Adam Rapp by Marsha Norman
After you read thousands of plays by young writers, you can pretty much tell in 10 pages whether the playwright is going to get you. The voice is either clear or not, the dramatic sensibility is either there or it isnít, and the writer either knows or doesnít know what his personal ďcontentĒ is, the stuff he will draw on for a lifetime of writing. But it didnít even take 10 pages with Adam Rapp. When he applied to the playwriting program at Juilliard, which I co-direct with Christopher Durang, I knew in a single sentence that Adam was a writer the world was going to listen to for as long as he felt like writing. The play was called ďGhost in the Cottonwoods,Ē and began as most of Adamís plays do, with two characters facing the end of their world, in this case, a mom and son trying to figure out why their house was still sliding down the hill, in spite of the fact that they had tied it to the trees. Mom takes a moment away from worrying about the apocalypse and gives the son some grief about his jeans. Theyíre too tight, she says. He should change his jeans. The kid says he wonít change them. He says he loves these jeans. And then he says, and this is the sentence that made me fall for Adam Rapp, ďI feel like a sex maniac in these jeans.Ē Adam writes like nobody else, his fierce poetic power as inescapable as the doom that waits for his characters. The work is bleak and true, his touch that of a master in the making.
Marsha Norman Well, first, you look great.
Adam Rapp Really? Thanks. I was feeling really bad for a long time, struggling with depression.
MN What caused you to feel better?
AR Iím seeing somebody now; it helps. Iím trying to figure out if itís chemical or not.
MN Depression is the writerís curse. Itís hard to get out of your own head when thatís where all your stuff comes from.
AR I had it when I was in my twenties a lot, but I was able to distract myself enough. I think doing the film, and being exhausted and everything hitting at once these last few months wiped me out.
MN But you were able to hold off depression until you got finished with everything?
AR Yeah, and thatís probably why it walloped me this time. I find it embarrassing; I donít like to feel self-indulgent. Iíd be having big breakdowns in the shower, and Iíd wake up in the middle of the night with that terrible ache in the pit of my stomach. And then to talk about yourself is a little embarrassing.
MN I have all my breakdowns in the shower too. Are yours in the form of a conversation, like one old argument you keep trying to win?
AR No. I wish it were like that because then I could make better sense of it. Itís a mystery, and I hate it. Thatís why I suspect that itís chemical.
MN Well, if itís any comfort, I think itís because youíre an artist and writer in America. Depression is an appropriate response to the situation weíre in.
AR Especially during the current administration. If Iím keeping myself busy writing and playing basketball I feel balanced and distracted from all the sad stuff. I find that more and more Iím trying to entertain myself when Iím working, because I know the workís going to go to a horrible place.
MN You always know that?
AR Sometimes. I donít know where the characters are going to go or whatís going to happen. I know that something inevitable will happen. I know that they want certain things and theyíre in a certain room and they smell like this and they look like that. More often than not, an entropy creeps in that strangles me, and then the inevitable happens. I donít know if I have the ability to write an ending like My Fair Ladyís, when everyone gets what they want after a few minor conflicts. If I tried to write that it would just be false. Or Iíd have someone enter with a machine gun.
MN When you were at Juilliard and you would bring plays to class, I always felt that we were watching your characters while they waited for their doom, watching to see how they handled it, what they did, you know, the nobility, the courage, the craziness of the stuff they tried in order to escape this train they saw coming. And I think thatís still what interests you. Thatís a great literary heritage to be a part of, the waiting for whatís coming.
AR I worried sometimes that I was just writing that feeling over and over again, manifesting it in different stories and characters. I was reading a lot of Russian writers. Itís so horrible what their characters go through; think of Anna Karenina. Thereís this notion that the world is designed to destroy you.
MN I know that feeling.
AR In Chekhov, when people leave, a carriage is taking them away forever. The stakes are so high just for someone to make a simple exit. And now we have all this access to public transportation, automobiles and jets and the Internet; weíre so easily distracted, but the world is still designed to destroy you. It just happens quicker and faster now.
