Playwright Adam Rapp etches elegantly bleak portraits of America’s young lost souls; his Red Light Winter was an Obie-winner and Pulitzer-prize finalist, Blackbird was recently adapted into a film which Rapp also directed. (He wrote and directed his first feature, Winter Passing, which starred Ed Harris, Zooey Deschanel and Will Ferrell.) Rapp’s published seven novels, plays in a band, and is not someone you’d want to play one-on-one basketball with to settle a bet.
His new play, Essential Self-Defense, is a rock n’ roll fairy-tale about a mysterious loner who works as an attack dummy for a women’s self-defense class, and the lady who loves him. (It continues at Playwrights Horizons through April 15th; use code EDBL for discount tickets here.)
Is there anything in particular that inspired Essential Self-Defense?
The only thing that was a real spark for me imagistically was my old roommate Christine Jones who is a set designer, she did the set for the Pains of Youth musical [Spring Awakening] that’s on Broadway now. She was taking a self defense class for women in which the members of the class were beating on a guy who was wearing a big foam suit. And when I heard that story I was baffled as to who would take a job like that. And the character – that guy – started to form a more concrete idea in my mind. I thought it would be a mini-karaoke opera, where there was a drummer and the two characters and they would sing about their lives to each other.
Essential Self-Defense is described as “a grim fairy tale with generous portions of rock n’ roll karaoke.” The action is set in a Midwestern town where children are disappearing and the play draws a picture of Americans struggling to function despite a gnawing, relentless fear. Do you personally identify with the fears your characters are grappling with in the play?
Well, I think the fear that’s in the play is, in a weird way, very childlike. I think the fear that’s kind of infected our country and our culture following 9/11 – and this sort of Middle East terrorist construct that was kind of built by the media and Fox News and all that with they way they produce the war – it feels very similar to the way I felt afraid of the Halloween movies when I was twelve or eleven. It’s this sort of irrational, all pervasive fear where you don’t see the enemy, you don’t see the war, and the smell of fear is in the ether in a weird way. I think that’s the thing that’s crippling our imaginations right now as a culture.
After 9/11 I was living in New York and I was getting lots of calls from the Midwest, where I’m from, and I was finding out that all these people were taking what they were calling “first response workshops” where they were learning how to evacuate people from communities and to civic gymnasiums. And they were learning how to crawl through yards on their elbows and learning how to deal with the terrorists that were going to come to their small town in Illinois. And I just found that to be completely absurd and very strange given the power struggle thousands of miles from them, in some cases. And there’s a kind of absurdity to all of that.
And so I was thinking a lot about that when I was writing the play and also about the notion of our scapegoat culture where if we can put a name and a face on an idea then we can find more peace at night. If we can create an archetype in our heads through the media, whether it’s Osama bin Laden or whoever else, then we can at least have this black-and-white, archetypal, medieval type response to something that’s far more subtle and complicated, I think. And we long for that as a culture, it feels like.
So I was thinking about that a lot too. And how easy it is for our communities to accept what’s being handfed to us. Once you go west of New York, and – while I’m sure there are other cities out there – the mythology is so widely accepted that there were these various color codes to fear and airport colors with orange and all these different levels of fear that were literally being produced the way we produce the colors along strip malls. You know, the way we identify with cheeseburgers. That was really confusing to me. And within the love story I was thinking a lot about the phenomenon that was post-9/11 American terror. And that’s kind of how it all conflated through the love story with the social confusion idea.
I see that in your character Yul; he seems to stand in opposition to the dominant ideologies that are imposed on people in post-9/11 America. He’s a loner who, when he’s not at work as an attack dummy for a women’s self-defense class, seems to spend most of his time in his rat-infested basement apartment working on a secret project. He is highly critical of what he calls “the machine”, which is run by “heart-shrinking marketing goblins and corporate warlocks”. His “worldview involves ominous cloud formations and lots of shattered glass”. Does your worldview intersect with Yul’s in any way?
Yeah, I think he’s a little more extreme in his articulation in it, and slightly more comical, I think. But yeah, we do… I struggle with my attitudes about our capitalistic culture and what television has done to our culture and our consumptive culture and how it keeps getting complicated by big business and globalization and the notion of “one size fits all” and mass production. And where is the individual within all that, where are our basic human rights within all of that, how do we connect as human beings within all that when we’re just trying to anesthetize ourselves?
And what feeds what? I’m always thinking about, you know, is it, do we grow up reading catalogs and now the internet and television and are spurred by the need to have, you know, the Kit Kat bar or the GI Joe doll or is it something that’s in our DNA? Is it something that’s externally stimulated now or is it something that’s in the American DNA? And I think the thing that Yule suffers from the most is an incredible, almost baffling empathy for humans living in this world and I think he really believes that if he destroys the television plant he can change his community in some way. And I think where I try to help out a little bit, if I think I can help in any way, is through my work, which, in the theater, is like dropping an egg in the middle of Times Square or something.
