NEW YORK — When discussing Adam Rapp’s career, it helps to clarify which one you mean.
Along with his day job writing plays — including 2006 Pulitzer nominee “Red Light Winter” — Rapp has written and directed two indie films, scripted episodes of Showtime’s “The L Word” and published the novel “The Year of Endless Sorrows.”
And his focus won’t be narrowing soon. On Feb. 22, the Flea Theater will preem Julian Shepperd’s dark drama “Los Angeles,” with Rapp directing. Playwrights Horizons opens his latest play, “Essential Self Defense” on March 15, and he’s prepping his second feature, “Blackbird,” which he wrote and directed, for a March bow at the South by Southwest Festival. He’s even finishing a graphic novel to be published by comics imprint First Second Books.
But with so many projects afoot, can burnout be far behind? Will his loaded calendar mean a loss of artistic quality?
Rapp concedes: “It is a struggle. A lot of things came up because the opportunity presented itself and I needed the money. And then when everything hit at once, it became really overwhelming.”
However, he says his schizophrenic interests help his playwriting, which he still considers his primary pursuit.
Working on films, for instance, (Rapp made his screen-directing debut last year with “Winter Passing”) and meeting their demands for multiple locations has broadened the scope of his plays. “Essential Self Defense,” a grim fairy tale about a town beset by evil, is almost cinematic in structure, jumping between short scenes in multiple settings and featuring 10 characters.
That’s a serious departure from most of Rapp’s plays, which tend to feature small casts in cramped spaces trying to mitigate their sense of apocalyptic dread.
“I was locked in this mode where I was keeping people stuck in rooms together, and I wanted to see what I could do to open that up.” he explains.
Rapp says directing is also key to honing his voice. “Los Angeles” features 10 locations, 11 thesps and three musicians, and shaping it has forced him to consider how epic stories are told.
But it’s directing his own work — a decision that can be met with skepticism, especially in the theater — that Rapp says is most valuable. He insists: “My plays get better when I direct them. I feel more responsible to the audience experiencing the work, so my plays always change in the rehearsal room.”
Ironically, Rapp first fought to be a helmer after a critically lauded production in 2000 of his play “Nocturne” at American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass. Though written as a monologue, the play was expanded to include additional characters and elaborate sets. “Even though I had an enormous success, I wasn’t happy with the production,” Rapp explains.
Now a regular director of his own material — including last year’s commercial Off Broadway run of “Red Light Winter” — Rapp says colleagues have dropped their initial resistance to letting him multitask.
He’s also gaining more control of his film work. “Winter Passing,” produced by Focus Features and the Yari Group, failed to find an audience, and Rapp argues that’s partially because he didn’t get final cut of the movie. “I had some heated battles about keeping it buoyant and happy. But it wasn’t a happy thing that I wrote,” he states.
For “Blackbird,” a quirky love story shot for less than $1 million, Rapp feels his vision is intact. “It’s just a couple of producers and my editors. It was such a low budget that I just made sure no one could weigh in,” he says.
His taste for projects with little outside intervention may explain why the only title missing from Rapp’s resume is “Broadway playwright.”
Rapp says he was offered a chance to bring “Red Light Winter” to the Walter Kerr Theater, but turned it down, fearing the play would be lost in a large house, and that his mostly younger auds would balk at expensive tickets.
But Rapp, now 38, is philosophical about the next step of his playwriting career. He muses: “I would like to stretch myself and find a bigger audience because I’m getting older and my material is getting older. But I don’t know if it’s possible to go to Broadway, especially with plays like mine.”