PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER with Adam Rapp

News   PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER with Adam Rapp
 
For a few years after he first burst upon the New York scene, playwright Adam Rapp was most famous for his fecundity.
Adam Rapp
Adam Rapp Photo by Aubrey Reuben

One after another, the new plays would premiere: Nocturne, Faster, Stone Cold Dead Serious, Blackbird, Finer Noble Gases, Trueblinka. Last year, however, he seemed to grow up a bit with the premiere of Red Light Winter. Critics noticed a new maturity in his writing. The show had a healthy run at the Barrow Street Theatre, and won Obie Awards for playwright Rapp and actor Gary Wilmes. Co-star Christopher Denham won a Lortel Award for his performance. The play was also considered for the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Rapp is now back with perhaps his highest profile production, Essential Self-Defense, which will have its premiere at the respected Playwrights Horizons. Carolyn Cantor directs the music-heavy play, which has a cast that includes Rapp favorite Heather Goldenhersh as well as members of Rapp's own rock band, Less, including actor Paul Sparks. Rapp spoke to Playbill.com about the production and his gazillion other upcoming projects.

Playbill.com: There's a lot of music in Essential Self-Defense. Are all the actors musicians?
Adam Rapp: Yeah, the guys who I developed the play with are mostly in my band that I play in, and they're also great actors — Paul Sparks and Ray Rizzo. And Lucas Papaelias, who's not in my band, but he's the best actor I've ever seen and he happens to be a really good [musician] too. It was very important that they could play. Paul plays Yul Carroll and Ray Rizzo is our drummer.

Playbill.com: And you play guitar yourself, as I understand it. And your band is called Less?
AR: Yes. Less the Band. I wrote the play first, and I knew there was going to be karaoke music. The audience would perceive it as being made up at the moment. Ray Rizzo and I started working on the music. We did a little developmental workshop with the LAByrinth Theatre Company a couple years ago. We just sort of came up with things in the moment. When we did a workshop in Cape Cod last summer we found a lot more musical moments that sort of came out of hanging out with each other having fun. The characters in the play lose their fear of performing and start expressing their lives in these small musical moments at the butcher shop or the library. The heroine starts to take more stock of her singing ability as the play goes on.

Playbill.com: You mean Sadie.
AR: Yes, Sadie, who's played by Heather Goldenhersh, who I actually wrote the part for. It's funny, I wrote this for Heather and Paul, and it's the first time in a long time where I wrote with two actors in mind and they're actually doing the world premiere. It's really exciting. In recent years, I've had people in mind, but they're all becoming famous and they weren't available.

Playbill.com: What kind of world are we in in Essential Self-Defense?
AR: It's this small town in the Heartland. I'm trying to talk about these unincorporated towns that were very far away from 9/11 when it went down and the culture of fear that developed there through the media and through the weird airwaves more than anything else. It's a place with a barbershop and municipal library. It has probably 10,000 or 12,000 people. It has a couple of churches and a bowling alley. I know a lot of those towns. I grew up in Illinois. There's a kind of magical, fable-like quality to the play. There are good and evil archtypes that I'm really working hard to make seem as human and identifiable as possible, so they don't seem like comic book heroes. Playbill.com: There seem to be a number of semi-apocalyptic things going on in the town. Children are disappearing and wild dogs attack people.
AR: Yeah, I think we have this weird fetishization of children in our country and how they disappear or are sexually abused or get kidnapped. It's an interesting phenomenon and I wanted to comment on that a bit, within the culture of terror that we have. I was trying to conflate those two ideas. And there's also this scapegoat culture we have, where something's gone wrong in a community and someone has to be named the culprit in order for the community to find peace. It's a smaller version of what happened with Osama Bin Laden and our need for retribution on that. We need a name; we create a character so we can sleep at night. I was interested in that as well when I was writing the play.

Playbill.com: Do you share Yul Carroll's general distrust of the corporate world and unseen political forces?
AR: Yeah, I'm a little bit of a conspiracy theorist. I generally distrust corporate politics. There's all this machinery at work that grinds you down. A lot of things Yul says are things that I have thought, in a much more exaggerated way. He's been hurt by the world a lot more than I have. He's much more of a loner than I am. But I certainly have my doubts about the world and our leaders.

Playbill.com: You directed your last play, Red Light Winter. Why did you choose not to direct this one?
AR: [Playwrights Horizons artistic director] Tim Sanford came to me and said he loved my work as a director, but he really loved Edge Theatre Company. I was very excited about that, because I love Edge Theatre, I love working with [Edge co-artistic director Carolyn [Cantor], and frankly she's really good at these bigger plays that have all these transitions and all these mechanics. I'm better at getting people in a room and not letting them leave and letting them behave in front of an audience. Ironically, we're both very similar in tone. She really understands the tone of my work. She did a beautiful job on Stone Cold Dead Serious. In the wrong hands, that play could seem like a really goofy cartoon. She knows how to humanize my characters and find that balance. And frankly, I've been directing so much the last few years, it's kind of nice to just be the playwright in the room.

Playbill.com: You directed your first film "Winter Passing" a couple years back. Do you think you're going to do another film?
AR: Yes, my next film is going to premiere at the "South by Southwest" film festival. It's an adaptation of my play Blackbird. Paul Sparks has the lead in that in a role he originated Off-Broadway. It's sort of a prequel to the play. The play, which takes place in one night, is also part of the film. The movie's story predates the play by six months. Then I'm going to do the film of Red Light Winter too. That will happen next winter. It's with Scott Rudin productions. But I'm directing two of my play next fall back to back.

Playbill.com: What are the two plays?
AR: I'm doing a new play called American Sligo at Rattlestick, which is going to open Sept. 16 with Paul Sparks, Guy Boyd, Marylouise Burke — sort of the regulars. And then I'm directing a play of mine at the Flea, which will start rehearsals at the end of September, and that's called Bingo With the Indians.

Playbill.com: You're very prolific. How long does it take you to write a play?
AR: Oh, it depends. Like Blackbird took me a few days to get the first draft out, because I was in a really kinetic place with it. I tend to write the first drafts very quickly, but then it takes me a long time to figure out the math in it. Red Light Winter was a fast write. Nocturne was a surprisingly fast write. Other ones have been quick bursts of writing and then lots of figuring out.

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