MN Iím always having those ďwhatís the worst that could happen?Ē thoughts. I watched my son drive off to school yesterday, and I thought: There is no proof that I will ever see this child again. Then too, Iím at this place in my life where so many people I know are dying already, or starting to be sick. And this is not the premature death weíre talking about now, this is the real one, the one thatís been coming all along.
AR I havenít evenó
MN Yeah, donít.
Did you find that working in film gave you more pleasure than writing plays?
AR Whatís exciting about film is that the machine of it is so big and itís so fast and you delegate so much authority that once you get to shooting day, if you have a good crew and a good DP and good people, which I did, then you feel really taken care of by the machine. And I got to be with the actors; I did all of my pre-production before that, so I wasnít alone.
MN So you knew what you were going to shoot.
AR Yeah, I didnít feel so much like a director as I do in the theater; I felt like a softball coach. Go get Ďem, guys! Most of my job is to support the actors. In Winter Passing, I had Ed Harris, Will Ferrell, Zooey Deschanel and Amy Madigan; they were so experienced all I had to do was make sure they had their thoughts right. If I thought they were doing too much, I would say, ďDo less.Ē And then this last film, it was all these theater peopleóPaul Sparks, Dallas Roberts, Haynes Thigpen, Danny Mastrogiorgio and Rob Beitzel and this amazing young actress Gillian Jacobsóall these Julliard people. Plus veterans like Didi OíConnell, Guy Boyd, Mary Louise Burke. The playwrights Danny Hoch and Stephen Adly Guirgus are in it, too, and theyíre fantastic actors. It was unbelievable. They all came in so prepared, and it was so much fun.
MN Whatís the name of the movie you just shot?
AR Blackbird; itís an adaptation of my play. I started the film from before my two characters meet and fall in love, and then we follow them to their doom.
MN (laughter) There we go.
AR My stories take a toll on me when I write them, but usually not in rehearsals. This one did, though.
MN Because it was a personal piece, and people kept asking you where it came from?
AR Some of that, and also the reliving of it. The characters were very personally drawn; one was based on an ex-girlfriend. It brought up a lot of old stuff. It accrued a relentlessness toward the end of the shooting. I love these characters so much, and I had to say goodbye to them forever, because film makes it a permanent document. I donít think I can direct it as a play again. Itís over. We did it in 18 days, which was insane, but we got it all. Getting out of the van on the last night, everyone was like, ďAre you okay?Ē and I was like, ďWhat? What? Yeah.Ē I ran away from the van. Thatís when I started going insane, after that.
MN I remember when you were writing that play. You were injured, you said you were addicted to the meds, and you couldnít move around like you were used to doing.
AR Yeah, I was a mess.
MN Why is addiction such a problem for writers? You and I have certainly shared addictions: computer games, pain medicine . . .
AR Itís like feeling too much, and then not feeling, and then feeling too much, and then turning that off and medicating that absence. I got really addicted to this video game in bars called Big Buck Hunter II, where you slaughter deer. You shoot as many deer as possible. I couldnít stop. I was nationally ranked. I would wake up, go play Buck Hunter, and then I would do my work, and at the end of the night I had to have it. I would play it for five hours on the weekend, alone, killing these deer.
MN How were you able to stop?
AR The actual guns on the machines got damaged in New York and they didnít replace a lot of them. I had to go cold turkey.
MN I had to go into hypnosis once, to get free of my addiction to computer solitaire. I realized something was missing in my life, something between sleeping and waking, something like rest. I didnít know how to be in a peaceful, limbo-like state where nothing was required of me and nothing very bad was going to happen. Thatís the void that solitaire filled. Fills. Whatever.
AR Thereís a kind of narrative thrill with it too; itís controlled, whereas when I write, I donít know whatís going to happen. I get addicted to the pattern; I know the deer are going to come out of these trees, and there are only four different ways they can move. Itís comforting. I was going to write a piece about this guy who is addicted to Buck Hunter. He becomes friends with a butcher and a real hunter. He starts to go out and hunt, and he sees the butcher slaughter actual animals. Heís living in this meta-world where itís as if he were playing a video game. I havenít written it. But Iím really fascinated by whatís real and whatís not.
MN But what are these games, are they a virtual hunt or a virtual resting place? Maybe theyíre some new kind of life. Theyíre seeming less and less virtual.
