Artist Interview with Jenny Schwartz and Todd Almond
SPOILER ALERT: If you have not seen Iowa, this interview contains information on main plot POINTS in the production.
Tim: Let’s start with the title. I have my own personal associations with Iowa because my brother teaches at Iowa State and I’ve been to Ames a couple times. It’s very heartland America, but it’s also a sophisticated state. There are a lot of colleges and universities there. It’s a true swing state, home to both Tom Harkin and Charles Grassley, completely unpredictable politically. Jenny, did you have any personal experience with the state, or did it have metaphorical resonances for you?
Jenny: No I don’t have any personal experiences with Iowa. I chose it for its resonances. When I started writing the first scene, the one where Sandy and Roger are video chatting, and Becca and Amanda come home from school, I had no idea where the play would go. One of Sandy’s first lines is, “Roger has asked me to marry him!” So that storyline was an immediate, organic discovery, as was the state of Iowa. Iowa just came out as I was writing and then the editor part of me had to step back and ask, “What do I think of Iowa? Do I like Iowa? Do I want them to move to Iowa or should I pick a different state?” And I decided that Iowa felt right and I would stick with it. Iowa felt like a foreign place to Becca, maybe because I’ve never been there. So on a character level, I thought it would work well. And also, like you said, Iowa’s an important state politically. I liked that it’s in the middle of the country and a quintessential Midwestern American state. I thought that if I chose Iowa, I would be challenging myself to write about America. And I hoped that I would rise to the occasion. And of course, I liked the running Iowa/Ohio joke.
You said that you wrote it as a short play first...
So how long was the short version?
J: Around twenty minutes.
Did it have the same structure? Iowa has three stages: home, then high school, and Iowa…
J: It was just home and Iowa.
So there was no Mr. Hill.
J: There was no Mr. Hill. There was no Jesus.
J: No cheerleaders. No pony. No Auschwitz. There was an Amanda.
But no Heh-SOOS. (“Jesus.”)
J: No. Jesus came to me when I started working with Todd.
Todd: You found Jesus when you met me.
How did that happen? You had this little play and thought: “Okay what’s next for this? Is it going to be a play? Or something else?”
J: “A musical?” Right. I know… Why did I think it should be a musical? You know, I don’t remember. Maybe because of the sister wives.
The sister wives were in this early version?
J: Yes. I must have thought that sister wives would work well in a musical.
And you knew Todd’s work?
J: Yes. At that point, I had probably seen On the Levee and We Have Always Lived in the Castle and one or two of his solo shows. And I’m close to Mark [Subias, Jenny and Todd’s agent]. I always joke around with Todd that whenever I see Mark, I’m like: “Mark, let’s talk about my new play…” and he’s like, “Sure whatever, but first, you have to hear Todd’s new song!”
(Jenny and Todd laugh)
J: Mark had played me lots of Todd’s music, and I loved it.
T: It was forced upon you repeatedly. (Laughs)
I think the people reading this need to know that Todd and Mark are married...
T: So, Mark is Jenny’s agent, and my agent, and he’s also my husband.
J: Yes. And I loved Todd’s music. There was something about it that I knew would work well with my writing and particularly with this story. So I showed Todd the short play, but I didn’t want to put any pressure on him. I said, “You don’t have to say yes now. We’ll do a workshop with actors for two weeks and we won’t do any work beforehand. We’ll see what we come up with during the workshop, and when it’s over, we’ll decide if we want to go forward.”
Did you have a workshop lined up already?
J: Not yet. When Todd agreed to do the workshop, we approached The Flea and asked if we could work with the Bats [The Flea’s company of young actors].
And did you know when you asked Todd that he is from the plains? That he is from Nebraska?
J: I think I did.
So you must have been to Iowa at some point.
T: I lived closer to Wyoming and Colorado than Iowa, but Nebraska does border Iowa. I didn’t spend a lot of time in Iowa, but I do feel like even though I’m from that part of the country, it is all the same. Kansas is not so different from Nebraska, is not so different from South Dakota, is not so different from Iowa, so… I immediately locked in.
When you drive through it you really are dependent upon each other’s interpersonal interactions to give you some variety.
T: Yes. Yep. It’s all the same.