You know, it’s a difficult thing but as I get older I do feel more socially conscious about the world around me and I do share a lot of Yule’s concerns. Instead of an artist he’s an anarchist and he probably doesn’t even know it; he just needs to get something done. But I think he’s very sensitive to the way his world has not only wronged him but wronged every person in his community, every person in his family. He even talks about his mother being married to a drone named Blake Von Trapp and how she exists largely on daytime television and mega-corporate pharmaceuticals. And he even sees it with his mother. So I think if he has a flaw besides being just bullheaded it’s that he’s a little too sensitive.
Speaking of dropping an egg in Times Square, has it been an interesting experience for you having the play at Playwrights Horizons which, at least the day I saw it, seemed to draw an audience made up of mostly senior citizens. Are you reaching a different audience group than you have in the past?
Yeah, it’s really interesting because I’m used to having a younger audience. Even with Red Light Winter I was disappointed with the expensive ticket price of sixty dollars, but young people still seemed to find a way to get there. You know, we’re getting a persistent under-40 audience to the theater every night, which is really nice. But it is strange to look up and see that the subscribers from Playwrights who have the option of coming or not, they’re actually making up at least half the audience. And the only thing I like about it is that it’s not like me preaching to the choir. If it’s my regular audience coming then they’re going to expect the things that I’m up to a lot of the time. But it’s even more of a challenge to get my ideas and characters and thoughts across and whatever thesis might exist in the play – it’s even tougher to get it across to that group.
But I like the challenge and I’m always surprised at how few of them leave, even with the loud music and all the stuff that Yule is spewing. He’s really talking directly to a lot of those people who make their lives out of being middle class Americans. And you know I kind of enjoy it. To be honest with you I wish it was 100% filled with people in their forties because I think that’s the way theatre is going to survive. And I think it’s probably the youngest audience Playwrights has seen ever. I think Tim Stanford is very excited about that. And a lot of that has to do with Edge Theater as well, because they have an incredibly young audience that comes through to their work. It’s exciting to see the mix of generations. But I’d prefer to see people who go to the Knitting Factory or Mercury Lounge or wherever great indie rock is happening, I’d prefer to see all of them at my shows but I know that that is also a little too easy. I think it’s tougher and more of a challenge to get at the older people who have already formed their ideas about the world.
Have you overheard any good audience commentary in the lobby?
Some people really identify with Sadie and the interesting thing about the conversations I’ve heard about her is that they want to give a clinical diagnosis of what her fear is about. They want to say it’s agoraphobia, they want to be armchair psychologists. When for me it’s just this all-pervasive fear thing and people are just so quick to want to name her condition, which I think is very interesting, too.
You also have a new film called Blackbird, which is adapted from your play of the same name. It just premiered at South by Southwest. Can you briefly tell us what it’s about?
Blackbird is about a Gulf War veteran from the first Gulf War. He’s in New York City; he’s kind of escaped here to disappear, because his life didn’t work after he returned from the war. And he suffers from Gulf War syndrome, although he doesn’t know it. He meets a young woman and falls in love. It’s really a love story but he’s addicted to heroin at the top of the film and he gets clean and she gets addicted to heroin and they wind up getting a little place together in Chinatown. The play it’s adapted from all takes place in one night and it’s the last night of their lives. The film starts six months prior to their meeting. They meet at about minute twenty and they fall in love and film terminates in the same room that the play terminates. It’s really a simple little love story about two unlikely people who don’t really know how to love and they find each other in New York City and they both run away from stuff.
When will New Yorkers have a chance to see it?
I’m hoping that some of the interest from SXSW festival – which was a lot – I’m hoping that something pans out. We have distribution interest from several people and my agents are going through that right now. But I’d like it to wind up at the IFC Center or the Angelika. We just have to make a decision about who we’re going to go with. I’m hoping it’ll be out maybe late-summer, early fall. But there’s also a possibility that we’re going to take it to Cannes. The challenging thing is that there are no stars in it at all. It’s a very grim melancholy love story that features, well, the most known person in it is Annie Parisse. The two leads are unknowns. Paul Sparks is in it, he’s the lead with this young actress Gillian Jacobs. Danny Hoch is in it, Stephen Adly Guirgis is in it, and all these great theater people I know or have worked with but it really doesn’t have a star it can hang on. So it’s harder to sell it for distribution especially because it’s such a dark story. But I think we’re hoping that it’s going to catch with someone and it’d be great for it to have a little life in New York and L.A. But it was very important to me to just do this one right and not have to answer to anybody when I was editing it. And I’m really happy with the results and now I’m just going to have to hustle to make sure it gets out there.
You’re also in a band called Less the Band. Do you go see a lot live music in NY?
Yeah, I do.
What are the three best shows you’ve been to in recent memory?
I saw the Wrens at the Knitting Factory last year and it was unbelievable how much energy they put on stage. My book editor is a big fan of them; she turned me on to them and I thought that was an amazing concert. And I saw Smog in concert at the Mercury Lounge, where he played a solo set, which I thought was really beautiful. And we toured this summer opening for My Morning Jacket and I think they’re the best live band I’ve ever seen. They were just unbelievable. I don’t know very many bands whose live set sounds better than their record but they’re certainly one of them and it’s tough to pull it off. They’re just unbelievably connected and Jim James is pretty amazing.