Friday, October 10, 2014

"Zealot"—The Power of Diplomacy

by Kelly L. Miller
Theresa Rebeck—
On being a Citizen of the World

Theresa Rebeck
During rehearsals for Zealot, playwright Theresa Rebeck spoke to us about the play’s genesis and the  importance of diplomacy, true courage, and citizenry at its thematic core.

“I’m actually a news junkie and I don’t really watch much of anything except news programs. Sometimes I get really caught up in endlessly hopping back and forth from MSNBC to CNN to local news, sometimes I check in with FOX. It’s a habit that started for me and for a lot of people in New York right after 9/11 because we just were obsessively watching television, because we were truly trying to make sense of, seeing if there was a way to make any sense at all about what we had just come through and what we were going through, like living through this kind of catastrophic moment in history. We were living it and trying to comprehend it.

"I spend a lot of time listening to talking heads and there was a moment last year when everyone got all excited because the diplomats kept talking around how we had all agreed that Syria shouldn’t be gassing its own people. The talking heads just endlessly went around this and I thought ‘Why are they acting like is such a big deal that diplomats all over the world, like 60 years after the Holocaust, it was like all these diplomats had agreed that Syria shouldn’t be gassing its own people. I thought ‘What’s happened that we think this is a terrific triumph of diplomacy, when it’s like nothing.’ I was really thinking about how diplomacy and bureaucracy and corporatocracies all get bigger and more convoluted—and about moments of true courage and heroism and people who actually are trying to do something are halted.

"That is the larger question of the play. Can we change history? Can we move history forward—and what are the forces aligned against that and aligned in favor of that? I also feel very deeply, more and more, what a lot of people are feeling, obviously, that the globe is shrinking and we are all citizens of the world. That phrase comes up several times during the play. Characters say ‘I was taught to be a citizen of the world. I hope to be a citizen of the world.’

"I actually think that these characters are all struggling in their own way to be a citizen of the world but that we’re coming at that project with enormously different, specific circumstances. Everybody in this play, although they have very, very different ideas about what should happen—everyone is in their own way right.”
Broadway veteran Theresa Rebeck is one of the most prolific playwrights working in the American theatre today. She’s also an award-winning novelist, screenwriter and an outspoken advocate for gender parity in New York theatre.

Thematic issues of power and gender often infuse Rebeck’s dramatic work—and her newest play Zealot is no exception.  This thrilling drama of diplomacy taps into the zeitgeist of political unrest and feminist activism in the Middle East following the Arab Spring.

Zealot unfolds in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, the holiest of Islamic cities, on the first day of the Hajj, the holiest of Islamic pilgrimages. Ann Haddad, the American undersecretary of state, has shown up with little notice, seeking the help of Edgar Featherstone, the temporary British consul in Mecca. There has been some disturbing chatter on the Internet—and she has come to represent America in the region.

When a peaceful, religious protest turns violent and threatens to become an international crisis, Ann and Edgar must wage a battle to reconcile their diplomatic duties with their own humanity—and decide whether to save a life that hangs in the balance.

In an interview in BOMB magazine, Rebeck talked about the innate power of theatre: “I’m not interested in small theater anymore….there’s a lot of struggle in [playwriting], so when I write, I want it to mean something, to have a larger effect… A lot of people say theater needs to be metaphoric or poetical—non-naturalistic—which I think is a mistake. You have to embrace the notion of theatricality, and there are many ways to do it, but for me theatrical means strong.”

Rebeck’s plays have been produced extensively in America and abroad. Her Broadway credits include Dead Accounts (2012); Seminar (2011); and Mauritius at the Biltmore Theatre (2007). Her other plays include The Scene, The Water’s Edge, Loose Knit, Spike Heels (Second Stage Theatre), The Understudy (Roundabout Theatre Company) and Poor Behavior (Center Theatre Group).

In 2012, Rebeck created NBC’s hit television show, “Smash”, which was nominated for multiple Primetime Emmy Awards. Her other television credits include “Third Watch”, “Law and Order: Criminal Intent” and “NYPD Blue” (for which she won a Peabody Award). Rebeck’s films include Harriet the Spy, Gossip and Seducing Charlie Barker. She has won numerous awards and in 2011, she was named one of the 150 Fearless Women in the World by Newsweek. SCR has commissioned her to write a forthcoming new play.

SCR Artistic Director Marc Masterson has been a champion of Rebeck’s work since his tenure at Actors Theatre of Louisville. In 2003, he produced the world premiere of Omnium Gatherum (co-written with Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros; Pulitzer Prize finalist, 2003) as a part of the Humana Festival of New American Plays. Masterson also premiered Rebeck’s The Scene (2006 Humana Festival) and produced Bad Dates during Actors Theatre’s 2005-06 season.

Masterson says: “Zealot will be the fifth play by Theresa that I have worked on. I admire her prolific dedication to craft, the wide range of styles that she has explored and the fierce intelligence that shines through everything that she does. Theresa is passionate, articulate, and committed to making great theatre.”

Theresa Rebeck—On Storytelling

Theresa Rebeck was one of the first American playwrights to move seamlessly between writing for theatre, film and television.

“Once in a while I say, ‘I’m an artist,’ and people get startled that I use the word to define myself. For some reason we’re not used to that word anymore, which seems a shame. Especially because I don’t know what else you’d call me, or people like me. Writer would be another accurate word. So would playwright. But the one I use a lot, that covers film and television as well as theater, is storyteller. I am somebody who sits around and tells stories at the dinner table, narrating my day. I tell stories all the time; my head is swimming with them. In that sense, I am a neoclassicist and would define myself as one. I am interested in beginnings, middles, and ends, and the elegance of that.

"I find it graceful and hopeful and life-affirming. Stories teach us so much. I really do see them as a sort of humble, human way to struggle toward enlightenment"
—BOMB Magazine

A prolific TV writer, Rebeck says there’s something unique about writing for the stage:

“I find it unimaginably beautiful to see language and humanity and lights and sound all come together in this moment of storytelling, which is so potently in relationship to the audience, the presence of the audience,” she says.

She believes the task of art is to create community. Theater does that “in such an immediate and electrifying way,” she says.

“In many ways, theater is a lesson in empathy. When theater works at its best, your heart is moved by the trials of or joy of somebody acting a story out for you on the other side of the stage lights.”
-excerpt from “’Smash’ Stars An ‘Interesting Tribe’: Theater People, NPR, Jan. 28, 2012

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