And what songs you put on, otherwise…
(Tim and Todd laugh)
“Count the silos.”
T: When you drive across Nebraska, you feel like you’re in a trance. Ten minutes could have passed or ten hours. It never changes.
So Todd, there’s a real satiric edge to a lot of Jenny’s writing, and given what she was saying about the foreignness of Iowa for her, could you relate to that?
Todd: Yes. In this play, Iowa is a place that stands for “far away.” It could be “Timbuktu.” I couldn’t tell you what the streets of Timbuktu look like, even though I know it’s actually a place. So that’s how Iowa, when I read this play, felt. But since I do have a personal relationship to Iowa, the song “Iowa” immediately popped up for me. And so did “How Many Miles?” where the little kid looks up at the sky. Those two moments felt very personal.
So Todd, Jenny said how she invited you into that workshop at The Flea with no pressure on you to make it musical. Did it take you awhile before songs came?
T: No, on the first day, I went home and wrote “Fun,” which is the song where Sandy’s drunk.
(Jenny and Todd laugh)
So how much of the music came forth in that first workshop?
T: Three songs?
J: It’s hard to remember.
T: I think in that first workshop, I wrote “Fun,” “How Many Miles?,” and maybe “Ponies.” We did a bunch. And it was clear from day one that this was exciting and we should keep going. We didn’t know if it was going to go from twenty pages to twenty-five, or if it was going to become a three-act play with two intermissions. We just didn’t know.
So Jenny, talk a little about your process. You begin with an openness to what comes out of your unconscious. How do you edit and expand from there?
J: Well, with Iowa, my first task was to create a very simple, straightforward, almost skeletal plot. Sandy drags Becca to Iowa so that she can marry Roger. Becca resists but ultimately has no choice but to go. At the end, Sandy finds happiness with the sister wives, and Becca finds happiness with Charlie.
So the sister wives were in the first version.
J: I came up with that plot before our first workshop. And then what I do is, I go back over it, again and again, to see what themes emerge and storylines arise. Each time I work, I start typing the play by heart from the beginning, and then, well, for example, one day I wrote “Jesus gave me a thumbs up sign.” And I was like, “Oh wow, OK. Jesus is in the play now. Welcome aboard. Here we go.”
(Jenny and Todd laugh)
J: And for the most part, if I write something like that, I will say yes to it. It’s like that rule in improv where you have to say yes. Especially if I write something embarrassing or scary or controversial, I force myself to say yes.
Was he Heh-SOOS at first or was he always just Jesus?
J: Always Jesus. Jesus the janitor. The janitor at work. And at some point, I realized that Sandy should have unrequited love for Jesus.
See I had a whole scenario going on that you had interactions with Latin culture and marveled at the fact that so many kids are just named Jesus and couldn’t wait to have some Anglo person mutilate the Heh-SOOS into Jesus. But that was nowhere. It just came?
J: Right, it just came. I’m a big worker of my material. I keep going over it and over it and it gets larger and larger and deeper and deeper. My theory is that if I have a very simple plot, I can take the characters and themes to crazy places. Since I always start from the beginning and type the whole thing from memory, the language and the characters get very much inside my body and my soul. And each time I retype it, I’m always searching for new doors and windows to open. Like one day, I was working on Sandy’s monologue about womanhood, and I wrote the lines “More soon. I’m back.” And when I wrote those lines, I knew right away that I had discovered a big, important theme, which was the internet. Sandy’s obsession with the internet. And then, I had to start typing from the beginning again and incorporate that theme throughout. Basically, when I uncover something new, when I open a new door or window, I always go back to the beginning and weave it throughout. It’s like I have a palette of colors and my palette starts small and keeps expanding.
T: It’s really spectacular to watch you work and trust your process. Even though we might get to the end of a workshop without figuring something out, we just set up another workshop and keep massaging the thing until it emerges.
J: And at the same time that I’m looking for themes, characters, and plot, I’m also looking for structure. I’m very rigorous about form and structure. Iowa has a three part structure with the home, school, and Iowa. And it took us a while to find that structure.
J: It’s really scary for me, the part of the process before I know the structure. I’m always worried that I’ll never figure it out. And once I figure it out, it’s a huge relief. At one point we thought Iowa had a two-act structure with an intermission. And then we realized that was wrong and we had to go back to the drawing board.
