Theresa Rebeck, Kristine Nielsen, and The Way of the World
“Are you twins? Sisters?” Theresa Rebeck and Kristine Nielsen were heading past a guard’s desk at Folger Shakespeare Library when the question was posed. The response to the query was a laugh and a “No,” followed by the qualification, “But we’re turning into each other.”
I was treated to an example of that symbiosis when I asked playwright/director Rebeck and actor Nielsen, who have known each other for quite a while, have worked together frequently, and are in town doing The Way of the World at Folger Theatre, what they would like to say about the show in order to attract the audience that will appreciate it.
“I just say it’s really funny. It’s really funny,” remarked Nielsen.
“I was about to say that,” Rebeck chimed in. “It’s really funny. They’re hilarious.”
“It’s a good play to see in January, when you’re really cold. You’re going to come, and laugh a lot, and warm up,” concluded Nielsen.
Alan Rickman Plants a Seed
I had begun a late-rehearsal conversation with the two by asking Rebeck what drew her to rewrite William Congreve’s 300-plus year-old Restoration comedy.
Someone had suggested to her that her work somehow echoed the classics of that era. “It was an actor I worked with on Broadway. He said, ‘You know, this is a lot like a Restoration play.’ And then he explained to me why. He said, ‘You should adapt one of those things, or just go back and look at them.’
“Who can go lower in terms of meanness seems to be a huge theme in the play.”
“I hadn’t looked at them since college, and so it was a challenge that I became interested in. I looked at The Way of the World. I liked the title, but also I saw the play once a long time ago with a great cast in London and it left a formidable impression on me.
“It’s a play that’s quite confusing and doesn’t translate in its original form anymore, so several balls kind of hit each other at the same time, and, for some reason, I just thought, ‘This is just like the Hamptons.’” Rebeck’s contemporary version of the play is set in that exclusive Long Island locale.
“It reminded me of a Kardashian television show. So I rethought the whole thing. I had worked with Kristine a lot, and Lady Wishfort is one of those characters — I thought, ‘She’s going to eventually play her; she should play her for me, and I should re-write it.’ And that was the first card I played.”
I was curious who the actor was who had planted that initial seed. “It was Alan Rickman in Seminar. I hate throwing his name around, but it was Alan. He was a mighty influence on my life. There was a period of time when anything he told me to do, I would just do it. He’s such a titan, and he was so brilliant, and really kind to me.
“He was always sort of bossing me around, or trying to mentor me,” Rebeck chuckled. “You can look at it either way. He had so much experience in Restoration drama; he’d done so much of it. He said the rhythms felt the same to him. He said, ‘They all say p-shaw [she pronounced it in two syllables] and you say fuck, but it’s pretty much the same.’ There was something about the elegance of that association that made it very clear to me how to do it.”
I asked whether Rebeck had known Rickman before he starred in that 2011 Broadway production of her play. “Yeah, I did. We’d known each other for many years.”
The Way of the 2018 World
I presumed from that response that it had always been her intention to contemporize the play. “Yes, oh yes. That was the throw-down for me. Of course, Congreve is a master. I learned so much working on the play. He had a very post-modern imagination. There were so many things where you’d go, ‘What the hell is he doing?’ He’d start a scene and then just end it in the middle. People are constantly wandering into a coffee shop.” (It was a chocolate shop in the original, she noted.)
Rebeck, though, does challenge Congreve’s original: “They make fun of Lady Wishfort, and then they humiliate her, and then they make fun of her some more, and then they humiliate her, and then the play’s over. I thought, ‘I’m actually not interested in that construction,’ and, because I had Kristin in my head, I thought, ‘I don’t want them to just humiliate her.’
“It was very personal. There was something about re-imagining it — the point of view is my point of view, so it’s very female in its way. It up-ends a lot of the misogynistic assumptions of the original.
“It’s not like I went into it with this agenda of doing that; it’s just something that happened because this is the person who was reconfiguring the material. It felt very rich.
“The other character who started to come to life in a different way for me is the heiress at the center of it, who is kind of a prop; she has a couple of good scenes, but, other than that, there’s nothing you can really say about her. I thought, ‘She’s got to be a much more complicated figure in today’s world.’”
And, speaking of today’s world, I asked whether the play will speak to an audience in 2018. “Well, I think it does, obviously, or I wouldn’t have done it. It feels like the story of what happens to authentic affection in a world that commodifies the self so powerfully. She’s commodified all these people in a world where money and sex — everything — is degraded down to this level of…”
“A transaction,” Nielsen offered.
