Peering in at the Zoo: Adam Rapp and Gina Gionfriddo on American Theater
Gina Gionfriddo: You have been for me—at a couple different points—the person who kept me writing for the theater. We were at the O’Neill Playwrights Conference twice together, in 2001 and 2003, and I was having a really hard time making the leap from workshops and grants to actual productions. I was incredibly discouraged. You told me to keep working and the leap would happen, and I am so thankful that it has. But I’m still interested in the conversation about why the struggle to make theater is worth it. We’ve both written for TV since that time, and you’ve made two films. Has your work in those media given you any new insight into why playwriting still feels like our most essential work?
Adam Rapp: It’s the live experience. I think we’ve become a culture that experiences narrative in a comfort zone, in a very voyeuristic way. Whether it’s You Tube or TV, there is not that molecular energy passing between performer and audience. When you see something powerfully acted on stage, it hits a nerve in the way music hits a nerve, the way great sports games hit a nerve. Watching someone twelve feet from you falling in love or being abused… There’s something raw about that experience that you don’t get from film or TV.
Gionfriddo: The proximity to real humans is big for me. I have a real problem seeing plays on Broadway if I’m way, way back, or up real high. The experience is really muted for me by the distance. Do you feel that way?
Rapp: Absolutely. I can’t stand going to the theater and feeling like it’s Santa’s Village. The distance renders the scale so small. I love a 99 seat house, a 45 seat house, a 200 seat house. I think the further away the actors are the more filmic it becomes, and the beauty of the art form is that we can be that close to the weird stuff. When I saw Lieutenant of Inishmore on Broadway, I was way up in the balcony. I liked it so much, but I can’t imagine how powerful it would have been like to see it at the Atlantic, to be right on top of the gore and the explosions.
Gionfriddo: It seems like one thing we share is a desire to write about contemporary America as we see it. I personally don’t have the impulse to write a period play or adapt a Greek myth. Do you have those impulses?
Rapp: I actually just wrote my first period piece. It’s set in 1953, in a Lower East Side tenement, in a hallway where all these people are locked out of their apartments. It’s the first part of a trilogy that has fifty years in between the parts. The second part takes place during the blackout of 2003 and the third part is set in the future: 2053. I’m not a historian or an academic, and I felt really intimidated to get all the facts right. I did all this research about what housing was like in 1953—what a hallway felt like, what it smelled like, what the phone in the hallway would have been like. That stuff makes me feel like my head is too heavy for my shoulders. I think it’s just laziness on my part, not wanting to do research because I love inventing worlds and inventing rooms that are born out of the world that I know.
But I will say there was something incredibly freeing about having to deal with factual things. We were dealing with the Rosenberg trials and the politics of Lower East Side housing…how all this social housing became privatized and all those tenements were bought and the rents jacked up like 150%. It was fascinating for me to learn about, and having to adhere to certain historical facts really freed me up in other ways. Because I had certain laws that I couldn’t veer from, I could really get grisly with the characters.
Gionfriddo: Why do you think you decided to take on a period project now?
Rapp: I think because it scared me and I like to scare myself. It keeps the writing impulse really fresh for me. I first thought about the space (the hallway) and then about spanning a hundred years in that hallway. Then I thought, why not back up time as well as moving it forward?
Gionfriddo: You’ve got a big enough body of work now that people will say—like in your recent profile in American Theatre—“this is the kind of play Adam Rapp writes,” “this is what an Adam Rapp play does.” Are you conscious of those expectations?
Rapp: I am. Now I am.
Gionfriddo: Do you feel like those expectations get in your way when you’re writing or can you kind of put them aside?
Rapp: They’re not actively in my way, but I do like the challenge of reinventing myself. I think that’s one of the reasons I’ve written in so many different forms—to stay ahead of expectations. I think there are certain themes and certain sorts of characters I am always going to be haunted and fascinated by, but it’s still strange to read a critic cite my other works and compare my new work to my older work. To draw connections and conclusions…
Gionfriddo: For me, it’s kind of uncanny when that stuff is pointed out to me. There’s a certain kind of brute male charisma I keep writing, for example.
Rapp: Sometimes I feel like I’m chewing the same meat. And I don’t want to chew the same meat too often.
Gionfriddo: I know. I’m very conscious of that. But I also think any writer with anything to offer has powerful obsessions that they have to…chew. You know?
Rapp: I’m particularly conscious of these wolf characters in my plays, the wolf that walks into the room. I have a lot of those in my plays. Like Paul Sparks in American Sligo. It’s a great device in some ways. I’m aware of the wolf and I am aware of the prey and I have visited that equation a number of times. Right now I am very conscious of why I keep returning to that, and I’m questioning whether I should consciously try to explore other possibilities. When I wrote Blackbird, for example, I wanted to write a love story because I didn’t think I was capable of that. I’m really curious now about fighting on stage.