AR Maybe. Video games and films are starting to look more like each other. The graphics are so spellbinding and real. People playing video games are like filmmakersóyou can control the dream in your own living room. You create your own destiny; you become your own author.
MN And no oneís going to review your performance. This is huge. A game gives you a score. Thereís nothing subjective. Success is what your score says it is, not what some critic says.
AR I was just talking about this yesterday. My play Red Light Winter is about to open and of course, Iím looking at it like, This is going to be a three-week party, then Ben Brantley or Charles Isherwood or whoever they send is going to come and slaughter it, and it will be done. I donít have any expectations after that. Itís a double-unrequited love story where two best friends and former college buddies sleep with the same Red Light District prostitute and there are serious consequences and some very bad things happen. I honestly have no illusions about it being a success here, Iím just glad that itís happening and that people are coming to previews. Iíve read that the head critic at the Times has gone on record as saying that there are no important American playwrights, that theyíre all in London. Itís like: What are you doing then? Why donít you write about food? So, what is your job description as an American theater critic?
MN The Times is now flaunting this power. They have a subway ad that says: ďRead the definitive judgment of plays in New York.Ē Something about the power of being a critic at the Times causes these guys to hate the theater. When drama critics turn mean, they should quit. Mean undermines the whole industry.
AR In London, and it used to happen here, an opinion comes out on Wednesday or Friday, then another critic responds to it on Sundayóit starts a conversation among the readership so they donít feel manipulated by some monolith. During an early preview for Red Light Winter I heard someone say, ďWow! I really liked this, but Iím not sure what to think yet. Has the review come out?Ē Thatís part of the discourse now.
MN In this country it seems itís harder and harder for people to make up their own minds.
AR And if you donít get the Times review, you donít get the regional theater interest, then you donít get the commission, then your work doesnít have a life. But itís your lifeís breadóitís the way weíre trying to pay for our rent, and living in New YorkÖ I work in TV. I have to!
MN Everyone has to.
AR I actually like the people Iím working with a lot.
MN I like the people in TV, too.
AR Theyíre happier.
MN They have the promise of continued employment. I mean, once you work in TV you can basically work there forever doing something. I donít think theater owners realize how much their audience is staying home to watch theater writersí shows on television. Every terrific TV show has playwrights on staff nowóyou, Warren Leight, Susan Kim, Eric Overmyer, Aaron Sorkin . . .
AR And if youíre on cable you can actually take some risks. The film thing was a fluke. I love film, but I was very resistant to it because Iím a control freak.
MN Did someone come to you with Winter Passing and say, ďWould you like to direct?Ē
AR I had a play that Bob Brustein at the American Repertory Theatre wanted to submit for this AT&T grant, but I had to write a synopsis, which I never do. I didnít get the grant. So I was left with this half-formed idea. I liked it. My West Coast agent was like, ďWhy donít you start another screenplay and back the story up?Ē I got about 50 pages into it and I loved it. I finished it and this woman who worked for Laura Bickford, who produced Traffic, read it. And she loved it. And I was like, ďAll right. What do we do?Ē She said we have to figure out how to set it up. We sent it to Ed Harris, I wrote him, and then he called me and said he wanted to do it.
MN He wrote immediately back and said, Yes?
AR He called me on the phone. Ed doesnít go through people. He calls you directly, which I love about him. And then Amy Madigan got involved. Will Ferrell and I were at the same agency at the time. And they were tossing around the idea of different actors for this one role; a 35-year-old former Christian Rock guy who is wandering the countryside. Heís a virgin and heís afraid of just about everything, and heís really repressed. Heís really small, like he doesnít move very much. Someone suggested Will, who is so broad and big, but then we met and he was phenomenal. Then Zooey Deschanel got involved. She had a lot of indie experience. So I had the cast. The producers were like, Who is going to do this? And I thought, No one else is going to touch this, I am going to do it. They were like, Oh, well, do you have film experience? And I said, ďUm, no.Ē
MN Youíve seen someÖ. (laughter)
AR Yeah, I watch them in my living room. I just kept insisting on it. When we started taking financing meetings, I had already earned the trust of the actors. The producer helped me find a genius DP in Terry Stacey, and set it up right, and thatís what happened. It started out as this impossible thing, until it was actually happening.
