STAGE TO SCREENS: Chatting with Playwright and Screenwriter Adam Rapp | Playbill

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News STAGE TO SCREENS: Chatting with Playwright and Screenwriter Adam Rapp This month we chat with writer-director Adam Rapp, whose latest play, Red Light Winter, just opened Off-Broadway, and whose first film, “Winter Passing,” was released on Friday.
Adam Rapp
Adam Rapp


At the end of the year, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux will publish Adam Rapp's new novel, which he's been “working on for 13-14 years. Every other thing that I've written, I've written while I've been writing this novel. It's sort of a time capsule for me,” he says.

While the new book is termed Rapp's first adult novel, he doesn't totally agree. “The 'young-adult' genre [designating his earlier works] is sort of a marketing device. While my protagonists have generally been teenagers, I don't consider any of the books to be specifically for children. They've tried to publish a couple as crossovers into the adult market, but not so successfully. This will be the first one taken seriously as an adult piece of fiction. I'm excited about that; it'll be like new waters to test.”

However, “The Year of Endless Sorrow” hardly applies to 2006. Aside from the aforementioned play and film, Rapp's involved in the editing of his second movie, “Blackbird” (adapted from one of his plays), working on another book, “Decelerate Blue” (“which will probably be out this time next year”), awaiting the March release of the first CD of his band, Less (“I love the band; it gives me a way to blow off steam”), and preparing for their August appearance at the Edinburgh Festival, where he'll also direct a production of another of his plays, Finer Noble Gases.

In addition, he's resident playwright for the Edge Theatre Company (“they're like my family”), and has just been invited back as writer-producer for a second season of the cable series “The L Word” (“I'm really thrilled about that”). The survivor of a problematic youth, he admits, “It's a very good year. I don't know why it happened this way; I'm just happy it's all happening.” ***

Set in Amsterdam's red-light district and later, an East Village apartment, Red Light Winter was inspired by a 1997 trip that Rapp took with a friend, “who was very, very depressed. I was trying to get him back in the world some way. We're still great friends. He's married now and happy, and lives in Brooklyn. But the characters, Davis [played by Gary Wilmes] and Matt [Christopher Denham], are definitely not my friend or me,” insists Rapp. “I wish I was as interesting as either of them. Nor is the woman [Christina, portrayed by Lisa Joyce] the one with whom we both slept. I took circumstances and embellished them.”

He wrote the first act in two weeks, while at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, CT, during the summer of 2003. “A few weeks later, I was asked to read it [at a seminar]. I got a lot of nice feedback, and completed the second act while I was there.” How similar was the reading to what has since played at Steppenwolf and is now at the Barrow Street Theatre? “Very close, to be honest with you. I made a lot of cuts [in Chicago] and more here, but there wasn't much restructuring. I think I'm getting smarter with my first drafts.” The O'Neill, he notes, “has been an incredible touchstone for me. I like to go there every summer; it's a magical place for me. I always write a play when I'm there.

“A lot of my work is developed with [specific] actors in mind -- people like Paul Sparks, Dallas Roberts, and the actors in Red Light Winter: Gary Wilmes, Chris Denham, Lisa Joyce. I've worked with these people over and over. It's a really collaborative process. I love it!”

As he did with Red Light Winter (and a few other plays), Rapp intends directing his plays in the future. “I've wanted to direct my own work for about ten years, but it's been heavily frowned upon by a lot of artistic directors. Now it's happening, and I'm really, really happy. Outside of Richard Nelson, few [playwrights] do it; occasionally [David] Mamet does. It's just not an American thing.

“Directing forces me to become a serious dramaturge. For the health of my plays, it's probably better that I direct. I probably will insist on directing things [from now on]. But there are two directors with whom I love to work: Carolyn Cantor [artistic director and co-founder of the Edge] and Mike Bradwell, who runs the Bush Theatre in London -- and I'd work with them again as a playwright.”