T: Last night, when I was watching the play, I realized the structure has a beautiful pattern, perhaps by accident, but probably not. The first scene is a rush, the second scene is a rush, and then, when we finally get to the song “Coastal Erosion,” the play cracks open and emotion spills out. I realized the entire structure of the play is like that. One, two, crack. One, two, crack. Home races along, school races along, and then we get to Iowa and crack.
So if it took a while to find the structure, it must have been a big discovery to have her go to her school. A lot happens because of that decision.
J: Becca’s math teacher, Mr. Hill, is why I initially went to school. Becca confesses her love to Mr. Hill before she leaves for Iowa. Basically, I was trying to put Becca through the most horrible trials and tribulations possible for a teenage girl in America. I wanted her mom to abuse her, her dad to reject her. I wanted her best friend and her favorite childhood character [Nancy Drew] to ditch her. I wanted her to confess her love to her math teacher and for that to go as horribly wrong as possible.
(Todd and Jenny laugh)
J: I wanted her to be completely mistreated and misunderstood, and through it all, I wanted her to persevere and prevail. From very early on, I knew that the play would end with optimism and hope between Becca and Charlie. So I wanted Becca to arrive at the optimism and hope after having really suffered.
Why do you think Mr. Hill had the tattoo of the hawk that he took off? Do you have any idea?
J: Like mostly everything else, it came out intuitively. But I did write it long after I had written Becca’s lines in her last scene with Charlie where she says “We can do that. Together. We can get close to a hawk.” So it’s an example of my going back and weaving an image or theme throughout. Hawks had become part of my palette. Also, I like that Becca and Charlie want to get close to a hawk, whereas poor beaten up Mr. Hill doesn’t like hawks anymore.
I think once you made the decision to go to high school, among the things that crack open is the number of other characters. Maybe it starts when Becca goes to find her father and his wife is British-Chinese. Did you know when you went to high school that you would have multicultural characters? It seems so consciously purposive, you know? “Well, okay we’re going to have one of each race and I got a man, I got a kid, and let’s go.” Did that decision come early, or as a result of something else?
J: It didn’t happen initially, but it became consciously purposive. We arrived at that structure after a lot of work and a lot of digging. There was a long period of swimming around in the dark trying to figure out who were the people in the play. I knew that Nancy Drew was in the play long before I knew that there was a chorus of Nancy Drews. At some point, I decided that Nancy Drew was black. And the multi-culti chorus came around the same time.
When was that?
J: Not until our Sundance workshop where April [Matthis] and Cindy [Cheung] came with us.
Then you had that as part of the characterological structure and you could find ways to keep using...
J: Yes. And the sister wives became multi-culti as well.
(Whispering) Did you like Nancy Drew as a kid?
J: No. I have to admit I didn’t.
(Still whispering) How did you even know about her?
J: Doesn’t everyone know about Nancy Drew?
Isn’t she from an earlier generation?
J: Yes. But each decade she gets a makeover.
T: It’s true. There’s a Young Adult version of Nancy Drew now.
T: (Laughs) That I don’t know.
So the second song that we hear is “Coastal Erosion.”
Did that come early? It’s quite a length of time between the first song and the second.
T: That song came when we were doing a workshop at Williamstown.
J: I think I gave you an assignment to write a song called “Coastal Erosion.”
T: Right. You did.
And where did that come from?
J: The scene with Becca and her dad. He tells her that Indonesia is sinking because of coastal erosion. I wanted to highlight the fact that the world is turning to shit in general, not just for Becca.
T: We were in Williamstown, and I went to a little cafe and I wrote the song and brought it into rehearsal.
J: And I wept. Uncontrollably. Because of its beauty.
When we were talking about that song and how it works, Ken [Rus Schmoll] said: “Well, my idea is that the play is singing that song.” Does that make sense? Is he describing something you ever talked about?
J: We never articulated it that way, but yes, it makes a lot of sense.
Did you know who was going to sing it?
J: No. We knew that we had a bunch of sister wives, and we wanted to find different, interesting things for them to do throughout.
