the writing. And I did not want to do that anymore.

Is that why you started the writing colony?

I certainly believe that playwrights are better when they are in community. And there was one period of my life when I was a playwright where I realized that people don’t really even understand playwrights as part of the community. When you have a play that is being produced you are a little bit of that community at that time, because you are around for table work and you watch it and come back for re-writes and stuff like that. But if a play does well in New York, it is that weird formula– then it gets sent all over the country and they don’t invite you to come and be a part of it. They are just doing the play. I started to really yearn for the model of times past of Moliere, Shakespeare or Sarah Bernhardt where everybody was a part of everything. And I am trying to recreate that.

This is your first time directing for Working Theater. What it is about the mission and values of the company that speaks to you?

I really do believe that theater is for everybody. I like that it is the premise of Working Theater. We are all in this together. Sometimes I worry that theater has gotten too expensive, that it is too corporate, and I feel like the mantra of Working Theater is the opposite of that. It is not a corporate event, it is not something just for rich people or for tourists. It is about creating community of people who love to go to the theater or love to do theater.  

If you could sum up in a few sentences, what is Dropping Gumballs on Luke Wilson about?

Dropping Gumballs on Luke Wilson is about a commercial, directed by the great American documentarian Errol Morris. In which a certain absurdity spins out of control and then reveals many many things about power and the workplace and capitalism and how we value each other as creators. I think it is a beautiful, powerful and heartbreaking play.

Which character do you most identify with?

I most identify with Errol Morris. He is a bit of a monster. He enjoys the intellectual enterprise of storytelling to a vast degree. I identify with that. I also enjoy his sort of psychological clarity about how cruel life can be and he makes no judgement on that. Years ago I wrote a play called “Seminar” that had a really ruthless teacher in the middle of it. Everyone assume I identified with one or the other of the students and I thought no. I identify with the mean, monstrous teacher.  Because I was teaching playwriting a lot and I thought don’t do this unless you can survive the worst psychological torture that you think can come at you because that is what being a playwright is really about. And I feel like this participates a little in that thinking. Errol sees people, sees cruelty, sees pain. He enjoys it a little more than I wish he did. But I certainly admire him.

At this stage in your career what freedoms do you enjoy and what constraints do you face well?

I feel more and more that I only take on jobs that I want to do. I had a friend, Francine Prose, the great American novelist, who said to me at one time when I was still kind of confused about all of this stuff, “Only if the wolf is at the door should you take certain jobs”, and I think that is true. And I admire my younger self for how tough she was and what she was able to do and willing to do to get a foot in the door, to support her family. I really am grateful for all of the freedoms she earned for me, but I am glad that I don’t have to do that anymore and that I can really concentrate on things that I love to do. Like this play. I think it is a beautiful challenge, a funny challenge.

On the other side the constraints are, there are things that I am really curious about and I really want to do that involve directing and collaborating with people I like to collaborate with. And there are still a lot of hoops to be jumped through and I have less patience for the hoop jumping. I just don’t feel like it anymore. And that doesn’t mean that they don’t still expect you to do it. So I do find myself sometimes passing on things because I can’t deal with the politics of it anymore. I am a little more tired of it. I don’t feel like doing more things to earn myself the right to do something else. That doesn’t go away as much as you want it to.

Do you still get the sense of “stay in your lane”?

I do feel like there is a bit of “stay in your lane”. I mean this year I am doing three plays in a row. I am doing “Crimes of the Heart” at the Alley, I am doing this and then I am going up to Dorset to direct one of my own plays, so that feels like a great opportunity. But there is a bit of skepticism, people want us to stay in our lane.

You come from a working class family. In what ways were the arts present while growing up?

Well they weren’t, I have to say. It was a working class Catholic Republican family in Cincinnati, Ohio. We weren’t allowed to watch TV except for one show a week. We were allowed to watch on Saturdays and then we had a show of the week. We took vacations that were like camping vacations because I had five brothers and sisters. There were a lot of us. And so we went camping all of the time. And I saw a lot of the National Parks and the great beauty, the great physical beauty of America. That’s not the arts at all. The thing that was present was, the school that I went to, All Saints, would put everybody on buses three times a year and send you down to Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park for a student matinee. That cost five dollars. You had to get your permission slips signed and have your five dollars and you got to go and see a play at Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park. And that was kind of it and that was electrifying to me. And then when I was in high school, you got to audition for plays. Because I went to an all-girls catholic school, so I could audition for plays at the boy’s school. I know! That was fun. So that was kind of my training, my youthful training. I will say this, we all took piano lessons. It was very important to my father that we all take piano lessons. And so I took piano from when I was 6 to when I was 18, 19. It was mostly classical music and that was a great part of my childhood too. My father was an engineer and my mom, was a mom. I have a sister who turned into an accountant. I have so many siblings. A bunch of them are engineers or scientists.

