Adam Rapp spoke to me on Skype from the poster-lined office where he writes in Manhattan’s East Village. He’s currently working on several projects, including a theatre commission in the form of a monologue and a TV series for Hulu. I first heard of him when Finer Noble Gases became a hit at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2006, and first saw his work with the Almeida Theatre production of Nocturne, also in Edinburgh, in 2008. I’ve since devoured his work across novels, plays, episodes of prestige TV and film.
I told a friend I was interviewing Adam Rapp and he replied “Adam Rapp, the novelist?” You work across different media. How do you label yourself, if you do indeed do so?
It’s a good question. It’s been a bit of a schizophrenic career in that way. I started out writing fiction. I never thought I’d end up writing for the theatre. I didn’t even like the theatre. My little brother is an actor and was doing a lot of musicals as a kid and I didn’t really like them. He was a professional actor from the age of 7 and his career was constantly breaking up the rhythm of our family. My mother was a single mother, raising 3 kids and she was a nurse, so she had to become a stage mom. Every time he booked a gig, it would throw us into a different school and we’d follow him around. So it was kinda something that I hated to be honest.
When I moved to New York in ’91, I was just finishing a novel. I moved in with my brother, into the same apartment I still live in. I was purely a fiction writer. My whole reason for coming here was to become a novelist and live in New York which is a great literary city and a great legacy city for writers. I had no designs on the theatre at all.
But then I started to go see the plays he was in and I was bewitched by John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation early on, which my brother was in. I realized that theatre wasn’t just musicals and you could do something dark and weird and creepy and it could be literary and have concerns of language and character in ways that fiction does, but I love the event of the audience being there and witnessing it.
My bones as a writer were formed as a novelist and then I kind of stumbled into playwriting. The fiction writing is much more controlled; I devote a regular rhythm to the writing. I sit in this office and it takes me months and years and in the midst of all that, I get seized by an idea of a play in my head. It takes over my imagination and every thought in my head and it’s like I have to – it’s like I get sick. It’s like getting a virus and I have to write it.
I read a lot of plays and I’m self-taught and I basically tried to immerse myself in the theatre and I really fell in love with it, shockingly, I never thought I would.
I can’t stop either. I know there’s a lot of writers who don’t believe you can do both and I know it’s challenging, but somehow my brain divided in a way that allowed me to take up space intellectually and passionately for both forms.
There was no strategy to it. The fiction writing taught me how to sit in a chair and wrestle with my thoughts and imagination. I think the hardest part for any beginning writer is to sit down and stay focused and to build up the discipline and will to be in a chair for 6 hours or 8 hours or 12 hours or whatever it takes and I think if I did anything right at the beginning, it was that as a fiction writer, I taught my body and my mind how to focus in that way, so that when playwriting came along, there wasn’t much to re-teach myself.
I think I’ve had more heartache in the theatre, because there are more people to disappoint, or be disappointed by. You’re constantly looking your audience in the face so it’s more emotionally turbulent, for me at least.
I remember seeing Nocturne and feeling that it was almost a novella on stage. Do you feel that your writing bleeds across the forms?
I have played with that form a little bit, where it’s a spoken novella or literary piece, but it all comes from character. I do like that form a lot, like Conor McPherson. A lot of Irish writers have done it really well. Mark O’Rowe I have a lot of respect for. There’s a great tradition of these monologue plays that I just wanted to try, because I feel that the literary form and the dramatic form can find a common ground sometimes. It’s pretty much about character and you have to find events and find reasons for it to be witnessed and not just a book being held and put back in a bag.
You have to have a really good reason for the audience to come, as they will disconnect at all available opportunities if you don’t hook them early.
The Metal Children, and the controversy around your Young Adult novel that inspired that. Did that get to you? Did you feel you had to write that play?
I think the thing that really disturbed me the most was not necessarily the politics of small town America and conservatism – we feel that every day when we go to coffee shops – but that I’d forgotten my own novel. I had got to a place in my life where so many other things had happened – I’d lost my mother, I became a playwright of some sort of importance, I’d started directing, I’d dabbled in the film world, I’d done a little TV work. Being in New York all that time does things to you. I don’t know what had happened, but I’d forgotten my relationship to that piece and so there was a kind of cynicism I was struggling with in regard to my own work and that’s what really freaked me out. That’s what locked me into the idea of the play at first, but then I realized that the issues in the play and the subject matter between reader and writer, the imagined world, small town America and urban cynical guy made for good drama and I was able to come up with what was really a fantasy. A lot of people wonder if those things really happened to me. Hardly any happened to me. I think the only thing that was true in that play was when Tobin delivers his testimony off-the-cuff to this group of people in this small town in Pennsylvania, which happened to me in a Lutheran church. There was no preparation. I had to sort of talk about what my intentions for the book were and it all fell out my mouth like it did Billy Crudup’s in the play. In a weird way, I wish I had as much contact with the characters as Tobin did in the play. So in a way it was fulfilling a fantasy that didn’t happen in real life.
I found myself re-engaged and re-invigorated as a writer of theatre and fiction and found myself more morally obligated. Something of consequence happened.
You said you’ve dabbled in TV and film and recently you’ve been involved with high-profile gigs like Vinyl and Flesh and Bone. How did those come about? Is it due to you having success in New York theatre?