Rapp can easily trace both his childhood disdain for - and his adult devotion to -- the theatre to his younger brother's acting career. Anthony Rapp made his Broadway debut at 9, portraying the former of the title roles in the 1981 musical The Little Prince and the Aviator (which played 16 preview performances before closing). “As a kid growing up, I played basketball,” Adam explains. “Every time Anthony got a job, I was uprooted from the team I was on, and from junior high. The first play that really affected me was John Guare's Landscape of the Body. It was a production at the Goodman in Chicago [with Anthony in the cast], and it shook me up. It was really Guare's work that brought me to the theatre. I admire him; I'm a big, big fan of his.”

When Adam later moved to New York, Anthony was appearing in Six Degrees of Separation, and the older Rapp was drawn into the offstage camaraderie of the cast. “We used to meet after the show and hang out with the actors. I hated theatre and I love theatre -- both because of Anthony. Now, [the theatre] has become my home. I can't imagine being anywhere else. The film stuff is great, too, and I always loved fiction, but there's something about being in a live theatre that just feels . . . [Pauses] It's my cathedral!”


The second of the three children (the eldest is sister Anne) of Mary Lee (Baird) and Douglas Rapp, Adam was born in Chicago and raised in Joliet, IL. His parents were divorced when he was five, and his single mother (who died of cancer in 1997) struggled to raise her children.

While young Anthony eventually became the family breadwinner, Adam fell in with the wrong crowd, got caught shoplifting, and was sent to reform school. His novel, “The Buffalo Tree,” is based on the time that he spent at the Glenwood School for Boys. Following that, he attended St. John's Military Academy, later telling a reporter, “Almost every male relationship I've written of is influenced by my experience at the Academy.”

It was at Dubuque's Clark College that Rapp developed an interest in writing. After graduation, he spent a two-year fellowship at Juilliard, where he met Marsha Norman, “a great mentor, a great influence, a great friend.” At 24, he had his first book published, and among his novels are “Missing the Piano,” “The Copper Elephant,” “Little Chicago,” “33 Snowfish” and “Under the Wolf, Under the Dog.”

Nocturne was his first successful play. Others include Animals and Plants, Trueblinka, Ghosts in the Cottonwoods, Faster, Dreams of the Salthorse and Stone Cold Dead Serious. “I can't start [a play] unless I have a title,” claims Rapp. “It's sort of like a door to walk through and makes me commit to writing it. It makes me name a file on my computer; it gets me excited.” The title Animals and Plants derived from a list on a board in Juilliard, “The Divine Order of Things”: Number 1 was God . . . 4, Animals; 5, Plants. Stone Cold Dead Serious was named due to an announcer's sales pitch: “I'm stone cold dead serious.”

Self-effacing, the 6'3” Rapp has downplayed comparisons to the young Sam Shepard -- “Maybe [it's] because we're both tall white guys, but I'm honored to be [mentioned] in the same paragraph.” Rapp tells me, “I'm a misfit, and I think a lot of people in the theatre are misfits, and I certainly appreciate being accepted as a misfit in the theatre.”


What led to his movie directorial debut with “Winter Passing”? Recalls Rapp, “It was originally going to be a play, but I never wrote a stitch of dialogue. I was encouraged to apply for a grant through AT&T. The application process required a really meticulous synopsis, which I never do when I write a play. I kind of know the characters and follow them around; they sort of lead me.

“I said that I wasn't very good grant material; I'm just a big straight white guy. I wound up not getting the grant, but with this half-gestated idea that I liked. My west coast agent encouraged me to back the story up a bit. I tried it, about 50 pages, and fell in love with the characters. When it was a project with producers behind it, they asked who I wanted to direct it. I said, 'I do. Just, please, give me a great crew.' Thank God for [cinematographer] Terry Stacey, who shot it. He sort of took me through film school.”

Ed Harris, Will Ferrell and Zooey Deschanel star in the picture. “I had met Ed. He played my brother's father in a Broadway play called Precious Sons in 1986. But I didn't know him. I wrote him a letter and sent a script. I cited [the play] and tried to use it as a bit of a calling card. I don't know if it helped. He responded in three days, and said that he was very interested.

