8/7/11: The Gershwin Hotel, New York City
Adam Rapp is a force in modern American theatre. He seeks out all avenues to production including a claustrophobic back-room of a hotel in the nebulous netherworld below midtown; above Chelsea; east of Fifth Avenue. But Rapp isn’t some unknown artist by any stretch. His work has been performed all over the world and he’s something of a Renaissance man; equal parts, screenwriter, novelist, basketball player, musician, and Obie-award winning playwright. I recently got the chance to sit down with Rapp following one of the preview shows for his latest work; a twin-bill with The Amoralists and Derek Ahonen; “Hotel/Motel.” His contribution to the event is the New York premiere of his play; “Animals & Plants.” Here are some excerpts from our conversation.
How did you ever connect with the Amoralists?
A couple years ago Derek (Ahonen) got in touch with me on the Internet and he invited me to come see their show “Pied Pipers.” He’s a guy from Chicago; I’m from Chicago so I think he used that where he said, “hey I’m from Chicago” and “would you come see this?” and I actually don’t get to see a lot of stuff because I’m always so busy and frankly I get pretty disappointed by a lot of stuff that I see so I try not to see a lot of stuff so I won’t stay disappointed. So I was a little dubious. But I went and saw Pied Pipers at PS 122; I live around the corner from there so I said you know what, why don’t I go check it out; if I don’t like it it’s not a wasted evening. I try to show support for the younger writers. Coming up is hard; I know it’s nice when an older writer shows up and shows support — I wish I’d had more of that when I was a younger writer in my 20’s and early 30’s. So I was like ‘what the hell; I’ll give it a shot.’ And there’s just like a lunacy in his play before that I had not ever seen that close. It was this play with these two couples; very lefty; living above a vegan restaurant; like new age hippies kind of. But it was really funny because there were these huge operatic moments of high drama colliding with absurdity. The guy Matt at one point came out with like a full erection and he was chasing around this younger brother. I thought they were just crazy and wild. Honestly it was not my favorite play of Derek’s; it had some beautiful moments; but I was just amazed at their courage; their willingness to play; to play with each other. Emotionally they really go for it. But also they’re really good actors; they’re all really well trained. They get very close to thought. They dig really deep into back story. They’re not just throwing themselves against the wall for effect.
Was this staging The Amoralists idea? To put these two shows in as in-your-face a space as a folded-chair 20 seat room?
“Initially they (Amoralists) wanted to do something here (Gershwin) and I thought that I could do this play in that vocabulary because I’ve always wanted to do a play inside of a room; where the audience is a part of the room; you know really intimate; almost like the audience is a part of a film crew; the audience is within reach. [In professional theatres] everything is so separated with proscenium or even thrusts where everything’s so decked out now. I work a lot in 99 seat theatres or 200 seat theatres; sometimes I work in larger theatres regionally. But this is my favorite stuff when the audience is that close. It’s fun with the audience being that close. They feel a little more complicit; or a little more a part of it. We take more responsibility whether we want to or not.”
The Amoralists Points of Artistic Unity state that they demand artists who dig in, who ask questions. Have the players in your shows done the same for you? Have the actors work changed the message you were trying to send?
“Everything always changes when I get into rehearsals — It just depends. In the past if I was working with a director who I felt didn’t understand the material I’d get really aggressive. But like the Hallway Trilogy we did this winter at Rattlestick. I could only direct one of them because we were doing the three simultaneously so I just couldn’t go into the other rehearsals. I just had to let go. Fortunately they were two directors I’m very close with and I trust. But generally I don’t like giving up control to anybody; I’m kind of a control freak.”
Many of your plays have very extreme positions. When I saw “Red Light Winter” it felt as though it came from one place; a few years later when I saw “Ghosts in the Cottonwoods” I have to say I felt as though I were looking at your middle finger.
“Theatre is a bear pit. I don’t feel like the theatre is a place for trivial entertainment. I feel like people should go at each other and the theatre’s where we see the extremes of humanity. It’s a great forum for that. You can be entertained by watching TV or going to a film and it’s easy. There’s nothing that you can reach out and touch with that. It’s all protected. There’s no actual real event happening in front of you; it’s all illusion. I feel like theatre that’s where you want to know what humanity can be and how horrible we can be and how beautiful we can be. So I do deal with extremes but one thing that’s real important about that is that as brutal as my stuff is I actually think it can be as tender or as sweet or as beautiful at times; I want that combustion. If something’s just pure negativity then that just feels like pornography sometimes. I think some of my plays are in balance and some are not; some are balanced towards positivity; I think it just depends. When I wrote “Ghosts in the Cottonwoods” I was going through a rough period in my life. I had a lot of stuff I was working out with the way I was raised and my parents and my family situation. Art comes out of that personal place. I didn’t think when I was doing it ‘this is about my family’. my mom was a nurse, you know? She was just a normal woman who had a job and she had to raise three kids on her own and she had a rough time and I had a rough time.”
