Theresa Rebeck (Photo: Heather Sten)
On the morning I spoke to Theresa Rebeck, the highly prolific playwright, award-winning television writer, producer, screenwriter, three-time novelist, and former “Smash” showrunner, the 2019 Oscar nominations had just been announced. “Poor Behavior” is Rebeck’s feature film directorial debut headlining the NY Indie Theatre Film Festival in its New York festival premiere this week, so I couldn’t help but ask if she had seen the list, which includes zero female nominees for Best Director (only five women have ever been nominated in the Oscars’ 90-plus year history).
She hadn’t, so I shared the Best Original and Adapted Screenplay categories too, with only one woman nominated in each and in both cases as co-writer: Deborah Davis and Nicole Holofcener for “The Favourite” and “Can You Ever Forgive Me,” respectively.
Rebeck is a writer who has explored sexism, misogyny, and gender politics in her work while penetrating the heavily male-dominated businesses of theater, film and television. She’s authored over 50 plays including Spike Heels, Seminar, The Understudy and her most recent Bernhardt/Hamlet, Rebeck’s fourth to reach Broadway and the subject of much buzz and critical acclaim.
Rebeck has over 30 screenwriter credits (including TV series “LA Law,” “Law & Order: Criminal Intent,” “NYPD Blue” plus feature films “Catwoman,” “Harriet the Spy” and “Gossip,” to name a few), and also created and executive-produced NBC’s “Smash,” a cult hit she claimed that she was unjustly fired from, which subsequently nosedived and was ultimately canceled after her departure.
For these reasons and more, I thought she might have a POV on the Oscar 2019 news.
“I have been saying this for years. When women are cut out of storytelling the entire world is distorted,” says Rebeck. Considering what she calls the “strange environment” in which boys club benefits include greater access to directing opportunities and funding, and where male decision-makers at the top of Hollywood’s food chain greenlight projects by and about men, the origin of how she got her first film “Poor Behavior” made is significant.
Rebeck knew she wanted to direct, and her beloved aunt left her a little chunk of money after dying of cancer. With a small crew, a cast of relatively unknown New York theater actors, and locations in Vermont, she was able to use that inheritance to shoot the low budget indie, an adaption of her play of the same name (Poor Behavior premiered in Los Angeles at the Mark Taper Forum in 2011, and eventually ran Off-Broadway at The Duke in 2014 in association with Primary Stages.).
In other words, by herself and without any major funding or studio backing.
A transition from stage to screen is the organizing principle around which the New Ohio Theatre curates its NY Indie Theatre Film Festival, now in its third year, which “supports indie theatre artists defying labels and branching out into recorded media.” While Rebeck may no longer be considered indie (at least not in the theater world) she certainly knows what it means to start on the fringe only to face a backlash from the establishment. No stranger to harsh criticism, critical response to her 1992 play Spike Heels at Second Stage Theater (co-starring a young Kevin Bacon and Tony Goldwyn) was so intense, “You would’ve thought I killed a puppy.”
Rebeck, in many ways, has paved the way for a new generation of female playwrights, but subjective assessments of her work over the years by mostly white, male-dominated reviewers have served as a motivating factor to go into film. Rebeck continues, “I do love the theater — it is the center of my storytelling instrument — but I got tired of the record of my work being about what someone else wrote about it. What I like about a novel is you can always pick it up and see what it meant. I felt like a movie is the same. A record of what you meant. Film achieves that.”
“Poor Behavior” is one of only a few cinematic adaptations of a Rebeck play (the 2004 indie film “Sunday on the Rocks” being another) and the first she directed. Rebeck describes her “four-person, very psychologically complicated but contained piece” as the beginning of a new direction in her continually evolving career.
Women represented only 4 percent of directors from the top 100 grossing films of 2018. When it comes to smashing this particular glass ceiling, “It really is true when a woman stands at the top then more women come along,” says Rebeck. Her mostly female crew on “Poor Behavior” included cinematographer Christina Voros (who suggested the idea for the play’s adaptation in a bar one night and also worked on Rebeck’s second feature, “Trouble”), editor Camilla Toniolo, and best boy electric, Lori Dinsmore (time for a new label on that IMDB listing).
Despite the uphill battles in the continued fight for representation and equality, not to mention the courage it takes to keep writing from an authentic, honest place, Rebeck advises, “You can’t allow it to shut you down. The ringtone of my phone is that song by Chumbawamba, ‘I get knocked down but I get up again!’ Sometimes it is very challenging, but you keep writing.”
Rebeck’s directorial style is already beginning to emerge, in part because she is a proven actors’ writer. She believes in being in conversation with her performers, something she calls a “vital, fluid and loose” way to tell a story. She doesn’t insist on every comma being honored. Rebeck likes improvisation. She lets the camera keep rolling. On the smaller screen and most recently, she wrote and directed “The Russian Cousin” (2018), and has a new half-hour comedy in the works for YouTube with producer Christina Wayne / ITV Studios.
As it stands, the future looks brighter by the day. Women & Hollywood released its 24 Most Anticipated Films By and About Women of 2019, including the first Marvel Universe superhero film with a female lead (“Captain Marvel” with Brie Larson at the helm), Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s novel “Little Women,” and playwright Suzan-Lori Parks’ screen adaptation of Richard Wright’s novel “Native Son.” There isn’t a better time for women like Theresa Rebeck to enter the filmmaking field until one day the low percentage of female directors and Oscar-snubbing of the women who yell “Action!” will become a thing of the past.
“Poor Behavior” at the NY Indie Theatre Film Festival
Friday, February 8, 7 p.m.
There will be a talk-back after with Theresa Rebeck and ticket to the screening grants access to the festival’s opening night party. The NY Indie Theatre Film Festival runs from February 8-11 and includes over 30 works plus industry panels.
Lindsay B. Davis is an arts/culture journalist, actress, playwright and director. She resides in New York City. Follow her on Instagram at @lindsaybdavis_.