I want to go back to my first exposure to the play. You were doing a reading and Mark was telling me how great it is but my schedule didn’t allow me to go to the reading. So Mark suggested I just come to some rehearsal. So I crept into a rehearsal room and heard just the end of “How Many Miles” then the Sandy video chat and as I kept watching it wasn’t clear to me at all that this was Becca’s play.
Because all the world surrounding her is in such vibrant colors and she’s kind of deadpan about it…
J: Right. That’s something that you and Adam really helped me with. When you decided to produce the play and we started working on it here, you made me aware that it was Becca’s play. I don’t know why, but I initially resisted that idea. Maybe it felt too conventional or obvious or sentimental. But you guys made me see that that’s what I had written and that I should take ownership of it and figure out how to develop her character and her story.
To me, the structure of the play from home to high school to Iowa reflects the awfulness of Becca’s journey that you were talking about before she reaches her destination in Iowa and the soul of the play opens. At home, she’s got an insane mother, then she goes to high school which is insane for everybody. And “Coastal Erosion” forecasts that the global future is threatening too.
You said it took awhile to find the Mr. Hill scene. Talk about what it does for the play?
J: I wanted create a situation where Becca would speak.
J: And it wasn’t going to happen with her mom.
J: And it wasn’t going to happen with her dad. And I had given her a best friend who doesn’t talk. So I had to find a situation where we could hear what Becca had to say.
What I love about the scene with Mr. Hill is how aggressive Becca is. It’s like, “Who are you? Where did you come from?” She’s kind of like a weird version of her mother in a way.
J: I know.
T: She does sound like Sandy, I think, in a beautiful way. You go, “Oh, dear...” (Laughs)
J: We learn from example.
I think we were trying to track the subconscious logic of the sequence from home to her phone call to Dad to the breakfast scene with the burqa to Mr. Hill. And it was a discussion point that when she comes back to her mom’s and her mom has a burqa, we asked “What’s happening? What’s new here?”
And that influenced a slight rewrite you did.
J: Yes definitely. I realized that something had to be different; I couldn’t just stick her in a burqa and continue on with the same dynamic. I had to move things forward somehow.
So you reordered it a bit to start with, “How do you like my burqa?” Then she turns to Becca: “Wait a minute, what’s going on over there? You’re acting different. You’re being weird.”
And that’s, I guess, because...
J: Well I wanted her to have gotten something out of the phone call with her dad and Liz, which oddly ended up being her decision to wear tinted ChapStick.
T: I love the tinted ChapStick.
J: And also her decision to tell Mr. Hill how she feels about him.
T: She decides to be plucky. She’s an orphan after all.
Why does she own being a poet in one moment and then reject being a poet later?
J: At the end? I think she feels beaten down and sick of everything.
T: I always feel like it’s her taking a little control of her life. Being a little adult.
Well, the first time she talks about her poetry, what’s the context?
J: She talks about her poem, “Love is Bald: An Ode to Mr. Hill.” And then she sings: “Psst I’m a Poet” to the audience.
That was one of the later songs that you guys wrote.
J: We wrote it after “Psst I’m Not a Poet.”
T: When she sings “Psst I’m a Poet,” Becca is acting spontaneously and honestly. But later, when she’s put on the spot by her mother, she feels like a show pony and she doesn’t want any part of it.
The Cheerleader becomes a really major character in the story. Did that happen right away?
J: Not right away. I remember writing that scene during one of our workshops with the Bats.
T: Because of Sandy’s line to Amanda, “Be a goddamn cheerleader?”
When did Amanda become Latina? She isn’t recognizably Latina in the scenes.
J: No, the only reference to her race is in the Cheerleader scene when she says: “Do I look Jewish? I’m not Italian. I like pizza. Do I look Greek? I’m not Middle Eastern.” That’s me trying to figure out her ethnicity.
(Jenny and Todd laugh)
T: After we had figured out that the sister wives sang, we talked about threading the actual Oratorio back through the piece. You had a strong impulse that we should somehow do that to kind of set it up. I think we ended up doing it in a way by having the four girls sing “This Is America.”
That’s a later song too.
T: Much later.
J: For me, the song “Should I Be Worried” is very much connected to the Oratorio. I wrote the lyrics in the same way. If you read the lyrics, you realize they match the Oratorio.