Yeah, basically what happened was I had some things that got me a lot of attention in the theatre and to be more crude, I had some nice things written about me in The New York Times. That translates to West Coast interest. At first I resisted it, around ’99, 2000 when my career started to cook. I have plays that deal with people who kick in TVs. I was very politically against television as an artist. But as I came round to needing to make more money, as theatre is very poor, even at the off-Broadway level, no one is making much money. I just got to a point where I was broke. And I’d done a lot of work!
The nice thing that’s happened is the level of writing on premium cable, and now there’s Hulu and Netflix, there’s a tremendous amount of high-quality writing and incredible storytelling and in a sense, I think the subject matter is kind of taking the place of what off-Broadway used to be. There’s still great work happening, but there’s definitely an audience that’s older, more conservative and subscriber-based.
When I came to New York in the early 90s, it was more of a rock and roll audience; the same people I’d see at Knitting Factory or Mercury Lounge. Now those are the people streaming stuff, as well as old people and young people.
The quality of writing is really exciting. It went from me trying to make a buck to me wanting to create something exciting and my cynicism waned quickly. I’m working on a new show for Hulu, which is very exciting.
And how about your experience in the film world?
Really, really, really disappointing. It was never the writing or the shooting or the cutting of it. That was always powerful. But it’s the politics. Dealing with the producers at the end, getting the thing out to festivals, it’s the rat race of that. It’s really demeaning. You have to have a thick skin. I felt more cynical in that mode than I ever have in my life. You feel like this used car salesman for this thing you cared so deeply about.
I’ve lost more years of my life in the film world than I’d like. I’m not enriched in the same way as I am working on a play or a novel. Plays are really hard, but the time spent in the room with people, the effort, the vow it involves, is so nurturing and gives back to you.
I’ve failed more in the film world than the other areas, but I still have designs on doing something really special, but I need years between to you know, recover.
You’ve used many actors across several projects. Is ensemble important to you? People you can trust, who can speak your language?
It comes down to ability and trust and the kind of artist I want to work with. Back in the day, it was Paul Sparks, Michael Shannon, Dallas Roberts, Michael Chernus, Betsy Aidem, Didi O’Connell, Katherine Waterston, I could go on. When you find those people, you find your group. They understand your work ethic, you understand theirs. William Apps has been an amazing, inspiring actor for me who sits in my worlds really well. Then there’s people like Connor Barrett, who lives on the West Coast, but always makes himself available for me.
The actors for me are great detectives, great dramaturgs, great directors, great problem-solvers. They’re courageous artists. When they work with me, I expect a huge amount from them. It’s a physically demanding thing. I’m hard on them, they’re hard on me.
It’s all about the love.
Are there particular writers you would state as influences on your work?
When I first started reading plays, I was really devouring it. I was really excited by – oh man, so many. Caryl Churchill was incredibly exciting to me, Pinter, some of the plays by Sam Shepard like Buried Child were incredibly haunting, I really relate to that play. Then there’s people like Nicky Silver who write these absurd, comedic plays that have these nightmarish undertones. Maria Irene Fornes’ Mud, Jim Cartwright’s Road, Edward Bond’s Saved all had a huge effect on me. Then fiction writers. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, you know, changed my life. I remember encountering DeLillo’s work for the first time and just having my head ripped off. Then I came across Cormac McCarthy and read his body of work. Even like, Edith Wharton, her work really affected me. When I first started writing for the theatre, a lot of it was John Guare, because my brother was in Six Degrees of Separation. I met John and was really fascinated by that play. I went through that thing where I would read somebody’s body of work and it would affect me and I would try to learn from it. And I’ll tell you the one thing I read that probably blew my mind more than any other play was Sarah Kane’s Blasted and I think so many writers would talk about that play as she seemed to break all the rules. When I read that play, it gave me permission to take greater risks in my work. I feel that when young writers come across that kind of play or book or piece of art, it allows them to be crazier, to be wilder, more bold, ask big questions.
What do you foresee for the future of New York and the arts?
New York has changed so much in the 25 years I’ve been here. The East Village has changed drastically. When I first moved here there were drug dealers on every corner – they weren’t aggressive, they were just there, it was just their vocation. It was dirtier. Things have cleaned up and you see more strollers and rich younger people. The truth is, on any given day, when you walk through Tompkins Square Park, you’ll still see the next Patti Smith, the next Mapplethorpe, the rat artists, the homeless, the crust punks. This city will never not be a destination for the artist. It might be harder to live in Manhattan, in Bushwick, in Williamsburg, but it’ll never stop having those few thousand people getting on the Greyhound bus or crossing the Atlantic to pursue their dream.
I do think that the theatre, due to our obsession with screens, will be more vital than ever. Because of this disconnect, because of technology, theatre becomes the most exciting art form in some ways because you’re forced to put your cellphone down and you’re forced to take in people doing things to each other on stage.
I think there’s an opportunity now for the younger artists in the theatre to really look at that discussion, of why theatre is important right now, and to make vital work because of it. The hugest thing might just be two people sitting across from each other on stage sharing ideas. Just something about the human form and the human voice, like in ancient times. We need to get back to that, or we’ll start having sex with our devices, we’ll build houses with our devices and have pets that are actually devices.
That’s my big hope.