Adam Rapp is many things – playwright, novelist, movie and stage director, television writer, band member, basketball player – as one can successfully be perhaps only in our fair city. Recently he wrote and directed the film Winter Passing, starring Zooey Deschanel, Will Ferrell, and Ed Harris, and in about a month Cagelove, a play by Christopher Denham that Rapp is directing, opens at the Rattlestick Theater. But the other day we caught up with him at the Barrow Street Theater, where his own play Red Light Winter (starring Denham, coincidentally; Rapp is also the director) has been enjoying a deservedly successful run since early this year. If you haven’t seen it (and you should) Red Light Winter is, basically, about two guys who go to Amsterdam and sleep with the same prostitute, and the heartwrenching complications that ensue; Denham’s character, Matt, is an up-and-coming but depressed playwright; Davis, played by Gary Wilmes, is his arrogant yet charming former college roommate who instigates the whole business. What follows here is an extremely distilled, at times paraphrased version of the conversation we had about his many projects, contemporary theatre in general, and working in New York.
How long did it take to write Red Light Winter?
It came out of me really quickly…I think I wrote the first act in four days and the second in a week. I was in LA and that’s where I started it, and then I had to go to Connecticut for the O’Neill National Playwrights Conference, and I wrote the rest there, so it was just like a race to the finish. I read the script in front of the audience at the conference, and it felt good, so I was like, I have something. Since then it hasn’t changed all that much; it’s mostly been editing down, reducing the volume of the language, making it tighter…I think this production is about 10 minutes shorter than the one in Chicago.
A lot of people who see the show probably assume that Matt, the playwright character, is your autobiographical presence in the play. Is that the case?
I have gotten that a lot, but I don’t really identify with one more than the other. There are parts of me in every character I write – there are parts of me in the girl even [the hooker in Red Light Winter] – and then there are fictitious fragments woven in. Certainly I based Matt off experience from the early part of my career, when I was in a very lonely place, working in book publishing, maybe playing a game of basketball or going out for a drink on the weekend, but basically very isolated. I also relate to him because of his insomnia and depression, which are things I’ve struggled with. But I think Matt is sweeter than me, in a way…he romanticizes the woman, the window hooker, and that’s drawn from another friend of mine…
How much did the actors influence the development of the play?
Oh, a lot…it’s all about trust. I love working with actors. I tend to be a syllable Nazi, I want everything to be read exactly as I’ve written it, but I can also let things go wildly. For instance, there are three places in the script where Gary can just improv for a few minutes, so it’s different each night; I mean, we worked it out to a certain place, but his character, Davis, is a performer, so Gary just runs with it, and I can trust him to riff…I’ve been with these three actors since last March, and they are so committed and brave. It’s tough on them sometimes, because there’s this complicated, dense love triangle [on stage], but they’ve maintained their sanity….I feel really lucky to have such thoughtful actors.
Red Light Winter opened at the Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago, where it was a huge, sold-out hit. What differences have you noticed between New York and Chicago audiences of the play?
I was really surprised, because in Chicago the tickets were $15, so I thought it would bring in the young crowd, but it was really dominated by older people. I had thought it would be repellent to old people because of the nasty, scatological material, but they actually found the play romantic, and younger people tended to be angered or undone by it. Here in New York it’s the opposite; I don’t know why. New York audiences are amazing. Also, here people seem to respond more to the Matt character – I hear people in the audience go “ohh” when things go badly for him; the women sort of want to take care of him. But in Chicago it was all about the girl....I don't think there were any walkouts in Chicago; here there have been a few. But the space there was so intimate, I think it was harder for people to be that socially arrogant, to walk out in the middle.
In addition to Red Light Winter starting in Chicago, you’ll be workshopping your latest play, Essential Self Defense, at the Cape Cod Theatre Project. When you work outside NYC is it mostly out of necessity, or is it a deliberate choice?
Oh yeah, I would be here if I could, New York is my home – I live in the East Village – but I do also love going away for the summer. It’s great to be able to just take [a play] somewhere and just work on it, to have that possibility. It’s all about the people you’re working with, it’s about just sharing space with them, which is so important.
What’s the hardest thing about trying to make it in theatre in NYC, or is it mostly the obvious, the inevitable impoverishment?
Yeah, it’s incredibly difficult to live as a playwright in this city, though at the same time there’s sort of a glory to the poverty, something beautiful about staying with it even when there’s no money…and there are so few new American plays being supported in a major way; theaters won’t take risks or they might lose their whole subscriber base. It’s really challenging because it’s so unlikely that you’ll find an audience, but then it’s so special when you do because it’s so damn hard. And here, if the Times anoints you, that makes your career, but if they don’t like you or your plays, even a play that’s a “hit” and is selling a lot of tickets won’t really be noticed. This monolith of the Times controls a playwright’s career like newspapers do in no other city.
Do you hole up when you write, or do you go somewhere in the city for inspiration?
Now I have a whole room for writing, so I do do most of it there, but back when I had roommates I used to do a lot of writing in coffeeshops – Café Orlin, Café Mogador, I must have spent thousands of dollars at those places. I also love to write in an empty theater…And in rehearsals it inspires me to write, I’ll have to run out in the middle to work on a scene…I can’t even quantify the amount of time I write, because it’s just ongoing.
Do you go to shows much? What plays have you seen lately that you’ve enjoyed?
I try to go as often as I can…Lately I haven’t seen much that I liked, to be honest. I loved Living Room in Africa…and Ron Fitzgerald’s Cyclone, at Studio Dante. And recently Spring Theatreworks in DUMBO did these two one-acts, and they didn’t ask for any money, there was just a suggested donation; it was like this found space there, which was really amazing.
Now that you’ve gotten to know so many artistic worlds, is the theatre still your preferred realm?
I still think theatre people are the best – they’re noble. It’s a hard life, a high wire act all the time. In film and TV there’s more money, more ego, more attitude and misbehavior. So many of the actors there are just like, “where’s my cappuccino?” whereas in theater, these actors want to tell a story, to take people on a journey. There’s some of that in film and TV too, but not as much.
Do you think that if theaters cut their prices and staged edgier things, younger audiences would be attracted? Or has theatergoing becoming a lost art, now that we’re all tied to our iPods, our laptops, our Playstations?
Yeah, to some degree we have lost that, because everything’s compressed in our culture – people are all involved with their own laptops and iPods. I’m as guilty as anyone, I love my iPod and my laptop. And theatre is so different, because it’s about community, about witnessing something together…but if you create content for young people, I do think they’ll come, eventually…Curriculums across the country are so conservative; we need to show kids newer, tougher plays – Stephen Adly Guirgis, Sarah Kane, playwrights like that. [They write] exciting characters that kids might relate to…Go to a play at Manhattan Theater Club, at Lincoln Center Theater, and 85% of audiences are 60 to 80 years old. Artistic directors need to repel the older people and [stage shows that will] attract the young crowds.
Red Light Winter is at the Barrow Street Theater, 27 Barrow St., Tues.-Sat. 8pm, Sun. 7pm, Sat. & Sun. 2pm. Tickets available through Telecharge. Student Rush tickets available an hour in advance.
Photo from Red Light Winter by Paul Kolnik.