Broadway Bullet Interview: Playwright Adam Rapp

 This week we have a great interview with Adam Rapp about his new play "Essential Self Defense."

Adam Rapp has a diverse career as a writer. He has written many young adult novels including "Missing the Piano," "The Buffalo Tree," and "The Copper Elephant," His first adult novel, "The Year of Endless Sorrows," was recently published. He has written many plays including last years Obie Award winning and Pulitzer Prize nominated "Red Light Winter." He also is the writer/director of two films "Winter Passing" and "Blackbird."

"Essential Self Defense" is about a misfit who takes a job as an attack dummy in a women's self-defense class, and soon he and his friends have to battle the darkness in their town. The play is described as, "a grim fairy take with generous helpings of rock and roll karaoke.

"Essential Self Defense" is playing at Playwrights Horizons through April 15th. For tickets click here.

You can listen to this interview and many other great features for free on Broadway Bullet vol. 107. Subscribe for free so you don't miss an episode.

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Broadway Bullet Interview: Playwright Adam Rapp on his new show, "Essential Self Defense"

BROADWAY BULLET: It's a busy week for playwright Adam Rapp as he has a movie out at South by Southwest and a new play that is going into previews and opening at the Playwright's Horizons.  So Adam Rapp is definitely on a busy streak right now, and is here with us in the studio.  How are you?

Adam Rapp: I'm good, I'm doing pretty good.  How are you?

BB: Good.  So what has the process been like for Essential Self-Defense?

ADAM: It's been really fun.  You know, a lot of the actors are actors I have worked a lot with in the past, and who are friends of mine so in some ways it's been like a big party on a pontoon boat.  It's different because I'm not directing it, and I've been directing a lot of my own work recently.  I love Carolyn Cantor and her company so much and she's directed my work so wonderfully before, so I love working with her and her husband David – who's the set designer – it's really it does feel like a bunch of friends getting together and kind of throwing a party, which is the best way to do theater I think.  It's not to say that it's not been professional and rigorous, but it's just that I feel like – it's so hard doing what we do – that it should be fun.  So whenever I've been in rehearsals, it's really fun, there's always laughing.  The play is really quite goofy, and out there.

BB: Yeah, what is the play about?

ADAM: It's about this guy named Yul Carol who lives in a small town in the Heartland – it's a made up town called Bloggs, USA.  And he's recently been let go from his job at a television plant because he crossed out President Bush's face in a newspaper.  And he can't get a job anywhere and the community doesn't know what to do with him.  So he takes a job as a dummy in a women's self defense studio where he wears a big foam nerf suit where he gets beat up for hours by women.  This woman, played by Heather Goldenhersh, her name is Sadie, she accidentally knocks his tooth out, and is afraid of everything, and is kind of an agoraphobic, and she is drawn to him because he is so strange, I think.  So she wants to return his tooth to him and when they make that connection, they start to fall in love.  So there's a strange love story amidst this strange arrangement of how the play starts.

BB: Was this at all inspired by the Dixie Chicks?

ADAM: No, no.  No Dixie Chicks at all; but it was actually inspired by this woman, Christine Jones, who – she's a fairly well known set designer, she's doing the Duncan Sheik musical on Broadway right now.

BB: Spring Awakening?

ADAM: Spring Awakening, yes.  She and her partner, Dallas Roberts, used to live with me – and they actually conceived their child in my apartment – and we lived together for a couple of years and she told me about a time she took a self defense class.  And she told me that there was, literally, a man who would wear a big, foam suit that would get beat on all day by this band of women.  And I thought that was one of the most insane jobs you could ever take.  And I, just initially my imagination was spurred and I was taken away to deal with that character, and I couldn't shake it.  Initially, I was going to write it as this little, three character karaoke love story that involved a drummer and two characters, Yul and Sadie, and they were going to beat on each other at this self defense studio, and every other scene they would find themselves at this karaoke bar and they were going to sing the story of their lives to each other.  But the play just kept expanding for me, and I kept being haunted by all of these ideas about terror in America and, especially in the Midwest, how there were all of these, sort of, first response workshops that were inspired by 9/11 and people were afraid to leave their homes, even though the twin towers were hundreds and hundreds and thousands of miles away.  So the two sort of ideas conflated and I found myself writing about this community that was upset by terror and setting this love story – this odd, little, concentric love story – in that context.

BB: Now where are you from originally because you don't strike me as an east coaster.