So what did they think when you went into the arts?

They thought I was… they were very skeptical. Everybody was very, very skeptical and remains skeptical, I have to say.

Part of our mission at WT is the bridge the connection between labor and arts. In what ways do you think theater plays a role in the everyday person’s life?

I think that the experience of going to live theater is very unique and very powerful. I know in Cincinnati where I grew up, there was Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park and that was it. And now there are many smaller theaters in Cincinnati. All over the country there are many smaller theaters that we can go and see. I would endorse going to see plays in your local theaters because there is enormous talent and passion that’s showing up in these plays, many of which are written by professional playwrights but many of which are constructed by friends and neighbors. In the way that we all go see our kid’s plays and concerts when they are doing the arts in high school, I think that can continue. I have to say, I have seen some amazing things at my kid’s high school. I have seen amazing things in small theaters that, you know, somebody just said, you should go see. In New York, what happens is these smaller theaters become the next great thing and they kind of move on. I think that’s what we should be looking at. I think we should be looking at what is here. Theater is great at creating community. The kind of community that you sometimes find in a bar just hanging around listening to music with people, you can also find that in a small theater where someone is telling a story to you and then you can go out and have a drink afterwards. A couple years ago I– I teach in Houston and they asked if they could do a reading of one of my plays at a smaller theater for two nights running. We gave it a good week of rehearsal and did two performances. The place was packed and then everybody had wine afterwards and hung out. It was really fun. I think that that kind of fun is more heartening and original and connective. We have all been slightly too dazzled lately by our phones and social media, which really does separate us and lies. It is just riddled with untruths in a kind of spooky way. I think that humanity has to be in touch with itself. I think it is relaxing and fun and a better way to spend your day. Does that make sense?

That is perfect and I agree one hundred percent.

You can just walk down the street and see something at a pub. They do it in England all of the time. There have been plays in pubs for years. I actually think it is exciting to realize it. I have had the opportunity to go to Boston, go to Chicago, you go to Houston. You go to all of these different cities. There are like 15 theaters in every city. I am not as interested in going to the bigger theaters that are kind of doing the same thing. They are in relationship to a board that has a different idea about what they do, so it is just less scrappy. Often things are less scrappy than what I kind of feel like, it is a little too smooth, too polished. It’s less interesting. That is what I like about the Working Theater– it is kind of scrappy.

I just remember doing theater in high school. And they say everywhere, it is so good for people. There is just so much evidence that in prisons, in high schools, in communities where there are fewer resources, it is like football, it’s like sports sometimes where you just go, “it’s just good for the kids.” And if it is good for them, it is good for us. I would like to see many more people participating in it, you know, on a community level without being distracted by the idea of “Oh I could write for television someday.” Don’t be distracted by that. Be here now. And see what happens, is what I think is a good model.

What advice would you give to the next generation of artists, or the next generation of playwrights?

I actually think that right now things are very up in the air. I am startled by how there are all of these different portals or, you know, venues in television and film. It seems sort of more remote than ever. The trick is to make art, to bring it back and own it and make it immediate. I started making my own little movies and stuff like that. You know you don’t have to get everything into Sundance or into Tribeca. Or you don’t have to get a job being a staff writer, on something. You just don’t have to do all that. I mean it is great, if that is your dream. A lot of times the dream is about fame and money. I think that when you want to have storytelling in your life in a meaningful way, then you have to go back to owning it and not expecting someone else to allow you to do it. My generation we would write plays and then send them out and then wait for someone to accept it for a festival. I watched a lot of my peers, I watched their hearts break, out of loneliness to do what they wanted to do. I always felt, certainly at that time, I and several other people that I know, we would just go and do it ourselves. If you are someone who wants to tell stories in this way, you must figure out ways to do it and for it to reach an audience. There are so many ways now. You can take out your IPhone and make a little movie and cut it together on your computer and then just spam it to all of your friends, get it on YouTube, put it on Facebook. There are so many ways to distribute as long as you are not looking to become a movie star. And really what you are looking to do is to reach and communicate.





Gumballs Rehearsal photo above by P. Kevin O’Leary. Click here for more photos!