MN Are you getting sent things to direct now?
AR I was for a minute, but I can only do my own stuff. The feat of doing it is so hard. I wonít be as old as I hoped to be because I did these two films. And I want to do four or five more. It takes bones out of your body; itís insane. And it does a number on your head like nothing else does. Because the objective is like running a triathlon, building a house and shitting in your pants every day. (laughter) And then trying to seem like youíre poised, and fighting against atrophy and madness and everything else. I had a great time doing both, and I am proud of both. I am starting to cut Blackbird on Wednesday.
MN Now, what about your editing process?
AR Itís like rewriting a novel. There is so much you can do, itís unbelievable. Of course you want to start out with a great script. You want to have as much coverage as possible. But when it comes down to the editing room, you are completely re-authoring.
MN And itís private too.
AR Yeah, itís just you and the editor. Itís actually tranquil.
MN Do you think youíll ever leave the theater?
AR No, no. When theater works affect me and affect the gathering of people, thereís nothing like it. Thatís to me the greatest thrill of storytelling. There is something incredibly powerful about being in this dark audience and watching this live event and actually believing itís happening. And then leaving the theater and carrying it with you and not being able to shake it.
MN You are prolific. Do you have a count at the moment of how many plays you have written?
AR I have written 28 plays. Four of them are 20-minute plays. Nine of them have never seen the light of day. Whatever that means. And I have written eight novels, two of which have not come out yet. And a couple of screenplays. So, a lot.
MN How do you do this? Do you sleep?
AR I sleep a lot. Itís just that when I start something I donít stop until I am finished. But I donít start until itís grabbing me by my throat. When Iím in that mode itís all I do. Iíll basically sleep with my laptop. Not because I feel pressure to finish but because I know that thereís a kinetic thing that takes over and if I lose that feeling of freefall then I have lost a piece in some way. I re-read the entire thing, re-work it every single day that I write it. Sometimes I plant things early in a first draft that I donít know are there. Images like a hat or a belt, and then the belt gets used later and I donít even remember.
MN I think it happens a lot, that writers leave themselves notes while theyíre writing. Then they go back later and figure out what the note meant.
AR I like that objects travel through theater space. Novel writing is much more meditative, more controlled. A lot of my plays take place in one or two nights, one scene and another scene. A lot of them are real time. I donít think about psychology when I write, I just think about what the actions are. And I like the action of someone putting their hand in a door and slamming it, or putting it through a window, to be as mysterious to me as it is to the characters onstage and the audience. I donít always know why certain things happen, but it fascinates me. I find that when I start to make decisions for them, it doesnít work.
MN Do you go back and read your early work?
AR I have a couple of plays that I feel are unfinished. I want to go back and get them right. George Bernard Shaw said something to the effect that at the end of his life he wanted to be completely used upóthoroughly. Iím 37, Iím not married, I donít have kids. But I can leave behind these artifacts, plays and books and maybe a few films.
MN Everybody thinks about what they are leaving behind. Some days I think, Thank God I am leaving these wonderful children here because my career just sucks. (laughter) Whatís your plan, are you going to spend the next 40 years working this hard?
AR At some point Iíd like to have a house, a room to write in, and maybe look out the window and see some trees and a lake. But youíve had an incredible career with crazy valleys and amazing heights. You won the Pulitzer Prize for Godís sake! I look at you or someone like Lee Blessingówho has never really had those heights, but he has had a lot of in-betweens and lots of valleys. Itís so difficult to have a career as a playwright in America. Unless youíre Edward Albee, and I hear even heís dissatisfied.
MN He is terribly. Somebody told me he has approached Disney about doing an adaptation of Winnie the Pooh.
AR Oh my God. Iíd love to see that.
AR I canít tell you how many theaters have told me, I love your work, but I canít put it in front of my audience. Tim Sanford from Playwrights Horizons commissioned Red Light Winter, then said no to it, so Steppenwolf does it and it blows up in Chicago. It runs forever, gets sold out totally. Then he comes back and tells my agent heís interested in the play again. Thereís such a fear of producing tougher work, because the artistic directors donít want to lose their subscribers, because thatís what keeps their theater afloat.