ADAM: No, I'm from Chicago.  I was born in Chicago, then I spent most of my youth in Joliet, Illinois which is about thirty minutes south, and I went to a military academy for high school in Wisconsin.  Then I went to college, on a basketball scholarship to a small school in Iowa, so I'm like Mr. Midwest.  I came here in 1991, and I've never lost my accent.  I used to be embarrassed by it but now I'm kind of proud of it.  It's in me, you know?  I grew up eating hamburger helper, macaroni and cheese, and drinking lots of milk, and looked at lots of cows; but I feel like a New Yorker now, I've lived here for sixteen years.

BB: So how do you like the New York parties?  Do you feel like the odd man out?

ADAM: I've never really felt good at the parties, but I have enough friends now that I feel social, I used to feel very antisocial, but I think the theater helps.

BB: I'm originally from Montana, so I can definitely understand the varied differences in social attitudes.

ADAM: Yeah, I've never really felt that I've had the right hair cut, or had the right clothes; but there's something about the theater community here that – I was talking about this earlier today – there are a lot of misfits in the theater community and a lot of people from the Midwest who are ex-patriots.  Like Paul Sparks who stars in the play is from Oklahoma, this really small town in Oklahoma – that I don't even know the name of.  Heather Goldenhersh is from St. Louis, and Michael Chernus – who's in the play – is from Ohio, so it's this cauldron of Midwesterners who have come out here to rediscover themselves. 

BB: You were mentioning that you frequently directed your own works, but you've kind of gone in all ways.  You've directed your works, other people have directed your works, and you've directed works other people have written.  How does this all play around, and how does it lead into you having a hard time letting go for another director?

ADAM: What I've learned in the last few years is that I am merely a storyteller.  And I think, for me, when I direct my own work it's just an extension of the authorship.  It's not, I don't put big concepts on my work, and it's all – often – about keeping actors in a room together and not letting them leave.  I think a piece like this, which has many, many scenes and many, many transitions, I think I'm a little more daunted by when the machinery of the play is really huge.  When it's just a few scenes and a couple of actors behaving in a room, I feel very confident with that.  With that said, I just directed Julian Shepherds' play down at the Flea in Los Angeles, which was an amazing experience.  It was eleven actors, and three musicians, and ten consecutive scenes that were all duets, and it was the biggest theatrical challenge I have had, and I am really pleased with the results.  So I am learning more about how those plays are cracked; but with my own work, I'm more interested in the smaller plays, but now that I've gone through this process with Julian in Los Angeles, and watching Carolyn work with Essential Self-Defense, I think I'm ready to handle one of my bigger plays.  I just love working with actors, and I love working with writers, working with designers.  I feel that I am just a storyteller, and whether I am wearing the director hat or the playwright hat, it doesn't matter.  And the rooms I tend to be in are pretty democratic and the best idea wins.  So sometimes when I'm directing, the stage manager will have a good idea and that's okay with me too.  I don't like the sort of hierarchical, totalitarian type of room a lot of directors can find themselves in.  I had a sort of bad experiences as a playwright early on, when directors were putting in huge concepts that I didn't intend, or they were stylizing something that was compromising the play, so I started to think like, "well if I'm going to fight against this, I should learn how to direct".  So I began stealing a lot of ideas from other directors I had worked with.  There's this guy named Mike Bradwell, who just stepped down from the Busch Theatre in London, who made a huge impact on me as a director and the way he builds plays.  He spends a lot of time on the table, and a lot of time getting the thoughts right before he puts people onstage, and I think that's really important.  He also doesn't audition, which I stay away from as much as possible, I find auditioning to be a very illusive process, where actors come in with this really big result with no process, so it's a lie already at work.  And I feel that I'd rather know an actors' work, or have an instinct about them and sit down and have coffee with them, or I'll see them in something and I'll see if I can get along with them in some way, shape, or form.

BB: Has it ever resulted in a mistake?