In “Animals & Plants” it had moments that were so sweet; Walt and Dan, Walt and Cassandra; but through it all; even as I was taking in these sweet moments; I was just waiting for the other shoe to drop. It’s like that with anything in life I guess. You have a connection for a minute or a lifetime but eventually it’s gone.
“Yeah (he thinks for a minute) — maybe one day I’ll write a play with a sweet happy ending where everyone starts singing or like a fountain bursts — “
— and the Village Voice and the NY Times will write “What happened to Adam Rapp?”
“Yeah “What happened to this guy?” I’m not trying to write dark things because I’m just so dark that’s just what happens; what comes out and sometimes its darker than other times.”
What is the advice you’d give young artists trying to move to a place like New York City?
Don’t wait for anyone to anoint you. Just do your work. You know make a play in your living room. If you’re an actor do readings of plays in your living room or do readings at bars. The biggest trick I think is people get here and expect to get on the ladder or this mill that will get you agents and showcases and all that. and that’s fine but you’re going to be very, very sad and tired if you don’t do the work. So I think it’s something as small as doing work in small spaces and like doing work for yourself and your friends and the company that you form; I think that is like gold. Because that is what you expand out of and that keeps you nourished when you’re also trying to do commercials or you’re also trying to do your money job or you’re going out for auditions and getting rejected or you’re making plays that aren’t getting produced. Continuing to do it in a small way; that’s what I did and I found that’s what gets you better at your craft and also you get satisfaction; even if it’s four people in your living room watching it; there’s somebody witnessing it and that to me is the most important thing. Because otherwise bitterness sets in early and that’s death.
I read an interview with you a while back which said you’ve lived in the same apartment for 17 years at the time. Is that the secret to success in NY? Not moving around?
Still with all the same guys?
“No, no. it’s just me and my girlfriend and my dog and a bird. For a while it was like, you know, you had five or six roommates. I almost moved out a few times and I did move out one year; I kept one room; I moved out but I kept the lease and I kept one room for my writing room so I was still there a lot and after this girl and I broke up I moved back to the place.”
You said in that same interview with Time Out NY that you have a group of people you play basketball with who know nothing of your career. Is that still true?
“They do now. Two years ago I was still pretty anonymous but now — a lot of them know because a lot of the guys who’ve been playing a long time will tell new guys. ‘This guys a writer/director.’ I don’t mind. The only thing that bothers me is when actors start showing up for a pickup game. I just go there to get away from all of this and to play; it’s my other life and I don’t want to talk about the business. Sometimes an actor will show up and think that I’ll be able to get him a job or something and it’s just not the right place.”
For a figure who has a lot of direct interaction with people both onstage and in your writing, you maintain a fairly low-key public persona. Is that a conscious choice?
The film version of “Red Light Winter” has been in development for quite some time. Any news on that?
“We’re filming in January. It sort of fell into a black hole for a bit but now we’re locked in. It’s going to be Billy Crudup, Mark Ruffalow, and Kirsten Dunst.”
Less the Band is a project you’re involved with; I know you all had a gig downtown last month for the Amoralists fundraiser; how else does your work with the band coincide with your playwriting? Or are they exclusive?
“The band was born out of a theatre project and we very consciously did not want to be thought of as a theatre band because we’re very, very serious about what we do and we have some musicians in the band who are world class musicians and it’s really an extraordinary collaboration. But we keep getting corralled into playing [theatrical events] like we were asked to play The Lortel Awards. We opened for My Morning Jacket in Europe and even did our own thing in London and Edinburgh. [But] we tried to stay away from the gravitational pull of the theatre because we’re kind of our own thing.”
What motivates you?
“There’s a lot I want to accomplish. I do want to reach a bigger audience. Even though we’re doing something like this. I do feel at some point I’d like to make my living totally from theatre and writing and not have to write for TV or film unless it’s a passion project. I’d love it if the books and the plays could do it for me. Unfortunately the economy is not great for artists in those fields so I have to do other things. I have ambitions. At times I’m a little jealous of Tracy Letts and those who’ve won the big awards. Not jealous but you know I have those aspirations but I try to keep that out of my mind because otherwise it corrupts the work. Honestly I want to be considered a great writer of my generation.”
What infuriates you?
“Mediocrity. I cannot stand when I go to the theater and I see a very palatable thing offered to a middle class palatable audience. It infuriates me because I think a lot of peoples time gets wasted. Theatre is expensive to pay for and it’s hard to do and its asking a lot of people to change their evening to come so why be mediocre? Why be boring? Take a risk. I can’t stand stuff that’ s just like; it’s the version of Chekov you expect to see or it’s the television actors onstage. There’s so little risk in that.”
Who is Adam Rapp?
“I’m a 14 year old trapped in a 43 year old man’s body with a bad back and a trick knee just trying to make it to 50.”
You’ve got to lay off those layups.
“I can still jump really well for my age; not as well as I used to.”
My thanks to Adam Rapp, David Gibbs, and everyone involved with The Amoralists & Hotel/Motel