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Saturday, March 19, 2011

Theresa Rebeck on sexism in the theatre

Thanks to Liz Kimberlin for sending the link to the Rebeck speech transcript. Excerpts from the address:

The play is called The Butterfly Collection. I wrote it in 1999. It is about a family of artists, and the tensions that rise between the father, who is a successful novelist, and his two sons, one of whom is a struggling actor, and the other who is an antiques dealer. Tim Sanford at Playwrights Horizons fell in love with this play and said he would produce it in the fall of 2000, and he talked to the guys who run South Coast Rep and they read it and included it in the new play festival that spring, so that we had a chance to work on it out there. The workshop was great, and we were the hit of the festival... Nine separate regional theaters were circling to produce it. American theater magazine called my agent to ask for the script because they were interested in publishing it (in those cool inserts I was very excited I’ve always wanted one of those). Audiences were thrilled with the play. Lincoln Center Library was filming it for their collection.

When the New York Times published its review it was not what anyone expected. The reviewer, who shall remain nameless, dismissed the play—which was about art and family—as a feminist diatribe. He accused me of having a thinly veiled man-hating agenda, and in a truly bizarre paragraph at the end of the review, he expressed sympathy to the director because he had to work with someone as hideous as me.

The review was horrible and personal and projected all sorts of terrible things on me. I was shocked, a lot of people were shocked. And there was real outcry in the community. A lot of letters were written to the Times—someone told me it was sixty letters, which I don’t know how anyone would know that but it made me feel better, even though none of them were published... Everybody knew that that was a crazy misogynistic review. But no one would produce the play. Ever again. And you should know that many people consider it my best play. Still.

This is what happened to me in the months after that.

–People couldn’t get over it. For about a year and a half, I had people come up to me at least once a week and this is what the conversation would be:

NICE PERSON: Hi Theresa, how are you? I saw the Butterfly Collection! Wow it was so beautiful! What a great evening of theater!

THERESA: Thank you.

NICE PERSON: That review was crazy! So misogynistic! Wow, how could he write something like that?

And then this nice person would go on and on and on about that crazy misogynistic review, so I got to live through it all over again...

This is another thing that happened: A whole lot of people decided I should change my identity. This is the conversation I had with other well meaning people:

NICE PERSON: You know Theresa everybody knows that your work is terrific but the New York critics don’t like you personally.

THERESA: How can they not like me personally? They don’t know me!

NICE PERSON: Hey! We love you. But you know what you should do? You should produce your plays under a male pseudonym.

THERESA: You mean, I should pretend to be a man?

NICE PERSON: That’s right. That’s the only way they will accept you. Or the plays! They would like your plays, if only you hadn’t written them!

Okay I know that sounds crazy but I swear I had that conversation at least a dozen times. Arthur Kopit, who really is great and I love him, thought this was a hilarious idea and he had a lot of fun figuring out for me how I would pull that off, becoming a man. We never went as far as surgery but there were lots of other clever ideas about how what I might do to trick people into thinking I was a man, which is what I needed to do, to make my identity acceptable.

This is another thing that happened to me: One of my friends who was a producer in New York told me that this was all a sign, that I was being told by the Times that I am not welcome in New York and I should think of something else to do with my life.

This is another thing that happened: A close friend of mine who is a theater director started screaming at me in restaurants and he told me I wasn’t an artist.

This is another thing that happened to me: My agent said, you know Theresa, how you’ve always wanted to write a novel? Maybe you should do that. Which is not necessarily bad advice, but it’s also not particularly advice you want to hear from your THEATRE AGENT. He also told me that my next two plays, Omnium Gatherum and Bad Dates, were unproduce-able and that he couldn’t represent them...

The entire piece at Women and Hollywood.

If Rebeck decides to use a male pseudonym, I suggest "Adam Rapp."

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