ADAM: Not yet, I've been really lucky.  Like Chris Denham in Red Light Winter, I was meeting him about something else – he was an admirer and a writer and we shared an agent – and I immediately, like three minutes into the conversation, had this flash that he would be great in Red Light Winter as Matt.  And I was like, "What are you doing in February?" and he was like, "Why?" so I told him that I wrote this play and would like him to read for it and it's going to be at Steppenwolf.  Turns out he's from Chicago, so he was able to work as a local.  And Gary Wilmes in the same way, I ran into him at a party and it just struck me when I was speaking to him that he had that kind of charm that the character, Davis, needs to seduce the audience in some ways and he's such a funny guy – Gary – and I sent him a script and that's how we casted.  I auditioned in Chicago for the female role and found Lisa Joyce through auditions, but it was a really arduous process, I saw like fifty five women.  They were really pushing more famous girls in Chicago on me, but I really liked Lisa and how she had so much poise.  And I had no idea she was so young and was just out of DePaul, so it was just another thing that drew me to her beyond just her resume and people talking about her.  So I tend to cast in that way, and I think auditioning can be very reductive and I just hate how actors work really hard and most of them aren't going to get the job, and I hate putting them through that.  I think because my brother was an actor and I just saw how he struggled through, I guess I'm sensitive to it.

BB: Though he's doing quite well as well.

ADAM: Yeah, he's really good at auditioning actually.  He's one of those guys that can get the job, walk in the room, and nail it.  That's a whole muscle he's figured out.

BB: You have a lot on your plate, pretty much all the time I'm guessing, so what is a typical day in the life of Adam Rapp?  Because you do books, you do movies, and writing and directing, and plays writing and directing.

ADAM: Right now, to be honest, I got a puppy, I got him in September and brought him home in October and he's a puggle, which is so embarrassing because he's such a fashionable dog to have, but I saw him in the window of this pet store and he was the cutest thing I'd ever seen and bought him.  And he's really dominating my life right now, I mean he's seven months old.  It's been great because he's really amazing, he's really funny, and he's got all of this energy; but he just got neutered, and he's got diarrhea and I've just got all of these huge responsibilities getting him outside, getting fed.  And I didn't anticipate him being so enormous, so he's dominating my life right now as I try to help him grow up right, you know.  But honestly, a typical day for me is I'm writing when I'm not directing.  When I'm directing, I'm pretty much not writing, but when I'm not directing I am writing a lot.  It's strange, people have asked me what my schedule is and what is my process like, and I can't even answer it.  I don't keep regular hours.

BB: Because a lot of writers have a ritual.

ADAM: Yeah,

BB: They go to a place and get in a zone.  It almost sounds impossible for you to develop that kind of.

ADAM: Well it's been hard for me to not write, and that's the only process I can speak to I guess, it's so compulsive and I need to do it all the time that sometimes I make myself not do it so I can actually tend to my life.  And my life has been in shambles, like my personal relationships, my laundry, paying bills – now I have someone who pays my bills – and it's always been a challenge because it overwhelms me.  And just once I start I can go for hours and hours and hours, and sometimes I forget to eat, and the only thing I really break for is to play basketball and to walk around outside and just get some fresh air.  A lot of times, days melt away; and when I'm in that zone, I love that it's like going down a rabbit hole that I enjoy.  But when I am directing, it is much, much, much, much, much different.  I'm a much more practical person in the world, I show up on time, I am very rigorous about scheduling, and I am very focused.  But when I'm writing I am just a big, irresponsible mess and I'm just impossible to get in touch with, and I don't spend time with friends.  I'm still learning how to do that, even though I'm an adult and I need to learn how to manage that.

BB: At any given time how many projects do you think you are writing on?

ADAM: Well I try not to write more than two or three, I try to just write one if possible, I write till the end – at least a draft – of a play or a novel; but sometimes, I'll take a break for a couple weeks for a project that is paying me money like a television project – which I try to stay away from – just to stay financially ahead of the game.  But generally two or three, I have a commission out with the Roundabout Theater right now that I finished recently, I have two graphic novels that I'm almost finished the scripts for, I have another young adult novel that I've been working on for a year that I'm supposed to turn in in the earlier part of the summer which I am making progress on.  Now that Los Angeles is open and we are about to get into Essential Self-Defense, I think that I can go back to purely working on the writing now.  I'm not going back to directing until the fall.

BB: Well thank you very much for coming down at this very busy time.  Again, Essential Self-Defense is running through April 15th.

ADAM: April 15th, that's correct.

BB: And that's at Playwright's Horizons, and a lot more on the horizon from you for our audience to look out for.

ADAM: Yes, thanks for having me.


You can listen to this interview and many other great features for free on Broadway Bullet vol. 107. Subscribe for free so you don't miss an episode.

 or MP3 Feed with XML



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