CHP Dialogue

Paul Sapp talks with Stacey C. Rivera

I hate to say that Paul Sapp is mild-mannered because anyone with as quick and sharp a wit can not be called mild. Solid, contemplative and just kinda mellow, Paul comes to CHP for its fourth season and brings with him a fresh perspective on the important relationships in our lives and a nuts and bolts attitude towards what it takes to mount theater in NYC. I talked to Paul this fall at Jimmy’s No. 43 on E. 7th St. and thought right, here is a natural addition to the collective that is CHP. profile, go

Loving husband—just celebrated our first anniversary.  Oldest of three, two younger sisters.  Born in LA, moved to New Jersey when I was three so, East Coast kid for all intent and purpose.  Graduated from Loyola University in Baltimore.  Kicked around a bit in terms of cities, having done theater in most of them. Marketing and advertising copywriter by day.  Live in Jersey City.  One cat; no kids.

“Done Theater”, what does that mean?

I studied creative writing and political science. But I had done theater growing up. I was in a semi-professional production of Oliver when I was in fifth grade.  So, that was actually probably the kick off for it.  I did theater through junior high and high school. Then, when I went to college, I continued in an acting and directing vein. Well, in college, it was mostly direction. I did write and direct an original piece.  I also was one of…how many were there…five or six of us who started an all student run theater company at Loyola called The Poison Cup Players. We started it in 1992, so it’s still going now.  It’s actually an accredited theater course, although that’s really more of a testament to the people who came after us than it was to us because it was my last year.

So, yes.  So, wrote and directed a piece at Loyola, had the company, stayed in Baltimore, worked in local theater mostly in a acting, stage managing and directing capacity. I worked with the group called Children’s Theater Association, which put together pieces that they toured.  They would do things like Charlotte’s Web or A Thousand Cranes.  They would tour those around to the area schools.  But then they also had larger productions that they mounted at the Baltimore Museum of Arts.

Baltimore is fairly close knit.  You tended to see the same people at the same theaters. For a city its size, it was pretty good in terms of the number of companies and theaters you could perform at. I did Children’s theater and then there was a group called Axis Theater Company that I worked with there and did acting and then stage managed and then directed a play by the same woman who had written the pieces I had acted in. Axis was a newer theater company that came up after I had graduated.  I think they were a little more…I think they were more committed to original works than some of the other theaters in town were so, that was a lot of the appeal.  It’s still the sort of city where things, I think, can come up. 

Every now and then, Center Stage, which was really their professional theater, would hold auditions but it was never really seen as a platform per say because they tended to farm the talent outside of the city. It’s like you had to make a choice, you reach that fork in the road where you’re like, “This is a very comfortable city, I like it a lot and whatever it is that I want is here” or “I’ve hit the ceiling of what there is available to me and, so, I have to go to New York or Chicago.”  At least in terms of theater.

So you picked New York?

Well, I was asked by people that I knew from Loyola, who were now up in New York.  They were with this particular company called The Tennessee Project.  They were going to do Shakespeare. Being college kids when we founded the Poison Cup Players, we said, “Okay, we’re going to do something with small casts and contemporary.”  That’s what we said we were going to do.  Then, this guy Bill and I were in the library, sort of, brainstorming what it was that we were going to do and not really finding an answer.  They started flickering the lights and we both just came to the, “Oh, F-it, we’ll do Hamlet.”  So, that was the first production.  I think because of that experience, The Tennessee Project had asked me if I would be interested in directing. I think I had probably gotten to that point where I was like, “Okay, let’s move up to a bigger city and see what’s there.”

Do you act anymore?

No, I don’t. I think my issue with acting has always been self-consciousness.  Like, there’s always been a component in me that is aware that I’m, at that moment, acting out a part.  If you always have that part of you that seems to be standing outside looking at yourself doing that thing, then it jeopardizes the authenticity of the moment.  You know, that could just be complete conjecture on my part.  But I feel like, as an audience member having seen plays, you can sort of see the person who is in that moment and the person who is not in that moment.  I didn’t want to be the person who was not because I know what that does to everything else that’s going on.

You went to school for the nebulous “creative writing.” What’s been your writing focus?