MN Theyíve created an audience that allows them to keep the theater open, but they donít like the plays they have to do in order to keep that audience.
AR Exactly. Look at Edward Bondís work, or Pinterís work in Londonótheyíre not afraid to lionize a Sarah Kane. She was so vilified, then they came out and wrote Sunday responses to all the bad reviews about how important and amazing her play was. She became a national treasure overnight. The culture there looked to the playwright for an important cultural opinion.
MN Weíre a younger culture. They have Shakespeare. Writing is at the center of their culture. I donít know whatís at the center of ours, but itís not writing.
AR And itís unbelievable the way content is being controlledóI know itís Bush. One of my books was banned last year.
MN What happened?
AR Buffalo Tree was banned in a small Pennsylvania community. This 15-year-old girlówho hadnít even read the bookówas puppeteered in front of the school board by her Christian group, and she quoted from the book out of context. They seized books out of kidsí hands; it was in the curriculum at the high schools. The book is about this kid who is incarcerated in an institution for juvenile delinquents. Thereís a masturbation scene thatís sort of hinted atóitís not even that graphic. A kid gets stabbed with a pencil in the shower because he has an erection. Thereís a kid who throws himself off of a tree at the end of the story because heís terribly unhappy and he slid down the pecking order. Largely itís about friendship and loyalty and surviving stuff. The kids from that Pennsylvania town rallied and signed petitions. One very progressive teacher resigned in protest. The superintendent was on his side, and there was this huge community upheaval. Bruce Weber wrote about it in the Times. He researched the statistics of book banning under different administrations. It was at an all-time high during Reaganís administration. When Clinton was in office there were 300. There were 1,100 official bannings when Reagan was inóand now Bush has doubled that! What is the cause and effect? Is it his administration or is it cultural zeitgeist?
MN Itís also the belief of the Christian right that they are correct, and they are entitled to enforce their opinions. That pure exercise of power is the beginning of the end. Look at great empires, the right got control!
AR Are we Rome? Where does an artist fit in all this? I think art is so important right now. Itís so important for people to turn their televisions off and go to the theater and go to museums and have discussions. Iím glad Tony Kushner exists, Iím glad that there are playwrights writing political theater. Someone was telling me that thereís this wave of young people who are going to opera now. There are $25 tickets offered for student rush and theyíre getting 500 students a night. They do ecstasy, or they smoke pot, and they go listen to Wagner. I want those people to come to the theater!
MN When you talk to students, what do you tell them about how to survive the kind of things that happen in a playwrightís life?
AR I say, You have to realize that thereís nothing in it other than the love of doing it. I fell in love with playwriting because itís a magical space that stories could happen in. Thereís no money; itís about poverty. So if you donít enjoy sitting in a chair and trying to figure out how to make people not leave, or leave, or do things to each other, youíre probably not going to like it. Then, thereís the impossible Sisyphian expectation just to get a production up and then have the critics shit on itóitís constantly setting yourself up for abuse. So, if you donít absolutely love it, then donít do it.
MN In the beginning of my career, I think I wrote plays in order to have the conversations I wanted to have. The play would get me in the room with the people I wanted to talk with about something. Working on musicals now, itís so hard; they call for all this stuff that you donít know how you know it or where it comes from. Yet I canít believe Iím lucky enough to be doing it. The people of the theater are the best in the world. Thatís one of the great joys: that you get to be in the game you belong in. But I read somewhere that you thought about being a doctor.
AR I thought it would be heroic. I thought I could save peopleís lives and comfort them. Then I thought about the years of medical school, and the misery. At least if I write I can control the content of that space thatís being taken up in my mind.
MN And you get to wake up in your bed and thereís your laptop. Not many non-writers have had the pleasure of being able to go straight from a dream state into a work state.
AR I love it. Thereís nothing better than when Iím in the middle of a play. I canít wait to wake up to write. I mean, sex is good and drugs are great, sometimes. But thereís nothing better than that kind of ephemeral longing that you feelóthat yearning right before you wake up. That I canít wait to get back in that room with those people. Thatís what Iím addicted to.