“I didn't know Will or Zooey; I met them in L.A., when I was casting. At the time, Will and I were sharing an agency, and it was generally known that he was interested in doing a dramatic role. He plays a 35-year-old virgin who's been kicked out of a Christian rock band. He's repressed, and terrified about practically everything. Still, he's very funny in it; sort of like a seventh-grade boy. I'm happy he came through; it got some financing, and helped get a green light [for production].”

Basically, the plot involves “an actress [Deschanel], the daughter of two famous novelists, who's offered a hundred-thousand dollars by a book editor [Amy Madigan] if she can get letters that her father [Harris], a recluse, wrote to her mother, who has committed suicide before the film starts, while they were courting. When she gets to her father's house, she finds two strangers [Ferrell and Amelia Warner]. It's about how the four of them form a strange little family.” Also in the cast are “all sorts of New York theatre actors - Dallas Roberts, Dede [Deirdre] O'Connell, Darrell Larson, my little brother. I wanted to be sure to get as many friends as I could into the film.”

Did his first movie lead to the second? “No. A private individual approached me,” recounts Rapp. “He knew the play [Blackbird] very well. He thought I would just shoot the play, but cinematically that wouldn't be very interesting. You'd be stuck in a room with these two characters for two hours. [Set in a Canal Street loft, the action concerns Baylis, a Desert Storm vet, and Froggy, a heroin-addicted teen. The Off-Broadway production featured Paul Sparks and Mandy Siegfried.] “I thought we could tell a better story by backing it up and opening it up. We figured out how to do it on a really tight budget. I had a great DP [Director of Photography], Richard Rutkowski, who was the camera operator on 'Winter Passing.' We had to rehearse relentlessly for a month before we started, and got incredible stuff in 18 days [of shooting]. It was no easy task, but we pulled it off. I'm thrilled with it!

“Paul Sparks, who got a Drama Desk nomination [for the play], has the lead role, opposite Gillian Jacobs. We have so many theatre people. Gary Wilmes has a nice part, and Annie Parisse, from 'Law & Order,' plays a stripper, one of the principal roles. There are Danny Hoch, Guy Wood, Dede O'Connell, Dallas Roberts. . . . My brother plays a drag queen. He has a really nice scene at the end of the film, and I'm surprised he looks as good as he does in drag.”


Rapp is adamant that young audiences need to be cultivated. “The theatre needs to create content that will attract them. In London, you see young people going to the theatre; here, a few companies make it possible - the Edge, LABrynith, National Theatre of the United States. I wish more of the established theatres - Playwrights Horizons, Manhattan Theatre Club - would try to do some really gritty stuff. I'm kind of shocked that Red Light Winter is having a commercial run Off-Broadway, and that a lot of the audience are under 40. I love the older audience, too, but the theatre is too important to be left only to people who can afford it. I want to do whatever I can to get kids into the theatre.”

Since he's seemingly a workaholic, what does Rapp do to relax? “The band relaxes me. I play basketball a couple of times a week. Some people wonder if I ever sleep, but actually I sleep a lot. I have to.” He's been quoted that he sometimes needs “to force myself to take a day off - to not think about what I'm working on, to get back with people.” He confirms the remark. “Yeah, that's true. Sometimes, I just take a day and stay in the apartment and read - drinking coffee and vegging out. In fact, right now, I'm craving that.”

“The Year of Endless Sorrow,” believes Rapp, “is probably the longest thing I've ever written. At one point, it was upwards of 1,000 pages. Now, it's about 600. It's a chronicle of failure, and also a bit of a caper. It's kind of sad, and hopefully pretty funny, too. It's about a wannabe writer living in the East Village in the early nineties and working in publishing. He falls in love with a Polish immigrant and loses his job. He has a younger brother who's sort of a well-known actor.”

His sort of well-known, younger actor-brother just had a book published, “Without You: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and the Musical Rent.” Observes Adam, “Anthony's book is really moving; I read an early draft. It's doing very well. I'm real proud of him. I always thought that Anthony was incredibly talented. In fact, he was writing before I was. He's also a very talented director.”

Writing books, states Adam Rapp, “can become very lonely. That's one of the reasons I keep coming back to the theatre. If I write a good enough play, I can be around people. That's a nice social atmosphere for me.”


Michael Buckley also writes for

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