For the People

02.06.12

‘Smash’ on NBC: Theresa Rebeck on Theater’s Populist Roots

Smash’s creator Theresa Rebeck has been unnerved by reporters asking her whether a story about theater is interesting to the masses—when theater is all about community, she writes.

I have to keep answering questions about my show, Smash, which premieres on NBC Monday.  Reporters want to know things. One of the things they want to know is, “Do you think that people who don’t work in the theater will be interested in a show about the theater?”

Hmmm.

To be honest, any question gets a bit trying when people ask it over and over and over again. But this one in particular unnerves me. I have spent my whole life working in the theater and most of the people I know have done the same. And we are pretty interesting people. Our tribe is dramatic and funny and reckless. We have a lot of passion. Most of us are usually broke, but we’re not crooks or anything. We’re people who believe in something nutty: we believe that the world would be a better place if people went to the theater more. We believe in the power of art to create community.

And we believe in singing and dancing. Who wouldn’t be interested in this?

The myth that theater isn’t for everybody is total nonsense. In the 18th and 19th centuries, everybody in America used to go to the theater all the time. The shows they went to see were big crazy melodramas that had careening storylines and houses burning down and pretty girls in danger and comedy and death and destruction. It was a kind of theater that people liked, and critics hated, so in spite of the fact that everybody was having a great time, it got a bad name. Then in the late 20th century, theater went post-modern and a lot of people started writing plays that no one could actually understand. It was rumored that film and television were going to do “realism” better than the theater could, so the theater had to become all internal and poetic. Then Broadway got really expensive, and no one could figure out how to use the discount coupons. For all these reasons, I think, people started believing that theater was not actually a populist event.

But this conclusion is not accurate. Theater can be elusive and poetic, but it doesn’t thrive when it doesn’t reach an audience. Theater is a public space. It is a spectacular space. It is a gathering place.

I like going to the theater the way other people like going to football games. I like the energy of a house full of people chattering with anticipation, happy to be out for the evening. I like it when the whole audience laughs at the same joke or falls into a hush because something so astonishing is happening on that stage. I like the way stage light makes everyone look so pretty. I like passionate and complicated arguments between characters who use language as an elegant weapon. I like watching set pieces float up into the air while others take their place. I like it when someone breaks into song, or a whole bunch of dancers start dancing. And I do think the world would be a better place if everyone went to the theater more.

Thousands of years ago, the Greeks invented the theater as a place where everybody could come together to have a communal experience that opened their hearts to each other, and to the gods, too. This happens on Broadway, and in regional theaters, and in high school plays, and in children’s theaters, and community theaters, too. Perhaps people will watch Smash and think, that was a lot of fun, I really enjoyed that, this is pretty interesting—and then they’ll go out and see a play.

Theater is about humanity. So, yes, I think people will be interested in that.