Social tides change so quickly that a play can turn from "progressive drama" to "period piece" in under a decade. Theresa Rebeck's What We're Up Against, however, has maintained its contemporary relevance for over 25 years — a sad fact for the state of American gender politics but a helpful one for the play's first full New York production, opening at WP Theater on November 8.
Rebeck wrote a one-act version of the play in 1992, telling the story of Eliza (now played by Krysta Rodriguez), an up-and-coming architect who keeps getting sidelined by her male coworkers and superiors. She's not shy about declaring her desire to work, but the men of the office, being the gatekeepers to her career, increasingly narrow her path the more she pushes back.
"When I wrote it, I was Eliza," said Rebeck, who spun the one-act into a full-length play in the early 2000s when Loretta Greco, artistic director of San Francisco's Magic Theatre, said to her, "If you write it as a full-length, I'll produce it." Jenna Segal is the female producer Rebeck credits with getting behind the play this time around — a display of camaraderie and support that Rebeck and her star, Rodriguez, agree could be the key to progress. During a break in rehearsal, we sat down with the two of them for a cathartic conversation about being women in the workplace, mounting this play in the wake of the #MeToo movement, and debunking the "toxic lie" that's been maintaining our societal status quo.
Theresa, you first wrote What We're Up Against as a one-act in 1992. What prompted the idea back then?
Theresa Rebeck: Throughout the '90s there were a lot of plays by our male peers that were extremely misogynistic. They were set in the workplace and didn't take into account the fact that there were women participating in this world. So I thought it would be fun to write one of those plays and throw women into the environment — as they are.
Is it eerie to see how few things have changed since 1992?
Krysta Rodriguez: When I read the play, those references to 1992 weren't in there. They were toying with the idea of setting it in current times. So I was "amen"-ing the whole thing, and then I found out that it had been written 25 years ago. It was even more tragic for me to find out that this wasn't something that was in direct response to what I've experienced, what Theresa's experienced, and what all women are experiencing. It's an ancient problem that will always feel prevalent because we're living through it every day.
Theresa: Men who are indoctrinated in these workplace cultures end up feeling like everything is tribal — and women are somehow not included in the tribe. You end up with behavior like we saw coming out of the Weinstein Company and a lot of other companies. This play touches on those issues.
The show's two female characters combat those issues very differently. Eliza (Krysta's character) is willing to go head-to-head with the men, while her older coworker Janice (played by Marg Helgenberger) tends to lie back and patiently wait for opportunities to come her way. Which do you relate to more, Krysta?
Krysta: I think as females in any industry you're taught that there has to be a little bit of both. You have to play nice with the boys to get the part. But once you get there, then you'll have the opportunity to be assertive — which is almost exclusively false.
Theresa: I've been struggling with this for so long. I finally said to my husband, "I feel like I've been a coward — just playing along." But if you didn't play along and made waves, you just got fired.
Krysta: I identify with the person that wants to speak their mind, but then you realize that that's not going to get you anywhere because either you get fired for being assertive or you get labeled a pain in the ass. The conversation is so hard to have with people who aren't in our position because they don't see it.
Considering the recent spike in awareness about things like sexual assault and harassment, do you think audiences today will be more receptive to what the play has to say than they might have been in the past?
Krysta: It depends on how cynical I am on any given day. I had quite a few of my friends participating in the "me too" movement who said that the person that they felt was inappropriate with them also posted about how important it is that men pay attention. People don't see that they are the problem. But yes, the conversation needs to happen. And I personally think that the conversation always starts with art.
Theresa: The larger issue is that women are just excluded. I would argue that sexual harassment and discrimination are two sides of the same coin. I was working on one show where I would deliver script after script, and then they wouldn't know how to include me in discussions. The men only wanted to talk to each other. To me, there's something very Machiavellian about corporate power structures, and that's what I think the play really addresses. People in offices are positioning themselves, and one of the ways you position yourself is to kick somebody further down the ladder than you, and women are the first target.
The play suggests that a lot of that corporate aggression toward women is perpetrated by other women. Do you think that's the case?
Theresa: Yes, women have not figured out how to be tribal the way men are tribal.
Do you think we're on our way to figuring it out?
Krysta: I think it might have been easier back when our roles were more defined. It was easier for women to rally around women because they were all doing the same thing. Now we are all struggling to find our own identity. Each one of us is on our own island carving our own path, so now we're all fighting each other as to whose path is best.
Theresa: I think it might be that women are so often disempowered that they don't want to cede any power to other women. The last question of the play is, "Why is it still like this?" Are we really saying that we can't work together? That we cannot treat each other as partners in storytelling or in leadership? I don't believe it. The play is trying to get that conversation going — to get us to stop just accepting this absolutely ridiculous toxic lie.
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