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Theresa Rebeck Opens Up About Being Fired from “Smash”

Theresa Rebeck: theresarebeck.com

“The misogyny is beyond anything that people believe,” “Smash” creator and former showrunner Theresa Rebeck writes in an essay entitled “What Came Next.” “On my first job in television, when I was in my twenties, I would sit, dazed, while a roomful of men sat around and told fist-up-the-ass jokes, roaring with laughter. In another room, the guys would sit around and pitch stories, and then write everything down in great detail on little white cards. Whenever a scene with female characters showed up they would write a card that said, ‘girl scene here.’ Then they would look at me and say, ‘You’re a woman, you write this.’”

“What Came Next” is part of the upcoming anthology of essays “Double Bind: Women on Ambition,” edited by Robin Romm. Featuring essays from Rebeck, Roxane Gay, Molly Ringwald, and Sarah Ruhl, the book discusses how feminism and ambition affect professional women. Entertainment Weekly published an excerpt of Rebeck’s story, in which the playwright, novelist, and TV writer reveals the infuriating treatment she endured during and after her short-lived tenure on the NBC musical drama.

First, Rebeck recalls that she was approached by Steven Spielberg to head “Smash.” The Oscar-winning director decided Rebeck was the best fit for the job after reading her plays and becoming “infatuated” with her writing.

“So I took the job, I wrote the pilot, I created all the characters, I nurtured it through a transition from Showtime to NBC, I produced the pilot, and the show got picked up for an order of seventeen episodes,” Rebeck details. “I was the showrunner of the first season, which got terrific numbers and established itself immediately as an international sensation.”

And everything was great until it wasn’t. “At the end of the first season, I was fired without cause,” she explains. Rebeck learned that the men in upper management had deemed her difficult, hard to work with, not a team player. The president of NBC had, to put it in corporate terms, a “comfort level” problem with Rebeck. “Comfort level,” she says, “is Hollywood code for men who don’t want to work with women.”

The reason male execs were uncomfortable with Rebeck? She unapologetically acted like a leader, like a boss. Like a showrunner.

“In corporate culture, ‘play well with others’ has come to mean absolutely agreeing to everything that gets thrown at you,” she observes. “It is a given: You have to say yes to your boss all the time. And that means all the time, and cheerfully — that, I’m not as good at.”

“The boys didn’t want me running that show,” Rebeck continues, “There was also an architectural problem in the power structure above me. How to ‘manage up’ [collaborate with her superiors] was never very clear. Mr. Spielberg is an enormous force and a great storyteller. He and the head of the network both believed that they were in charge. There was a strange dysplasia. They seemed to think that I was some kind of factotum, or typewriter even. No matter how polite I was, it rocked everyone to the core when the typewriter talked back.”

So Rebeck was punished for speaking up and forced out of the show she groomed for success. But she couldn’t really move on: Her reputation as a TV exec had been tarnished and she was unable to find work for three years. Meanwhile, the people who had been hired to run “Smash” after her departure weren’t quite living up to NBC’s expectations. The show lasted one season without Rebeck before it was cancelled.

“And, of course, as soon as I was fired, all the men who had conspired to have me removed from my post realized that the show wasn’t going to survive without me and so they slunk away and went off to do other things,” Rebeck points out.

Rebeck has no doubts — and neither do we — that her treatment on “Smash” was “gender-based.” “The power structure included 10 men and one woman,” she recalls. “In spite of all their second-guessing and wrangling, the show was terrific until they fired the woman in charge. I was explicitly told, during my firing, that the show was ‘too important to the network,’ and so they were taking it out of my hands.”

Adding insult to injury, the network went the route of “Nasty Women” and “Cruella” and handed the reins to an inexperienced male exec. He “had virtually no credentials and no experience in the theater,” Rebeck writes. “His television credits were nowhere near as comprehensive as mine. The show died under his watch. Two years later, another network gave him another show to run. Meanwhile, I was still being told that I was unemployable because everyone knew that I was a lunatic.”

Fortunately, Rebeck hasn’t let this experience hinder her voice or her ambition. “Women should be telling stories,” she concludes. “And the earth will not survive without women claiming their voices and their partnership for its people.” She adds, “So yes, I am ambitious. And while I do believe in playing well with others, I ultimately don’t know how to keep my mouth shut. What storyteller does?”

We’re pleased to say that Rebeck hasn’t kept her mouth shut and will work in TV again. Her next project sees her teaming up with super producer Gail Berman for Lifetime’s “Love and Murder in the Hamptons.” The series is about “a young man from a poor upbringing [who] finds himself caught in a love triangle between a woman from a similar background and a woman from one of the richest families in the Hamptons.” Rebeck is writing, and Berman will serve as an executive producer.

Head over to EW to read the entire excerpt of “What Came Next.” “Double Bind” will be published April 11.

Theresa Rebeck Opens Up About Being Fired from “Smash” was originally published in Women and Hollywood on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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