Is that the song Annie sings after the lullaby?
So was it when you had the Nancy Drews come in every color that she really became Latina?
Let’s talk about the Oratorio. The Oratorio is Jenny’s words. But you didn’t always know they were sung, right?
J: The sister wives appeared in my short play and even though their text was sort of funny, I never really liked it. All they did was bicker and I knew we could do better. I thought that whatever we did with these sister wives had to be somehow transcendent. Neither of us is interested in writing about polygamy and we definitely didn’t want the wives to fight over Roger. So for a while, we pounded our heads against the wall trying to figure out how to break through, to make them larger than what they are, to make them speak in a way that somehow encompasses America. A lofty goal, I know.
J: When we were at Sundance, I brought in the first lines of what is now the Oratorio. [“I have an issue with my back. It’s anxiety related. I have an issue with my car. It’s temperature related.”] At that point, what would happen is the wives would fight fight fight, and then they would start singing a song that went like this: (Singing) “I sit up late at night thinking about all the ways in which I’d like to watch you all slowly die. Sister Wives!”
T: (Singing) “My happiest dreams are the ones in which the faces of all the other wives melt and it’s horribly painful for them, but it makes me laugh.” (Todd and Jenny laugh) “Sister Wives!”
J: “When I think of you on our wedding day and the smile on your face and the shoes you wore I vomit. Sister wives!”
T: “I like sunshiiiiiine. Mostly because it might give you cancer.”
(Todd and Jenny laugh)
J: And then they would stop singing and start speaking my lines.
J: And every time they would speak, we would miss the singing. But we were interested in the text that I had brought in. Because it would turn corners and they would morph away from being sister wives. “That’s the interesting thing about being President.” “That’s the interesting thing about being a father.” But we missed the singing. So then, one day Todd said, “I have an idea, I’ll see you tomorrow...”
J: So he came back the next day and he had set the whole thing to music and it was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard. Ken and I were sobbing. We couldn’t believe it. We high fived. We felt like we had struck gold. At some point, we realized we didn’t need the first fighting song, the one that we just sang.
But there are vestiges of that fighting at the start.
J: Right. They start out fighting, with, you know, pointy nipples. “I’m so sick of your goddamn kids.” But then we veer away and manage to transform them.
But it wasn’t fully done yet at Sundance, right?
T: It was a lot though. It already felt a monolith.
J: I think at that point it ended with: “Because I... Because I...” We didn’t get to the very end.
Where would you consider the “very end” starts in the Oratorio?
T: “You have to understand, I grew up on a farm with cherry and apple trees and they were beautiful in the spring.”
J: “And they were beautiful in the sun and I was happy.”
T: They spoke those lines, I remember. I didn’t know what to do musically with them yet.
J: When we got back from Sundance, we had a workshop devoted entirely to the Oratorio. And we found some beautiful new parts that are still in there. But we made it way too long and we ended up scrapping a lot of the new stuff.
I have to confess that I never knew what the Oratorio was going to be. At that first rehearsal I went to, I had to leave before they got to it. And it was not part of the demo I listened to. And I think even one of our workshops, we didn’t sing it. And speaking lines always feels like faux Greek chorus. But when it’s musicalized, it’s transfiguring. And I’m trying to figure out how the end of the Oratorio happened. It’s just so miraculous to me. Like: “Hey hey hey hey hey hey hey.” It seems like those had to be lyrics.
J: Todd did those. I didn’t. The “hey heys” are all Todd! See this is why it’s been such a magical collaboration. The Oratorio would be nothing without the “heys.” And of course Ken’s choreography too.
T: I just wanted a chorus…
What is the “Because of” lyric?
T: “I’m doing this because of...”
J: “Love, people, love.”
“I’m doing this because of… my third grade teacher.” The way that’s musicalized knocks me out.
T: Thank you.
I think where I first gasp, and I gasp every night, is “I grew up on the...”
J: Me too. “I grew up on the plains. I grew up on the prairie.” Same. “I grew up on the Olsen Twins.” Oh my god, it gets me every time.
T: I know.
It really does.
T: It’s beautiful...
And when they name all the places they come from, it is America.