“Everything is a transaction,” Nielsen continued, “less personal, or driven by having a set of values. It’s a devalued society. I think that’s what’s interesting for me as an actor. It’s very important to me to be a part of reflecting the culture right now; what is happening right now. I’m not interested in, ‘Flippy-da-ta-be-da.’ I’m not going to do that; I wouldn’t have done that.
“Who can go lower in terms of meanness seems to be a huge theme in the play. I think that time was quite cruel: the classism. Our society is a less temperate society. Money is separating us all. (Less so class.) If you value money as your God, if success is what you think is the most important thing on the planet to you, then it’s separating us as humans, and I find all of that interesting.”
The Hamptons: There is nothing in the play that’s not accurate; 100% accurate.
I asked Nielsen whether the style one associates with Restoration comedy is informing her performance.
“I think the treat with this production is that we are introducing a little bit of the Restoration sense of heightened reality, which is a good way of seeing this kind of material. It’s not just reality…”
“It’s stylized,” Rebeck observed.
“It is,” Nielsen confirmed.
“We are lifting the style,” Rebeck continued.
“It has a little bit of class in it,” Nielsen picked up. “So you see that a little bit; but, more, our pretensions to that. You don’t want to do a museum piece in a time like this; this time is so rich to be able to reflect.”
“Honestly,” Rebeck noted, “the experiment, when I started writing it, was, ‘What will it look like? Does this translate?’ And the shock was, it absolutely translates. The hyper-rich in Congreve’s construction behaved in these hilariously monstrous ways that, 300 years later, we see in different forms. But it’s very much the same muscle.”
“And,” Nielsen continued, “I think artists — Theresa’s one of our great artists — they always have their ear to the ground and hear something slightly ahead of the society’s, so that you can reflect things better. And I always say to her, in a flip way, when we were first doing readings of it, ‘Those people are just awful people.’ Well, now we’re embracing it, going, ‘Yes, I know those people!’ And it’s fun.”
Rebeck continued, “Those people are the ones running our country.”
“Who knew,” Nielsen offered wistfully, “where we would go? How low we would go.”
The Hamptons, Where the Grass Is Painted
Is Rebeck observing the Hamptons from first-hand experience?
“I have been out there, of course. Years ago, I had a couple friends who lived out there. I’ve found it fascinating, in a kind of anthropological sense, and there’s elements of that. There is nothing in the play that’s not accurate; 100% accurate.”
Taking as an example something in the play that may seem as if it must have been concocted: “It is true that they paint the grass. Not everybody, but it’s absolutely true. My friend Dina was out there. Her sister-in-law was painting the grass. Her kids came back covered in green, and she said, ‘What the hell has happened to my kids?’ and her sister-in-law is, like, ‘The grass is painted.’
“We did the first reading at the O’Neill [Center,] and the design team came back with all this research, very early in the writing of the play, that was powerful to see: stuff like $20,000 bar bills; really shocking. That stuff affects me.
“I always feel that satire, the best kind of satire, is the kind that’s not pushed at all: you just put the facts down there. There’s this weird place where cinéma vérité and satire absolutely meet, and one of those places would be the Hamptons.”
Nielsen said, “I heard the term ‘Gilded Age’ flittered around here, and I feel: that’s the Restoration. The Restoration was the division of class, and money, and the eruptions of character come out of that. And that’s what’s fun.”
“And Congreve had a very strong sense of that,” Rebeck continued. “One of the ways that you tell that story is that you have to have someone from a different class break out and talk to you, and Congreve was doing that as well. He had servant characters, who lived in a completely different world, but were intertwined. He was, sort of, originally doing Upstairs Downstairs.”
I wondered if anyone in the cast other than Nielsen had been involved in the world premiere production at Dorset Theatre Festival in Vermont. “No, Kristine is the only person. And we have a different design team, except for our sound designer. That was a great first step, but it felt like the next step needed to be in a city, so it’s had quite a bit of re-thinking with the design team.”
The Anatomy of the Laugh
Nielsen, who is from this area, recalled going to Arena Stage when she was young. “The Arena was so great. They always seemed to solve things. You know, they say you can’t do farce in the round, or on a thrust stage, but, you know, Arena proved that wrong. It’s just that you get a ripple laugh.”
“They say all sorts of things that you go, ‘Oh, I’m not so sure if that’s true,’” observed Rebeck.
“It’s a challenge.” Nielsen made a distinction: “You don’t get the big proscenium laugh, but you get the ripple laugh, which is a different laugh.”
“I like those ripple laughs,” Rebeck agreed, “where you feel people getting it. I have a friend who used to call them ‘the slow rollers.’ Sometimes it’s really fresh when you land the laugh; then it gets a little too set.”