I think it started out more as short fiction then moved into theater.  When I was living in Atlanta, I was doing more journalism and, like, pop culture commentary for the Atlanta Press, which’s basically their equivalent of New York Press. I did feature stories for them and I did a weekly television column.  Then, when I came back up here in 1999, it moved more into advertising because I had gotten a job and then was able to, sort of, get somebody at the agency to take me on and teach me more about marketing and advertising.  So, that ended up taking up a lot more time.  Then, I worked at Miramax Films for a year as the assistant to the Senior VP of Marketing for mass market films.  After I left that I actually tried a two-prong approach. I was working on a theater piece and a screenplay.  Then, after that, I put my focus more on screenplays, which is where I’ve been since 2003 with the occasional foray into writing content for blogs.  Then, back into marketing and advertising and copywriting.  But I had gotten to a point where I felt like it would be nice to get back into writing for theater as opposed to writing for the screen. 


Well, in some ways part of it was actually just meeting Rebecca.  We had met after seeing a showcase that Emma [Gordon and mutual friend] had performed in, and I think since Miramax I’ve been so much more caught up with people who are in the film industry that I just had…I was still going to see pieces but I wasn’t in that space. So, running into Rebecca and being able to interact with somebody who has that enthusiasm for it and I had seen Tucker in a Box.

Tell me what it’s been like for you to have dropped into this now three-years-old company that has developed a community and a process.

In terms of my involvement with Rebecca up to this point, I can see that she has a good grasp on both the art and the business of it at the same time. I mean she wants the company to succeed on both fronts.  I think she knows that they’re integral to each other and wouldn’t want to see the practicalities of it sacrificed for the sake of the artistic nature of the program or something like that.  I’m sure that she’s already run into and has been in conversations with people chaffing at that, probably fairly loudly, because you don’t want to have those kind of descriptions. But again, I mean that’s the filtering process.  Somebody does have to step in and say that because you could put yourself in a hole trying to get something up and done and not applying the practicalities to it. 

At CHP, the process of developing a piece and rehearsing it is collaborative between the writer, director and the collective through workshops. Why is that process interesting to you?

Getting back into writing something for theater, I am curious to see how that will shape the writing process because regardless of how much writing I’ve been doing on and off for all these years, theater is different.  But part of the reason why I also wanted to get into film is because I want to go apply some of the theater senses to it; being able to audition actors very early on, bring them into the development process, and I’m curious to see how that will evolve in the sense of how much of the play I actually write versus what we feel comfortable with her taking into production.  You know, into a rehearsal process and giving the actors some latitude to develop that in terms of the actions and the dialogue and things like that.

To me, it’s a little bit of how to parent in a way, in that even if I’m in the room in a rehearsal… if there’s something that happens during the course of that rehearsal and I’m not asked a question, then the conversation doesn’t happen until after the rehearsal is over.  Because it’s not my position to undermine or contradict the director at that moment if an issue comes up.  You know, like a parent, you take it upstairs and you talk about it and you make your decision on it then Rebecca would come back and she would present that. I don’t want to make anything so wedded in what my vision of it is that it strangles the ability of other people to find something else in it.

In some ways the nice thing about…or not the nice thing but the thing that you at least get to understand about film is that if you sell a script, once it’s out of your hands it’s out of your hands.  Who knows what’s going to happen to it.  That doesn’t happen as much in theater as it does in film.  But it should be allowed to happen to some degree.  Perhaps that’s why people prefer theater because they feel like they can stake their claim to their vision in a piece and feel like it’s not going to be tinkered with all that much.  But that’s not my inclination. 

I think no matter how comfortable I feel about my writing, it’s still been a long time since I’ve really written something for theater.  Again, there’s no reason not to be open to all of that because there’s going to be…I’m sure there’s going some uncertainty that will be in my head in terms of whether I feel like what I’m doing is correct having been away from it for so long.

Where do you think CHPs place is in New York theater?

Well, I suppose in some ways it’s kind of up to the company. I mean Collective Hole has a philosophy…as I’ve said, my sense is that it’s a philosophy that’s going to rub some people the wrong way.  So, you can’t necessarily go at it with the notion of winning people over with the philosophy.  You have to, sort of, win people over with making the philosophy work.  I think that’s the thing that gets people to think twice or to reconsider how, sort of, strident they are about their own philosophies or positions on it. How you can bring a big vision to stage successfully and in a way that, you know, doesn’t put you in a financial hole that then jeopardizes future productions. 

You know, feeling that you’re creating this environment that people feel confident about sending material into or sending in material that’s going to be strong and not just submitting it because somebody opened up the opportunity to submit something.  But you know that you’re drawing people in because people look to you as a stable and viable platform to then bring their vision up successfully.

I don’t think the theater scene is a place where you can worry about pleasing all people all of the time because you’ll never do it anyway.  Someone will think you’re too radical or too middle brow depending.  So, all you can do is make something work and make something enduring; both the pieces that you do as well as the company that you created.

Read More:

Dialogue with Rebecca

Dialogue with Brian

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