I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
The Select Equity Group Series on Playwriting
After you read thousands of plays by young writers, you can pretty much tell in ten pages whether the playwright is going to get you. The voice is either clear or not, the dramatic sensibility is either there or it isn’t, and the writer either knows or doesn’t know what his personal “content” is, the stuff he will draw on for a lifetime of writing. But it didn’t even take ten 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 Ghost in the Cottonwoods , and began as most of Adam’s 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. They’re too tight, she says. He should change his jeans. The kid says he won’t change them. He says he loves these jeans. And then he says, and this is the sentence that made me fall for Adam Rapp, “I feel like a sex maniac in these jeans.” 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 I’m seeing somebody now; it helps. I’m trying to figure out if it’s chemical or not.
MN Depression is the writer’s curse. It’s hard to get out of your own head when that’s 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 that’s probably why it walloped me this time. I find it embarrassing; I don’t like to feel self-indulgent. I’d be having big breakdowns in the shower, and I’d 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. It’s a mystery, and I hate it. That’s why I suspect that it’s chemical.
MN Well, if it’s any comfort, I think it’s because you’re an artist and writer in America. Depression is an appropriate response to the situation we’re in.
AR Especially during the current administration. If I’m keeping myself busy writing and playing basketball I feel balanced and distracted from all the sad stuff. I find that more and more I’m trying to entertain myself when I’m working, because I know the work’s going to go to a horrible place.
MN You always know that?
AR Sometimes. I don’t know where the characters are going to go or what’s going to happen. I know that something inevitable will happen. I know that they want certain things and they’re 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 don’t know if I have the ability to write an ending like My Fair Lady’s, when everyone gets what they want after a few minor conflicts. If I tried to write that it would just be false. Or I’d 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 that’s still what interests you. That’s a great literary heritage to be a part of, the waiting for what’s 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. It’s so horrible what their characters go through; think of Anna Karenina. There’s 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; we’re so easily distracted, but the world is still designed to destroy you. It just happens quicker and faster now.
MN I’m always having those “what’s the worst that could happen?” 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, I’m 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 we’re talking about now, this is the real one, the one that’s been coming all along.
AR I haven’t even—
MN Yeah, don’t.
Did you find that working in film gave you more pleasure than writing plays?
AR What’s exciting about film is that the machine of it is so big and it’s 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 wasn’t alone.
MN So you knew what you were going to shoot.
AR Yeah, I didn’t feel so much like a director as I do in the theater; I felt like a softball coach. Go get ‘em, 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, “Do less.” And then this last film, it was all these theater people—Paul Sparks, Dallas Roberts, Haynes Thigpen, Danny Mastrogiorgio, and Rob Beitzel and this amazing young actress Gillian Jacobs—all these Julliard people. Plus veterans like Didi O’Connell, Guy Boyd, Mary Louise Burke. The playwrights Danny Hoch and Stephen Adly Guirgus are in it, too, and they’re fantastic actors. It was unbelievable. They all came in so prepared, and it was so much fun.
MN What’s the name of the movie you just shot?
AR Blackbird; it’s 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 don’t think I can direct it as a play again. It’s 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, “Are you okay?” and I was like, “What? What? Yeah.” I ran away from the van. That’s 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 couldn’t 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 It’s 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 couldn’t 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 didn’t 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 didn’t know how to be in a peaceful, limbo-like state where nothing was required of me and nothing very bad was going to happen. That’s the void that solitaire filled. Fills. Whatever.
AR There’s a kind of narrative thrill with it too; it’s controlled, whereas when I write, I don’t know what’s 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. It’s 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. He’s living in this meta-world where it’s as if he were playing a video game. I haven’t written it. But I’m really fascinated by what’s real and what’s not.
MN But what are these games, are they a virtual hunt or a virtual resting place? Maybe they’re some new kind of life. They’re 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 filmmakers—you can control the dream in your own living room. You create your own destiny; you become your own author.
MN And no one’s going to review your performance. This is huge. A game gives you a score. There’s 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, I’m 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 don’t have any expectations after that. It’s 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, I’m just glad that it’s happening and that people are coming to previews. I’ve read that the head critic at the Times has gone on record as saying that there are no important American playwrights, that they’re all in London. It’s like: What are you doing then? Why don’t 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: “Read the definitive judgment of plays in New York.” 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 Sunday—it starts a conversation among the readership so they don’t feel manipulated by some monolith. During an early preview for Red Light Winter I heard someone say, “Wow! I really liked this, but I’m not sure what to think yet. Has the review come out?” That’s part of the discourse now.
MN In this country it seems it’s harder and harder for people to make up their own minds.
AR And if you don’t get the Times review, you don’t get the regional theater interest, then you don’t get the commission, then your work doesn’t have a life. But it’s your life’s bread—it’s the way we’re trying to pay for our rent, and living in New York … I work in TV. I have to!
MN Everyone has to.
AR I actually like the people I’m working with a lot.
MN I like the people in TV, too.