Gionfriddo: Physical fighting?
Rapp: Real serious down and dirty fist fighting and pugilism and crazy karate and kung fu. I love that stuff, and I want to write a piece that has a musical aspect with all these fights and maybe some sex.
Gionfriddo: Speaking of fighting…I have guilt about not writing about the war. I have my reasons, but when I hear you say that your new theatrical preoccupation is fights, I wonder…Do you think some of that is spillage from the fact that we’re at war? Do you have feelings about what it means to write or not write about the war?
Rapp: It’s funny…I really didn’t think about that until you said it. But it totally makes sense. I was asked by a bunch of people to write something about 9/11 right after it happened, and I still haven’t. It takes me a long time to deal with things that happen in the world. I started a play last summer based on a news story I read about a soldier who brutalized and raped and barbecued a young girl and her mother in Iraq. I was talking about that story with Mike Bradwell over at the Bush Theatre [in the UK] and he said, “You have to write about that.” And I don’t write overtly political plays, but I wanted to tell that story. I started writing something that felt really compelling to me, about how complicated…I mean, where does that guy’s innocence live? Where did he come from? What is the story that led to that moment? And I abandoned it. I felt I had no right to tell the story of something I read in the news. I don’t want to pervert that story. I have a really hard time writing about contemporary issues. Some people do it beautifully. Until I’ve abstracted or digested the event years later, I have a hard time.
Gionfriddo: After Ashley was initially about 9/11, and it became apparent pretty quickly that the best way to tell the truth of the story was to abstract it and not make it about the event. I think the obvious reason a lot of writers like us don’t write about contemporary events is that the theater development mill grinds so slowly. The fear is you’ll put your heart into a play that will then be deemed irrelevant by the time it’s ready to be put up. But where the war is concerned, I’ve started to wonder if it’s more than that. We have all these plays from Vietnam, and I wonder if we’re seeing a dearth of Iraq War plays because of the class aspect. No draft. The war being fought by one class and maybe feeling very distant to another.
Rapp: Yeah, definitely, but I also think that dearth may reflect what is considered vital, presentable storytelling by theaters, particularly in New York. There are several companies I have great respect for, but I think most of the larger not-for-profits are skewed towards entertainment, not art. That’s evidenced by all the TV stars in their casts, and the plays they’re programming. It’s a lot of comedies, British farce…
Gionfriddo: I don’t blame them for the star casting as much as I blame them for their choice in plays. Because, come on, if you choose great work, you’ll get your movie stars anyway, so why choose mediocre or irrelevant plays? It pained me to see Journey’s End go up, frankly. I mean, why not revive a David Rabe play if you want to mount a revival that’s gonna speak to our current war in Iraq?
Rapp: Yes! Sticks and Bones could be really powerful to see right now.
Gionfriddo: So you think the choice of plays is being influenced by the desire to entertain and not provoke?
Rapp: I think we’re living in a bleak time and a lot of the people who are spending 60 or 80 dollars on theater want to be entertained the way they’re used to being entertained by television and film. I went to Paul Newman’s theater in Connecticut, Westport Playhouse, and it was jam-packed with about 550 people. They were all middle-aged and older, some octogenarians. They were all white and loving the shit out of an Alan Ayckbourn play. I mean it was beautifully produced and really well done, but…
Gionfriddo: Well, I went absolutely nuts when MTC revived Ayckbourn’s Absurd Person Singular a couple years back. I’m not dissing the play; I think it has something to say about class anxiety in Britain at the time the play was written. But that’s not relevant to me. I just don’t care. Show me a farce about American class anxiety. I don’t believe no American is writing that play.
Rapp: Seeing the Ayckbourn play at Westport, I just felt like…You have all these subscribers. Why not deal with something? Why not have a dialogue about what’s going on in the world? Why not put up a new play, and jolt people out of their comfort zone? I think Theatre for a New Audience is really interesting. They do revivals. They’ll do a Tartuffe, and then they’ll do Sore Throats, which is this unbelievable, brutal bear of a play. Or they’ll do Saved, by Edward Bond. They do this every fifth or sixth play, and it’s like a cleansing of the audience. They lose some subscribers, and they replenish the soil, get some new audience while educating their subscribers about why it’s important to do those tough plays.
Gionfriddo: I think there is definitely a class of theatergoer who wants to have coffee and dessert after the play and really doesn’t want a play to go on too long or present anything that’s gonna negatively impact dessert. But I personally—and I think you, too—bring the absolute opposite desire to the theater. I am being entertained really well by TV for free and by film for eleven bucks a pop. When I see a play, I want my world rocked, my perspective shifted. I get really mad when that doesn’t happen.
Rapp: Me, too.
Gionfriddo: Are we the minority?
