Theresa Rebeck’s “O Beautiful”: Why here? Why now?

By Elizabeth Gilchrist, production dramaturg


In 2011, playwright Theresa Rebeck (creator of TV drama Smash; plays include Seminar and Omnium Gatherum) was commissioned by the theater department at University of Delaware to create a story bringing American history head-to-head with contemporary political and social issues. Inspired by her strict Catholic upbringing and a constant stream of devastating news stories, Rebeck wrote O Beautiful, in which she holds a mirror up to the audience demanding them to look at the current state of our country. She asks, “Who are we becoming? Who are we allowing ourselves to become? Where is our compassion?” and leaves the answers up to us. To present these sweeping questions, Rebeck constructed a mammoth play, both on an ideological level and production scale.

O Beautiful covers a wide array of hot-button issues, ranging from abortion to the influence of religion in our school systems. The play also brings a handful of historical figures back to life. To communicate and share such an epic and comprehensive story, Rebeck needed an ensemble to match.

In an interview for UDaily during the development of O Beautiful Rebeck stated, “Part of the problem with producing contemporary political theater in America today is that many theaters don’t have flexibility or resources, be it hiring a lot of actors or staging a work that might be tough for some audience and board members. I never expected a university to get involved like this, but thinking about it, a university is exactly the right place to put together a play like O Beautiful.”

The original production at University of Delaware included a cast of 40, bringing the school’s professional company and undergraduate students together. Emerson Stage’s upcoming production features an ensemble of 37 students, ranging from sophomores to grad students in the Performing Arts department; as well as members of the school’s a cappella community, as represented by the vocal group Achoired Taste. O Beautiful has provided Emerson Stage the chance to bring a larger ensemble, and students from different communities, together to tell this story.

In addition to providing a large and committed ensemble of actors, Emerson Stage is an ideal place to produce Rebeck’s play due to the large, varied audience it attracts. The production hopes to reach students of all majors and concentrations, as well as those from the larger Boston community. The timing of the production, at the beginning of an election cycle, lends itself to the material in a powerful way as well.

Rather than using theater as a means of escape, O Beautiful demands that audiences focus on the reality of our country’s political and social climate. The scale of the production also urges audiences to witness the condition of their own communities. Emerson is full of students with different interests, experiences and ideas, all existing and creating within the greater Boston area. How do our backgrounds inform our choices, and how do these choices define the state of our community? With so many aspects of our society being presented by a wide array of characters, all opinions are brought out on to the table for consideration. At Emerson, O Beautiful gives voice to the the nation’s youngest population and allows them to contemplate their role in society.

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