T: And I did basically just set things in Jenny’s order. There are a couple of times where I smushed things together. An example I can point to is when—
J: “I have gas pains.”
T: Exactly. Cindy sings a long musical phrase “Why do I feel trapped in my body? I’m just a pound over my ideal weight, that said, my knees hurt.” And interspersed, the other wives are singing “Why?” “Why?” “Why?” And then Cindy says “That said...”, Annie says, “I have gas pains”, “My feet hurt...” “Knees...” “Good-bye...” “Hurt.” “Good-bye...” That’s the only time I re-ordered the lines.
And was Sandy’s monologue always considered the dramatic climax of it?
J: I wrote that at Sundance. I remember writing it at Porches Inn, and I knew it felt right but I didn’t know exactly why. It was always allusive to me, but I trusted that I would figure it out eventually. I think Adam finally cracked it last week by suggesting that she begin it with “Dear Diary”.
T: I agree.
So now you’ve got this incredibly powerful, long, building Oratorio, with its own climax. But the play’s not done. You know… And I think it’s really masterfully executed that you’re actually able to get more musical moments that don’t seem anticlimactic at all, that actually build.
So did you know that “Iowa” has got to come after this, then “I Am a Hawk,” and that’s the end of the play?
J: When Todd brought in “I Am a Hawk,” we knew we had our official ending. At some point we realized the child would end the play and begin the play. That felt right structurally.
T: But it wasn’t always the child who sang “Hawk.” In the original draft it was an actual hawk.
And “Iowa”—you said you wrote that early. I mean, was that there before there was even an Oratorio?
T: Yes. Long before.
And was it always going to be kind of an ending?
T: No. For me “Iowa” never worked until… There used to be something in between the end of the Oratorio and “Iowa.” I don’t remember what it was.
J: Was it the scene between Becca and Charlie?
T: Maybe, because at one point we thought “Iowa” almost has to be part of the Oratorio. And that felt wrong. But bumping it up against the Oratorio feels right. That’s what we do now.
T: And then—we have a trick—the last chord of the Oratorio is actually the first chord of “Iowa.” Which helps a lot. To connect them and move things forward.
It’s so brilliant that you bring Roger back in and then they fall back into place as sister wives. After the Oratorio has opened up our hearts, and achieved a kind of apotheosis of Americanness and sisterhood, we then return to reality. It’s classical musical theater: show us the inside soul of something. Then “Iowa” returns us to the literal world, to the farm and to their marriages. And they’re in a classic standing chorus, in a kind of old-fashioned kick step, supporting Roger. And Becca also comes back in and that reminds us: “Oh.”
T: Right, her.
“We have to resolve Becca. She’s going to be the end of the story.” It’s masterful. It excites me. (Laughs) I’d really love to circle back to Becca’s journey and what you said about subjecting her to so many indignities. One could write this play as a kind of soapy, domestic afternoon special...
(Jenny and Todd laugh)
... About a single girl growing up with an insane mother who’s like a crazy kind of cougar-idiot. Right? And so, coming back to Becca and Charlie and her asking him, “Which one’s your mom?” “The crazy one.” I think it achieves so much, in sort of bringing the play gently back full circle.
J: Thanks. I hope so.
And we look over at them, and we don’t know which one she means. But it doesn’t matter, because a bond has formed between them and with us.
T: That, for me, does so beautifully encapsulate the whole play, that line, and then: “Will it be slow or gradual, the process of going crazy?” I think that, there we go, there’s the whole play in two lines.
And then that’s why Becca decides to stay.
J: I think that was, again, my effort to subject her to so much ugliness and insanity, and to have her emerge with resolve and certainty that she’ll be OK, that even though the world is crazy and brutal, love is possible and beauty exists.
And then we have that incredible finale. “Heaven and earth do not touch one another but look at the clouds,” and by inference, look at Charlie transfigured up there. And everyone sings, “Wow.” For the playwright-curated symposium we did for Grand Concourse, one of the experts Heidi [Schreck, author] asked to discuss the play was a religious studies professor at Fordham, Angela Alaimo O’Donnell, who said there are basically three types of prayer: Thanks, Help, and Wow. I always think of that when I watch the end of Iowa, that it’s just the most amazing kind of poetical, musical prayer.