AR They’re 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 don’t think theater owners realize how much their audience is staying home to watch theater writers’ shows on television. Every terrific TV show has playwrights on staff now—you, Warren Leight, Susan Kim, Eric Overmyer, Aaron Sorkin …
AR And if you’re 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 I’m a control freak.
MN Did someone come to you with Winter Passing and say, “Would you like to direct?”
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 didn’t get the grant. So I was left with this half-formed idea. I liked it. My West Coast agent was like, “Why don’t you start another screenplay and back the story up?” 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, “All right. What do we do?” 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 doesn’t 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. He’s a virgin and he’s afraid of just about everything, and he’s really repressed. He’s really small, like he doesn’t 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, “Um, no.”
MN You’ve seen some … . (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 that’s 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 won’t 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; it’s 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 you’re 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 It’s like rewriting a novel. There is so much you can do, it’s 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 it’s private too.
AR Yeah, it’s just you and the editor. It’s actually tranquil.
MN Do you think you’ll ever leave the theater?
AR No, no. When theater works affect me and affect the gathering of people, there’s nothing like it. That’s 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 it’s 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. It’s just that when I start something I don’t stop until I am finished. But I don’t start until it’s grabbing me by my throat. When I’m in that mode it’s all I do. I’ll basically sleep with my laptop. Not because I feel pressure to finish but because I know that there’s a kinetic thing that takes over and if I lose that feeling of free fall 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 don’t know are there. Images like a hat or a belt, and then the belt gets used later and I don’t even remember.
MN I think it happens a lot, that writers leave themselves notes while they’re 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 don’t 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 don’t always know why certain things happen, but it fascinates me. I find that when I start to make decisions for them, it doesn’t 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 up—thoroughly. I’m 37, I’m not married, I don’t 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) What’s your plan, are you going to spend the next 40 years working this hard?
AR At some point I’d like to have a house, a room to write in, and maybe look out the window and see some trees and a lake. But you’ve had an incredible career with crazy valleys and amazing heights. You won the Pulitzer Prize for God’s sake! I look at you or someone like Lee Blessing—who has never really had those heights, but he has had a lot of in-betweens and lots of valleys. It’s so difficult to have a career as a playwright in America. Unless you’re Edward Albee, and I hear even he’s dissatisfied.
MN He is terribly. Somebody told me he has approached Disney about doing an adaptation of Winnie the Pooh.
AR Oh my God. I’d love to see that.
AR I can’t tell you how many theaters have told me, I love your work, but I can’t 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 he’s interested in the play again. There’s such a fear of producing tougher work, because the artistic directors don’t want to lose their subscribers, because that’s what keeps their theater afloat.
MN They’ve created an audience that allows them to keep the theater open, but they don’t like the plays they have to do in order to keep that audience.
AR Exactly. Look at Edward Bond’s work, or Pinter’s work in London—they’re 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 We’re a younger culture. They have Shakespeare. Writing is at the center of their culture. I don’t know what’s at the center of ours, but it’s not writing.
AR And it’s unbelievable the way content is being controlled—I know it’s 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 girl—who hadn’t even read the book—was 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 kids’ 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. There’s a masturbation scene that’s sort of hinted at—it’s not even that graphic. A kid gets stabbed with a pencil in the shower because he has an erection. There’s a kid who throws himself off of a tree at the end of the story because he’s terribly unhappy and he slid down the pecking order. Largely it’s 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 Reagan’s administration. When Clinton was in office there were 300. There were 1,100 official bannings when Reagan was in—and now Bush has doubled that! What is the cause and effect? Is it his administration or is it cultural zeitgeist?
MN It’s 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. It’s so important for people to turn their televisions off and go to the theater and go to museums and have discussions. I’m glad Tony Kushner exists, I’m glad that there are playwrights writing political theater. Someone was telling me that there’s this wave of young people who are going to opera now. There are $25 tickets offered for student rush and they’re 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 playwright’s life?
AR I say, You have to realize that there’s nothing in it other than the love of doing it. I fell in love with playwriting because it’s a magical space that stories could happen in. There’s no money; it’s about poverty. So if you don’t enjoy sitting in a chair and trying to figure out how to make people not leave, or leave, or do things to each other, you’re probably not going to like it. Then, there’s the impossible Sisyphian expectation just to get a production up and then have the critics shit on it—it’s constantly setting yourself up for abuse. So, if you don’t absolutely love it, then don’t 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, it’s so hard; they call for all this stuff that you don’t know how you know it or where it comes from. Yet I can’t believe I’m lucky enough to be doing it. The people of the theater are the best in the world. That’s 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 people’s 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 that’s being taken up in my mind.
MN And you get to wake up in your bed and there’s your laptop. Not many non-writershave had the pleasure of being able to go straight from a dream state into a work state.
AR I love it. There’s nothing better than when I’m in the middle of a play. I can’t wait to wake up to write. I mean, sex is good and drugs are great, sometimes. But there’s nothing better than that kind of ephemeral longing that you feel—that yearning right before you wake up. That I can’t wait to get back in that room with those people. That’s what I’m addicted to.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee