FEAR AND LONELINESS
Essential Self-Defense started out as a lark. An ex-roommate was telling me how she had been in a women’s self-defense class in New York, in which she had to assault an attack dummy that was an actual man dressed in an enormous foam suit. My first question to her was, What does this man do? She told me that he simply stood there until he was put down. My second question was, Who would take a job like this? I imagined the late Andy Kaufman in some oversized Nerf costume. Theatrically, the image of a man wearing such a thing, being assaulted by a woman who intends to take him down, seemed like a great idea to jump-start a play. So that’s what I began with. I had no idea why this was an intriguing possibility for an evening of theatre or where the thing might go, but it certainly felt like a man and a woman literally colliding in a women’s self-defense studio was fertile soil. I also was pretty sure that some version of love would be involved, as well as notions of irrational fear, personal safety, loneliness, a scurrying sewer rat, and whatever that thing is that lurks in the woods behind the 7-Eleven.
I started thinking a lot about the play while I was at the Pittsburgh City Theatre, in rehearsals for my play Gompers (when I’m not directing, I’m a terrible daydreamer). I was originally going to conceive ESD as a two-person karaoke opera, with two locations: a self-defense studio, represented by a wrestling mat, and a karaoke bar, represented by a drum kit, a microphone and mic stand, and a cocktail table. Simplicity was heavy on my mind after watching director Tracy Brigden and the City Theatre Company production staff attempt to figure out how to make the ten-character, six-location monster that was Gompers work. With ESD, structurally, my original intention was that scenes alternate sequentially between the women’s self-defense studio and the karaoke bar. My characters (who even early on were called Yul and Sadie) would sing the story of their lives to each other during the karaoke scenes and then Sadie would beat on Yul in the self-defense studio, with a third character acting only as a drummer. This drummer would percussively accompany the beatings during the self-defense studio scenes, conveniently oblivious to that world, and play along with all the karaoke performances as the bar’s house drummer. I thought he might also evolve into some sort of antagonist to Yul and Sadie’s relationship.
When I began actually writing the play, I was bewildered by our country’s obsession with the manhunt for Osama bin Laden and the blind, at-all-costs attitude to not only finding him but bringing him to a swift and certain terminal justice. It was Keystone Kops going after Big Foot, my junior high swim team diving for the Loch Ness monster. It just seemed absurd that the notion of finding this one man would somehow solve all of our problems relating to the September 11th tragedy and all of its concomitant cultural damage. I was also fascinated by how the media was seemingly in cahoots with the Bush administration in spinning a modern Big Bad Wolf myth. Every time I turned on the television I saw images of Bin Laden lurking in some Middle Eastern cave. I was also struck by the strange, almost peaceful kindness that seemed to emanate from his eyes. And then the day came when I thought, What if this guy really didn’t have anything to do with 9/11? What if he is simply the scapegoat fashioned by the media and the various acolytes of the Oval Office to satisfy our country’s knee-jerk, Old Testament need for retribution? Mr. Bin Laden has obviously had many dealings with world terror—there’s no doubt an acre or two of proof on the subject—but, still, this devil’s advocate stance intrigued me. Yes, it was a dangerous, unpopular, perhaps even unpatriotic notion, but I couldn’t shake it.
So then the world of the play started to evolve. I started thinking of it as a Big Bad Wolf fable, and I had to increase the population in order to deal with all that find-him-at-all-costs madness; I doubt even the cleverest playwright can eke out a decent manhunt with only two characters. So from there I created a community for our two heroes to live in. I thought the civic simplicity of a butcher, a barber, a librarian, and a custodian would be an interesting way to populate this place that I eventually called Bloggs—not because of the obvious Internet allusion, but because of the great baseball player, Wade Boggs, who for me represents the best of the game of baseball, our great American pastime. I basically added an L so Mr. Boggs wouldn’t be offended (though not that many Hall of Fame baseball players frequent the theatre).
After 9/11, a lot of people got really scared. “Homeland Security” became a household phrase and several of my friends back in the Midwest were taking weekend “first response” workshops on what to do in case our country was attacked. In the East Village, for months people walked around wearing surgical masks, not only to avoid inhaling the Twin Towers ash that was still thickening the air but also to prevent inhaling anthrax and a myriad of other purported urban germ-warfare contaminants. I saw a neighbor in a ground-floor apartment duct-taping his windows. An actor whom I had worked with several times admitted to me that he bought a pair of gas masks from an army/navy wholesaler on Canal Street for himself and his girlfriend. Seemingly every few minutes the dopplering thunder of jets policing the heavens could be heard overhead. There was a checkpoint along Fourteenth Street where you had to present your passport or driver’s license to prove that you lived in the neighborhood. Uncertainty was viral and Big Brother was most definitely watching, and wasn’t he even starting to take on vague wolflike qualities? Was that a snout protruding from under that police helmet? No, that couldn’t be a snout! That’s a policeman! A National Guardsman! A U.S. marshal in full fatigues and spit-shined boots! That’s a civil servant!
For me, Sadie represents this uncertain American, suddenly afraid to go outside, to check behind the drapes, to reach under the bed for that lost slipper. That harmless stroll in the woods was suddenly fraught with profound, paralyzing fear. Walking into a dark room, no matter how familiar, was like walking into the arms of the bogeyman. It’s the fear of everything. The fear of public toilets. The fear of the post office. The fear of deodorant sticks and sanitary napkins. The fear of opening a letter from your mother. Of gym bags left on park benches. The fear of the air we breathe. Whether or not anything actually happened to you personally, the fear was there. Or was it? Did you simply dream it? Or was it something conjured out of the undulating, pixelated gospel of your television? Whatever the case, the fear has become a new part of American culture. And it’s inside you now, yes it is. It’s right there, as certain as a rib.
And is Yul an antidote for or a catalyst of this fear? He certainly has plans—plans that involve injecting a mysterious substance into colored, hard-boiled Easter eggs. But is he the one responsible for all those kids who are disappearing from the local junior high school? Is this strange, sensitive loner who was recently fired from his job for drawing an “X” over President Bush’s face in the daily newspaper a real threat to the community, or is he the invisible hero? Is he Bloggs’s Timothy McVeigh or Kurt Cobain? And what the hell does a guy like this do when someone actually loves him? Does something soften in his heart or does he press on until he’s accomplished the mission?
What I wound up with months later turned out to be perhaps more impossible to stage than my monolithic Gompers, as the locations became not only the self-defense studio and the karaoke bar, but also Sadie’s home, Yul’s rat-infested cinder-block basement apartment, a butcher counter, a library help desk, a barbershop, a hospital room, and Norvis Woods. Plus, my cast ballooned from two to ten, so perhaps what I ultimately saw stacked neatly on my desk was a play that was impossible to produce. Oh, no, not another dead play, I feared. Dead plays are like dead children and I’ve amassed my share of them.
Thank god for Playwrights Horizons and Edge Theater, who agreed to do a coproduction. And thank god for Paul Sparks, who, in a certain eerie light, bears a faint resemblance to both Timothy McVeigh and Kurt Cobain, depending on how much you’ve had to drink and what room he happens to be standing in.
Excerpted from Essential Self-Defense: A Play by Adam Rapp. Copyright © 2007 by Adam Rapp. Published in March 2007 by Faber and Faber, Inc., an affiliate of Farrar, Straus and Giroux. All rights reserved.