Growing up, she said, she never quite fit in. “I was not really ‘of that place,’” she explained. “Then I came to New York, and I don’t really feel of this place either, though there’s certainly much more here that suits my temperament.”
Her temperament also lands her between two poles artistically—more pragmatic than most Pulitzer-nominated playwrights, yet artsier than many TV showrunners. “In the theater, it’s a kind of clubby environment,” she noted. “I didn’t go to an Ivy League. There’s a thing in New York: ‘Did you go to an Ivy?’ ‘Did you go to Yale?’ “Oh, you’re from the Midwest.’ ‘Oh, you’re a girl.’” With advanced degrees from Brandeis and limited interest in postmodernism and other dramaturgical trends, Ms. Rebeck felt out of place in the city, where she’d arrived with her then-boyfriend, now-husband in tow (he’s from Kansas).
“There were a lot of obstacles to overcome,” she went on, “but people seemed to respond to my plays. There was a place for them, but not really a place for me.”
Did it hurt her prospects, this outsider status?
“No,” she said. “It hurt my feelings. It didn’t hurt my career.”
Ms. Rebeck is very conscious of Eastern snobbery. Her family, her characters and her star (Ms. Holmes is from Toledo, a jaunt up I-75) all come in for mockery from pretentious city slickers.
“[Midwesterners] see the culture—and I have to say I don’t think they’re wrong about this aspect of it—as kind of degrading,” she said. “The way sexuality is portrayed, so much violence, the carelessness. I respect their impatience with that aspect of the culture. At one point I said to my husband, the networks would put kiddie porn on if they were allowed.” (Ah, for those halcyon days when a glimpse of Det. Andy Sipowicz’s butt was deemed risqué …)
Smash is hardly kiddie porn, but it did represent Midwesterners as rubes and New Yorkers as savvy: when the show’s protagonist of sorts, Karen Cartwright—who’s utterly blind to the dynamics of power that run the theater world and New York in general—returns home to Iowa, she’s greeted by parents who ever-so-gently try to crush her dreams. While Ms. Rebeck noted that the show was never intended to focus so heavily on Karen (played by Katharine McPhee), she added, “People found her to be a very attractive character, so they asked me to write that. I was okay with it. I was like, I’ve got that in my back pocket.”