Rapp: I think there’s something afoot in our culture—I am speaking really broadly now—audiences are wanting answers, not questions or mystery. I honestly don’t know how well Pinter would do here if he wasn’t already canonized. He speaks to mystery and discomfort and tension. And he’s not dealing with psychology, he’s dealing with action. And our culture is so psychologically driven now…from Dr. Phil to pharmaceutical sales. We want answers and a process that will yield answers. People processing their problems.
Gionfriddo: Dr. Phil and Oprah were a big obstacle for me when I was teaching. I taught adults in Rhode Island, and when I taught Raymond Carver’s short stories, they’d get so outraged. They wanted to know why the characters didn’t just do something about their problems. Why weren’t they being more “proactive”? They wanted to see results.
Rapp: Great theater to me is about action. It’s about consequences, but it’s not necessarily about explanation of consequences. I don’t feel responsible as a dramatist to give psychological reasons for my characters’ actions. That kind of discourse isn’t interesting to me. I’m interested in the mystery of action: what people do to each other.
Gionfriddo: That’s interesting. My observation of Living Room in Africa—Bathsheba Doran’s play at Edge [Theater]—was that a lot of the audience was made very uncomfortable by the conversation it sparked afterwards—the dessert conversation. What should that couple have done? (The play depicts an affluent white couple in Africa surrounded by illness and poverty.) And my answer is, “I don’t know.” But I love to come out of the theater not knowing! Did you have that sense, too, that the audience was kind of like, “Aaaagh! What do you want from me?”
Rapp: Oh, yeah. We’re so self-centered. We sort of twin ourselves to the characters we see onstage—which is also very American. The audiences I’ve seen in London and Edinburgh are up for being challenged and are not as compelled to attach themselves as mirrors to the characters onstage. They’re OK being at the zoo, observing animals in the zoo. And they’re really interested in the mind of the playwright.
I think younger theatergoers in New York are also interested in that and I think that’s the great hope. I just experienced a successful production of American Sligo at Rattlestick. I saw very tenacious young theatergoers who were interested in the play on its own terms, as opposed to demanding something from it. When you get into higher ticket prices and subscriptions, you get into people feeling entitled to see what they want to see, as opposed to being open to being led by a storyteller. It’s tricky. I don’t blame Playwrights Horizons or New York Theatre Workshop or MCC for dealing with subscribers. They need them to keep their theaters going. But it’s a problem when you’re doing another and another and another Neal LaBute play because that’s what your audience requires. What do you have the courage to present? I’d love to be an artistic director someday, then I could back up everything I say. Maybe I’ll do that someday…
Gionfriddo: I more often leave the theatre in New York unsatisfied than satisfied. How do you feel?
Rapp: I’m mostly unsatisfied.
Gionfriddo: Do you have a sense of why?
Rapp: I’m angered and frustrated a lot. The experience I want—and when it happens it’s so thrilling—is that I forget I’m in the theater and I feel I’m watching human behavior that is authentic and deeply felt and emotionally powerful or shocking or surprising. I should never be bored in the theater. I think that’s the greatest sin we can commit as writers, to bore people who carved out time in their night and dropped all this money to experience something real. I feel like a lot of the theater I see is very presentational and it is executed onstage as artful and thoughtful, but it doesn’t scare me. I rarely feel real rage or real sorrow, so when I feel that it is incredibly powerful. There were things about Anne Washburn’s The Internationalist and things about Anne Marie Healy’s Have You Seen Steve Stevens? that were absolutely unforgettable to me. It can happen a lot of ways—through language, through performance, through violence, in a moment.
I remember seeing Mamet’s The Cryptogram when it opened, and there was a guy in the group I was with so freaked out at the end of the play—when the child was walking upstairs with a knife after this whole conspiracy had been set against him. My friend tried to rush the stage and save the kid. And I thought: That is what’s possible. That is when theater is the most exciting, when you want to stop someone from doing something…stop them from being seduced or manipulated. You want to save somebody’s life. That’s what’s possible in the theater, but you so rarely get to that. So…that’s what I want to see.
Adam Rapp is a novelist, a filmmaker, and an Obie Award-winning playwright and director. In 2006, he was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for his play, Red Light Winter. Most recently, his play American Sligo (which he also directed) was presented by Rattlestick Theater in New York. His play, Bingo with the Indians (which he also directed) can currently be seen at The Flea Theatre, where it will run through December 22nd. Tickets: (212) 352-3101. For more information visit theflea.org.
Gina Gionfriddo received an Obie for her play, After Ashley, presented by The Vineyard Theatre in 2004. Stagefarm will present her play U.S. Drag in New York in February. Her newest play, Becky Shaw, will be presented in Actors’ Theatre of Louisville’s Humana Festival in March 2008. Currently, her work can be seen in Stagefarm’s excellent evening of shorts, Vengeance, at The Cherry Lane Theatre through December 1st. Tickets: (212) 868-4444 or www.smarttix.com. For more info: www.thestagefarm.org.