ADAM RAPP: Don't wait for anyone to anoint you

Issue: Summer 2010  
What advice do you have for any young unproduced playwright who wants to have a first break in New York? 

Don’t wait for anyone to anoint you. Put your play up in your apartment. Rehearse on your roof. Make work at all costs. Become obsessed with making work. Do it for free. Fall in love with your actors and actresses. Have sex and drive each other crazy. Make a family of theatre freaks. Go crazy with all of this because you’re young and you have the energy and you only live once and maybe, just maybe, in the midst of this fertility, someone will see the work and have an opportunity. But whatever you do, don’t wait. Waiting is death. And there’s nothing greater than doing it for free, for yourself, for each other.

What are you working on right now? 

I’m currently working on a play called “Nursing.” It’s part three of a Trilogy that’s going to be produced after the New Year. All the plays are set in the same lower east side tenement hallway. (It’s called “The Hallway Trilogy” and will be produced at Rattlestic Playwrights Theatre in the west village). The first play, “Rose,” is set in 1953, the second, “Paraffin,” is set on the evening of the 2003 NYC blackout, and “Nursing” is set in 2053. The same cast will perform all three in repertory. “Nursing” is about a man who has donated his body to be injected with three different plagues. The hallway has been transformed into a hermetically sealed viewing deck – a kind of medical museum for tourists – where you can watch this man be nursed back to health from each plague. In this future bacteria has been eradicated and so the nursing profession as we know it has become archaic.

 You are a very prolific author. What is your style of writing, in spurts, daily discipline, obsessive compulsive?

I don’t even know how to answer this question. Sometimes I’m very rigorous and disciplined. Sometimes I’m a totally mess and I’m writing wherever I can fit my laptop: on buses; in motel rooms; on trains, etc. There’s this assumption that I write all the time, which isn’t true. I spend a lot of time thinking about a piece, taking notes about it, perhaps writing little bits of it here and there, but I only start writing when it has to happen. It often gushes out in a mess and then I spend the next large chunk of time (several months, sometimes a year) cleaning it up, making sense of it, employing whatever craft I’ve learned. I do have periods when I’m in the freefall of it and it feels like “it” is doing me. That’s the best. That’s when time skids and you really get inside something.

You were recently on a panel with Albee, McNally and Huang on June 23rd to discuss censorship. Please tell me how censorship has affected you first hand as a writer and what dangers do you think are out there in this regard?

It’s true, I was recently on a panel with those great playwrights. It was quite an honor to sit beside them. Censorship has only really affected me as a novelist. The materials selection processes for high school curriculums are largely conservative. Occasionally a progressive teacher gets new, cutting edge books past the gatekeepers and then a parent gets upset. My second novel, The Buffalo Tree, was one of these books and it caused a bit of a cultural civil war in this small town in Pennsylvania. I got involved and with regard to the right and left mindset in this country it was a real eye-opener. It also forced me to face a mob of people. The theatre is a social art form and you see your audience, but as a novelist it’s a more abstract relationship to your readership. I rarely see anyone reading one of my books. It happened on the subway a few years ago – a man was sitting across from me reading my novel The Year of Endless Sorrows -- and I thought I had reached some sort of apotheosis. Going to that small town in Pennsylvania and facing those who were for and against the book was scary and thrilling and strangely moving. It certainly made me think about my responsibility as an artist.
Europeans see America as a highly standardized place, yet linguistically and literary it is probably one of the freest, raunchiest language in the world, and it has opened and paved the way for other more conservative countries to follow suit.  How do you explain this duality between the highly standardized mentality and culture, and this utterly unstandardized way of writing for stage (and in general)? Is it a way of escaping the tyranny of the mainstream culture? Or maybe forcing the boundaries has become the new standard?     
Despite all the presumed “freedoms” that our country boasts, I actually think it’s radically controlled. We grow up as rigorous consumers. We’re plopped in front of the television as toddlers. The triggers from department store catalogs and shopping malls are in our DNA. The terror of achievement and the acquisition of brand-name goods is a kind of unspoken mind-control that few dare to articulate. I think the most exciting currents of language and art emerge in response to this “SuperAmerica.” Hip-hop, for instance, was such a tenacious government of language a creation of culture, a way of life, a response to oppression and poverty. The sad thing is that like everything else in America, it got co-opted just as it was cresting most powerfully. The thing about theatre is that it will never reach a broad enough audience to get co-opted in that way, because ticket prices are so high. Kids can spend twelve bucks on a CD or ten bucks to download music. It’s sometimes upwards of sixty bucks to see cutting edge Off-Broadway fare. That’s not disposable income. That’s for the luxury class. So theatre will always be a marginalized artform that will mostly reach the middle class. I try and confront this with my work, but it proves to be difficult because in this country, when those kind of dollars are spent, there is an expectation of “entertainment”. To be challenged, to be rocked, to be made uncomfortable, is not what people are generally seeking out, so it’s been a different road for me. And form-wise, I’m not even avant-garde.  
The Red Light Winter was shortlisted for the Pulitzer but it didn't win. Are you going to follow on the footsteps of Sam Shepard and others and write a family drama or a somewhat politically correct drama in order to win the Pulitzer?

Probably not. If I ever win one of those big awards it will be a mistake on the committee’s part; a miscount or illogic caused by illness or a full moon. I admire many of those writers who have been given those accolades. It’s not something I’m setting out to achieve. If it were to happen, fine, but I’m not expecting it to.

How did you make a living before you became so well known?

I worked in book publishing for five years. After that I temped. I moved furniture. I was a bouncer in a bar. I taught a little bit. I played semi-pro basketball, too.
You’ve been living in Manhattan for many years, do you sense any cultural shift trending right now?

I live in the East village and there are a lot of rich kids living here now. I’m not sure if they’re students or trust-funders. It’s weird, though, because when I moved here in ’91 it was a much different vibe. It was definitely harder. There were crackhouses and all that. The homeless in the park were at war with the police. Now it feels very homogenized. It’s certainly safer, which is nice, but I do miss the edge a little.

Why are you are writing mostly young adult novels? Is passing the age of forty changing the way you see life, and how?

I love writing about teenagers because there’s just so much ripe possibility in their lives. It’s a caldron of sex and drugs and the pressure to achieve and SAT scores and what am I and who do I want to be. It’s all about questioning authority and finding your voice as a human being. Conflict is everywhere. And there’s puberty too. It’s an endless canvass. And I’ve never really grown up. I can still dunk a basketball. Maybe I’ll move on to writing adult protagonists after my knees go out.
Give me three examples of the most fashionable and unfashionable writing topics today.


The battered soldier.

The corrupt politician.

The misunderstood genius.


The awesome right-wing guru.

The anti-hero/anarchist with a dark heart.

Humanizing the child molester.

Thank you.
                                                                              Adam Rapp is one of the writers on the new season of IN TREATMENT on HBO. The series will air in October 2010.