Playwrights' Perspectives

Todd Almond and Jenny Schwartz on Iowa


Jenny Schwartz: Which character in Iowa do you relate to most?

Todd Almond: Hmm...

JS: If it’s too hard of a question you can say pass.

TA: Well, I don’t relate to the cheerleader.

JS: Why not?

TA: Because the cheerleader has such a strong sense of self-awareness, and I obviously struggle in that department.

JS: Really? I think you’re very self-aware.

TA: Trust me, I’m not.

JS: But if you weren’t self aware, you wouldn’t know it, right? You wouldn’t be aware that you weren’t self-aware.

TA: And there’s the rub!

JS: Ha! That’s what we should call our next play. There’s the Rub.

TA: Can it be about a massage parlour?

JS: Deal.

TA: Which character in Iowa do you relate to the most?

JS: Hmm. Well, I don’t relate to the pony.

TA: I relate to the pony.

JS: He's such a player, the pony.

TA: You're not a player?

JS: Oh, pass.

TA: Were you a cheerleader?

JS: No! But thanks for asking!

TA: I always liked cheerleaders. My older brothers were athletes. Growing up, we would always have a van full of cheerleaders.

JS: Not us. We would never have a van full of cheerleaders...

TA: I like the cheerleader’s confidence...

JS: Which came first? Do you remember? The cheerleader scene or the cheerleader song?

TA: The song came first. And then the scene. That was a big part of our process. We would influence each other and the destiny of the piece. The piece kept surprising us.

JS: Magic...

TA: We didn’t know where it was going. 

JS: We discovered a lot on its feet. We always knew that we were headed to Iowa though.

TA: We just didn’t know how we would get there.

JS: And we knew that Becca would prevail. But yes, there was certainly a lot of unknowns. And trust.

TA: We had to be comfortable with the unknown and let things reveal themselves. I’ve never had a process like that. Have you?

JS: Kind of. I’ve kind of never had a process not like that. I started writing plays when I was in school for directing. I would create all of my plays during rehearsal processes. I didn’t actually, physically write in the room, but I would bring in new drafts to each rehearsal, and then I would go home, and I would rework and expand the material, and the actors would perform the pieces at the end of each week. It was all very immediate. Even then, I was treating language as something alive in the room, as something to be spoken and heard, rather than looked at on a page. My process today is still pretty much the same. I have to see and hear it as I’m making it. I’m completely dependent on rehearsals and workshops to get the work done. Not very practical, but I’m trying to embrace it.

TA: Do you think that people change?

JS: ... I do... Do you?

TA: ... I do... I’ve seen people change. Maybe not at their core. But yes. I’m not the same person I was when I was a teenager.

JS: Oh god. I hope I’m not. I was a miserable teenager.

TA: I was a Goody Two-shoes. I had one friend Shannan, and we were really into Speech. But then you see someone from high school, and they say you haven’t changed a bit. It’s very disheartening.

JS: That’s the worst!

TA: I don’t want to be that person!

JS: Did you do plays when you were in high school?

TA: I did. A lot. I was a total theater geek. I think I was pretty typical for someone who goes into theater. What about you?

JS: Let me put it this way: I was a theater geek, sans the theater.

TA: Were you at all like Becca?

JS: Not really. Becca is much more gutsy than I was. And also, she’s a poet. She has so much passion for her poetry. I didn’t discover that I was a writer until long after high school.

TA: In grad school?

JS: Right. But even then I was writing only short adaptations of classic plays. I didn’t write an actual, original, non-adaptation until a while later. So I was pretty lost in high school.

TA: I bet the pony liked high school.

JS: Oh definitely. The pony loved high school.  

TA: I’m glad you discovered you were a writer. The theater is a place that we go to be plucked. And you’re a good plucker.

JS: Aw, thanks. 

TA: But do you think that people essentially change? Our characters?

JS: I don’t know about character. Character is situation. I'm quoting Ken [Rus Schmoll, Director].  Actually, I'm quoting Ken quoting Anne Bogart quoting Fiona Shaw to be exact.  You can quote me on that.  Or rather don't.  I have no idea if character is situation.  

TA: Maybe our moods change. And our tastes and our style.

JS: I’m much more ornery. I’m sure about that. And I have far less patience. I used to be patient. Can you imagine? Now I’m all about instant gratification. I’m a product of the internet.

TA:Iowa is about a woman who wants to change her life. Sandy doesn’t know where she’s going, and she doesn’t care. She wants to start fresh. Jump off a cliff. Cut her losses. It’s an act of desperation. She wants to save herself.

JS: I can relate to Sandy.

TA: Me too. I can relate to Sandy the most.

JS: Me too. Sandy’s very frazzled...

TA: Sandy is someone who is honestly making her way through the world, and she doesn’t have a good sense of the people around her.

JS: I can relate to her inability to cope with so much information. And to her effort to stay afloat. She also shares my unhealthy relationship with the internet. But she talks more than I do. And she’s cruel.

TA: What’s your personal relationship with Iowa?

JS: You know, in a way, I feel like I am Iowa. I can’t remember life before Iowa.

TA: I mean Iowa, the state! Not Iowa, the play.

JS: Oh! Oh!

TA: Is that where you spent your summers? Is that where your grandmother lives?

JS: Nope. I’ve never been there. I have associations. What’s your personal relationship to Iowa?

TA: Hmm... You know, I always secretly say that Iowa is my favorite child.

JS: I mean Iowa, the state, not the play!

TA: Oh!

JS: Have you ever been there?

TA: I don’t know... I can’t remember... Maybe... I grew up in Nebraska, but on the other side, close to Wyoming. Iowa, for me, is a word. Like “ohm.” There’s a mystical quality. To the word. To the place. Not the actual state. But the state of being. Like Xanadu. Iowa is a kind place. A safe place. A kind of heaven. Heaven in the actual religious sense. You go there, and you’re forgiven. You’re accepted. You’re loved. You no longer have to worry. I’m moved by what happens to Sandy. I’m relieved that she has the discovery that she has. But I don’t think she deserves it. I don’t think she deserves happiness. In the same way that, I guess, I don’t deserve happiness. None of us do. Because we’re all so ornery. 

Todd Almond and Jenny Schwartz 
January 2015