Theresa Rebeck and I have been friends for a very long time, and one of the first things I learned about her was also one of the most important. When she has something to say the best thing to do is just get out of the way.
Which is what I plan to do tonight.
First, however, there are a couple of things I want to say about Theresa:
A number of years ago, somebody asked George S. Kaufman what it was like to write a play. He said it was easy. You simply sat down in front of a blank piece of paper and stared at it until blood began to seep through your forehead. From my point of view, an entirely accurate description.
But what about from Theresa’s?
Since she graduated first from Notre Dame, then from Brandeis—a religious mystery I still can’t quite sort out—Theresa has produced a body of work the breadth and variety of which is genuinely breathtaking.
16 full-length plays, 23 one acts, 3 produced screenplays, 2 published novels, a book of essays, between 25 and 40 episodes of prime time television shows like L.A. Law, NYPD Blue, and Law & Order, along with a grab bag of pilot scripts, treatments, unfinished or abandoned plays, Christmas lists, to-do lists, grocery lists, and a list of people who really piss her off—a list which, believe me, you do not want to be on.
A brief footnote. The first time I actually saw smoke come out of Theresa’s ears and flames shoot out of her eyes was back in the days when it was still fashionable in certain segments of the playwriting community to characterize playwrights who worked in television as losers and sellouts, prostituting their talent and betraying their craft and their colleagues.
Not surprisingly, this position was advanced by a handful of playwrights who had actually managed to become wealthy writing plays and before the publication of Todd London and Ben Pesner’s book Outrageous Fortune, which found that on average, successful working playwrights earn between $25,000 and $39,000 a year, only 15% of which actually comes from productions of their plays.
Theresa wasn’t the first playwright to understand this, but she was one of the first playwrights to actually do something about it. And it’s fair to say that the excellence of the work which she produced in this non-playwright’s medium helped prepare a path for the playwrights who would come after her—the Diana Sons who would write for Law & Order while continuing to write plays, the Marsha Normans who would write for In Treatment while continuing to write plays, the Peter Parnells who would write for The West Wing and the Kia Corthrons who would write for The Wire, both while continuing to write plays. And the list goes on.
Did Theresa Rebeck invent the idea that good television would be even better if it was written by playwrights? Maybe not. But she did more than her fair share to legitimize it.
But back to those 16 full-length plays and 23 one acts.
Quantity, of course, is not quality. Nor do awards necessarily memorialize excellence. We live in a world, after all, in which Henry Kissinger won the Nobel Peace Prize and Sunset Boulevard won the Tony Award for Best Musical. Nevertheless, I would be remiss if I did not note in passing that Theresa has won the Peabody Award, the National Theatre Conference Award, the William Inge New Voices Playwriting Award, the Writers’ Guild Award for Episodic Drama, the Mystery Writers of America’s Edgar Award, the Hispanic Images Imagen Award, and a Prime Time Emmy. And that four years ago her play Omnium Gatherum was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.
Of course, as the people in this room know, no one who writes for the theater measures his or her success by counting statues on a mantelpiece. The award all playwrights covet is the feeling you get when you’re standing in the back of the house watching an audience holding its breath, totally enthralled by the work you’ve put in front of them. And many of the most riveting, provocative, disturbing and exhilarating evenings I have spent in the theater have been evenings spent sitting in front of a Theresa Rebeck play. Our House, Mauritius, The Understudy, The Scene, Bad Dates, The Family of Mann, The Waters’ Edge …
I saw The Water’s Edge four years ago and I haven’t stepped into a bath tub since.
Sometimes hilarious, sometimes harrowing, often both, but always truthful, Theresa’s plays are written with a unique voice, the product of a unique personality comprised of a dizzying array of kaleidoscopic qualities—among them, a withering wit, an inexhaustible capacity for indignation, a survivor’s capacity for generosity and kindness, and a ferocious inability to tolerate injustice.
The director Doug Hughes was once asked about Theresa’s work and this is what he said, quote: “Theresa does not make nice for the sake of making nice. She’s a believer that pathologies and tainted motives are important to expose. She sees that as her job. Playwrights are here to make trouble.”
Ladies and gentlemen, Theresa Rebeck.