Nielsen observed: “The most important person in a comedy is that audience. That’s when we’ll really know. We’re like little computers at the first previews: ‘Oops, too fast there; that laugh went away. Oops, that train pulled out of the station.’”
“Sometimes it takes them a second to get it,” Rebeck noted. “But you just don’t know until they show up.”
The Old Saw: Playwright, Don’t Direct Your Work!
“I completely disagree.” Rebeck fiercely pushed back against the truism. “I cannot say more strongly that I think that’s an invented myth. There’s a play I’ve been working on, that’s just starting to go into readings, about Sarah Bernhardt doing Hamlet. That was at a time when actors ran companies. She was starring in it, running the company, directing; everybody worked together as collaborators.”
The Way of the World
at Folger Theatre
closes February 11, 2018
Details and tickets
“Let’s just talk about Shakespeare,” Nielsen said, tweaking the whole idea. “I think he managed to write and direct.”
“Shakespeare!” Rebeck continued: “You look at what the form was when theatre was truly vital to culture. The playwrights were part of the company, and directing. No one was running around saying, ‘You shouldn’t do that.’ I don’t know who made that up, and I do believe that everybody’s got a different style to what they do.
“I really like actors,” Rebeck elaborated. “I’ve always written for actors. I don’t write plays that are, like, poems, or esoteric, deconstructed things. I write characters. I feel that there’s a kind of release that happens when I direct. It is more of a communal environment, where I’m the leader, but every now and then, someone says, ‘Hey, Theresa, maybe if you did this…’ And I do not find that to be a problem. (I know a lot of directors just don’t work that way.) It’s sort of like controlled chaos, and I think it’s really good for the acting. I think you get really juicy acting.”
“You can certainly ask what her point is, in this scene, because the resource is right there: ‘Are we doing what you wrote?’ I will say, I’ll slightly disagree with Theresa: I do think it’s different under different circumstances. Some playwrights are more vulnerable and need a buffer. That’s just individual, though. Some: yes, please! Never direct their plays. But others; it’s great.”
I think directors should take acting classes, and I think actors should have to direct a scene, to understand each other…
“That’s actually true,” Rebeck conceded. “I directed one new play with this writer; somebody who I think is wildly talented, and I love the play. I came home and said to my husband, ‘The best playwright is a dead playwright. She’s driving me crazy! She’s driving my actors crazy!’”
Nielsen laughed: “Maureen Stapleton told me that years ago. ‘The best playwright is a dead playwright.’ (She was saying it about Tennessee Williams at the time, too!)”
“The first thing I directed in a real professional environment was All My Sons at the Alley Theatre,” Rebeck said. “It was a big thing to step into. I like the muscle of the classics. It’s a completely different theatrical challenge, and it’s quite beautiful. I’m not the first one who did this. Michael Frayn does it. Harold Pinter did it. There are a lot of really great theatre playwrights who go, ‘I’m going to do this other thing now,’ and I think that that’s beautiful. I think it’s really great.”
“When I was in graduate school,” Nielsen remembered, “what I thought was really important was when all the disciplines had to take classes together. I think that’s where you have a great deal of respect for each discipline in the business, and in theatre. I think directors should take acting classes, and I think actors should have to direct a scene, to understand each other, and see what the different muscles are that you have to bring forward. It garners respect. You’re a little more thoughtful towards each other, and you understand process more.”
Process: The Run-through That Goes Wrong
“There is a point when all the designers come in at the end,” Rebeck continued. “It’s one of the last run-throughs, and you sit there and you think, ‘Oh, there are ten people here; now we’re going to find out if the jokes work.’ And they laugh at nothing, and you feel like a total failure. No one ever explained it to me!
“Finally I went, ‘Oh, they’re not paying attention at all. They’re, like, ‘Oh, he stands here, and she goes there.’ That’s not what they’re there for. And there are so many things that you learn like that.
“Like the excitement of the run-through that’s terrible. There’s always a run-through that’s just terrible, and you’ve gotta go, ‘Oh, wow.’ You have to figure out what you can learn from the way that went off. It’s kind of, like, ‘I’m just going to let them keep going, because this is terrible, and I wonder when they’ll find it again; I wonder why they’ll find it again; I wonder how they’ll feel.’
Nielsen continued, “It’s just that funny thing where you go, ‘I’m talking as fast as I can, and the play’s never seemed so slow.’ Because, for actors, you know when you’re having trouble. You check that, and get more specific, because specificity is your friend.”
Rebeck agreed: “Yes, it always is…it always is.”
Rebeck and Nielsen were very generous with their time, and our wide-ranging chat yielded too much to fit into one article. Here is its continuation: Prosky, Robards, Huston, Durang and Bernhardt. Stories from Theresa Rebeck and Kristine Nielson