I grew up in Council Bluffs, Iowa. All my life I’ve been trying to leave.
Age fifteen, I discovered there was a world out there. Up till then, my tastes were cowboy movies, baseball, Boy Scouts, stories about sports or animals. Suddenly, I discovered theatre, poetry, a world of thought, and I was diverted from a stellar future as an entomologist. If only I could someday get to New York, or at least as far east as Chicago.
Since then I’ve been lots of places, including Chicago and NYC, but I still struggle to escape the Council Bluffs of the mind. Many find enormous value in reconnecting with their roots—family, place, ethnic identity—but I don’t. I’ve written some plays about that milieu, but to value my “heritage” would be to celebrate inheriting a dead dog. The one thing I do value is that, growing up in Iowa, you acquire a kind of internal gyroscope that keeps you upright on two feet, no matter how wild the storm.
But there’s a downside to escape: you’ll do anything to get out. If you can’t clear the wall, you’ll try the tunnel, you’ll try hiding in the laundry cart, you’ll try high public office. For me, that’s been the wild scramble between media, styles, locales, from realistic drama to sketch comedy to puppetry to audiodrama to classical adaptations to prose fiction—never at home.
Not knocking it: a lot of the work has been good. It’s stuff I believe in and take pride in the making. Never a story, however trivial, that I felt unworthy of the telling. But I’ve always had to fight that fierce little worm that longs for the Broadway hit, the national bestseller, the one-way ticket out of Council Bluffs.
Lately I’ve been reading a lot of Victor Hugo—the lesser work as well as the masterpieces—and apart from the story and the craftsmanship, there’s an authenticity of voice I aspire to. His prominence and his genius weren’t sufficient to spare him 19 years of political exile, but he speaks with a full and forceful engagement in what he’s telling. I’m still groping for that.