Rebeck: Stonehill College
At the end of “What We’re Up Against,” a female character looks straight out into the audience and asks, “Why is it still like this?” The irony is that Theresa Rebeck
wrote the play back in 1992. Now in the dawn of #MeToo and countless Hollywood sexual harassment scandals, the story about gender politics feels more necessary than ever.
We sat down with Rebeck to get her views on the new rendition of her play, directed by Adrienne Campbell-Holt and produced by Women’s Project, and why she thinks times have changed — and stayed the same — for women in the workplace.
W&H: You wrote “What We’re Up Against” in 1992 when times were certainly very different. Was it based on your own personal experience in the workplace or stories you were told by other women?
Tr: Once a year Naked Angels would produce a one act festival called The Issues Project and in 1992 the Issues Project was called “Naked Angels Take On Women.” So I wrote the first scene as a stand alone one act for that festival. Two men sitting on stage and and showing off a kind of Mamet toxic masculinity, complaining about women, written by a woman? I thought it would be funny, and it was funny. The off stage woman who’s causing problems for them is trying to explain point of view, and the play is as well.
W&H: What can you tell us about the evolution of this play production-wise — has anyone in particular championed it from then until now?
Tr: After I’d written that one scene I let it sit for a while. It would get productions in one act festivals every now and again. Then Loretta Greco of the Magic Theatre read it and liked it, and I told her that I had often thought about turning it into a full length.
I described to her the thoughts I had in my head about it, and she said, “If you write that, I’ll produce it.” I did and she did. This was about ten years ago. Then the play kind of languished.
Recently my friend Melissa Silverstein [the founder and publisher of Women and Hollywood] turned Jenna Segal
onto it and Jenna became determined to see it have its moment in New York, so she took it to Lisa McNulty, Producing Artistic Director of Women’s Project.
The other person who has been absolutely tireless in making sure this thing made it to the stage in New York is my incredibly dynamic theater agent, Di Glazer. This play took a village, and the village was all women.
W&H: How involved were you in the casting of this production and did you have a very specific vision on who would play the two female leads this time around?
Tr: I was very involved in casting the play, as you would be when it is presented in New York. We wanted the actors to all have a kind of archetypal power, but also to be completely organic, human,and funny. Also they all had to be able to handle language.
It was great for me when it turned out that Damian Young
was available; I’ve known him for years and always wanted to work with him. Jim Parrack
was in a movie I wrote and directed last year, so I knew he would be a great fit. Skylar Astin
is a thrilling young actor who I knew from the “Pitch Perfect
” movies and he has a truly creepy and muscular inner demon who has proven very useful for this play.
I have also always wanted to work with Krysta Rodriguez
. Like Skylar, she has a thrilling singing voice so usually people don’t think of her for a straight play. She’s tough and secure and pushy and you always [pull for her when] she fights. And she sings! Not in my play, but she does.
Then there’s Marg Helgenberger
who is simply one of our greats. It is an absolute privilege to watch her work.
W&H: Women still suffer inequalities in the workplace. A woman still makes 80 cents to the dollar and her professional opportunities tend to be more limited. Do you think that times have changed much since 1992? Did you update the play to reflect anything about the times we are now living in?
Tr: I actually think things have gotten worse in the last 25 years. [Actually,] that’s not true. I think it’s getting better, and then it seems to be getting worse, and then way worse, and then I tell myself “No, it’s better in all these ways…. but really it’s worse.”
It felt like things were getting better with Obama, who had his eye on all of us, and how to move the ball down the field. We were still not getting enough traction in the workplace but women were starting to push the ball ahead themselves, no question.
And it was thrilling to see Hillary Clinton
as the nominee for president — that meant everything to me. But the horrendous backlash was truly disgusting and very hard to take as a sentient being. It really was allowed to go too far, the rage and the scapegoating and the lying. You really have to ask yourself what’s wrong with all those men who needed to become so vicious about her, and the women who believed them. And now to see this hateful misogynist and his cronies in the White House, actively working to take the rights of women away?
I’ve spent my whole career working in situations where women were being actively discriminated against, period. A lot of time gets wasted, and the best work does not get done. The only thing that comes out of it is that a lot of mediocre men cling to their power, and a lot of excellent women get kicked to the curb. It undermines our art, our productivity, our profit margins, our idealism, and our lives.
“What We’re Up Against”: theatermania.com
W&H: What’s it like seeing the show staged today as compared to over 30 years ago, particularly in light of the #MeToo movement and all the sexual assault allegations sparked by the reporting on Harvey Weinstein
Tr: Well, it was 1992 when we did the one act, and then I think around 2006 when we did the first version of the full length. In San Francisco, a lot of people said, “Oh this doesn’t still go on” and then a lot of other people responded, “Oh yes it does.” This was inches away from Silicon Valley
! So it does feel like there was a lot of denial out there around the context of the play.
The context has definitely changed. For instance, that first scene when those guys are being just jackasses got a certain amount of respect — we recognized them from Mamet plays, from Neil Labute
, from all sorts of television and movies. Nobody really thinks that’s so funny anymore. But they also don’t doubt the authenticity of the experience those two women are having, fighting for just a place at the table.
W&H: It’s been a long time since a play has talked about not only women versus men but also women versus women in the workplace. Why is the latter something we don’t often hear much about?
Tr: So many women have been trying to just make do. This play has a bit of a whistleblower feel to it. I honestly wasn’t trying to blow the whistle so much as I was trying to write a really truthful play.
But let’s face it, women’s stories are so routinely shoved to the side or co-opted by men, it became a part of the system, and then silence about it became part of the system.
And by the way, that silence is the same silence that allowed everyone to look the other way while men like Harvey Weinstein
and James Toback
and countless others sexually assaulted our friends and sisters.
And also by the way — that story, the one where women are second class citizens and don’t have the right to protest, much less simply work and have their work seen and acknowledged alongside their peers — that is the story that Hollywood has been pumping out to the rest of the world.
It’s hard to speak up in the face of that and not get branded a problem. Most women really do just want to work! I think the play really argues for that. And it argues for excellence.
W&H: How are women in particular responding to the play — are they coming up to you to talk about their own experience in the workplace?
Tr: It is wonderful to see women react to the play. Some nights are very vocal.
W&H: What’s next for you?
Tr: I am going to Washington D.C. in December to direct my own adaptation of “The Way of the World.” It is a contemporary retelling of the William Congreve
restoration masterpiece, set in the present day in the Hamptons. Our private title for it is “Lady Wishfort’s Revenge.” Then in March, the movie I wrote and directed, “Trouble
,” comes out. It stars the great Anjelica Huston
, Bill Pullman
, and David Morse
. After that who knows? Maybe a nap.Theresa Rebeck
on Bringing “What We’re Up Against” Back, Literally and Figuratively was originally published in Women and Hollywood on Medium
, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.