The Great Communicator 

  It’s been awhile since I’ve done a storytelling show, awhile since I’ve blogged. My second to last storytelling was a real bust. I was a little drunk, always a crap shoot. I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to say but thought, hey,  it will all come together. 

It didn’t come together. I was scattered, rambling on about Friday Nights Lights that I’d just finished binge watching. Eyes glazed in front of me. I talked about a scene where a hymn called “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing” followed the lives of the characters. I said something about grace, how lost souls understand grace the most because we are so lost. I likened myself to Tyra Collette, the misunderstood pretty girl from the wrong side of the tracks, a modern day Madge Owens. I had no ending because I didn’t even know what I wanted to say. 

Driving home that night, I beat myself up, why do I always keep going back to the same themes of church and God and faith and grace? I thought, you don’t even believe in any of that anymore and yet, it’s still haunting you. Like a ghost.

  A few months ago, inspired by the beauty of several New York churches I’d visited on vacation, I decided I wanted to start going to church again. So I attended the Sunday morning service at a church that I’d always driven by and marveled at its grandeur. And then I went back the next week, which I think I wrote about, and the next week. And I know we don’t get extra jewels in our crown in heaven for perfect attendance, BUT I haven’t missed a Sunday since February. 

As I said, I haven’t been blogging much lately. I write a few paragraphs or sometimes just a few sentences and sometimes just a few words, and then I get stuck, and think what is it I’m trying to say here? There was a time when I wrote regularly and I’d sometimes fall into a rhythm, where entire blog posts would just spill out effortlessly. 

When I swim, I often have some dynamite ideas for blogs but then I pick up my phone to write and think, no, that’s not going to work. 

Even if it started with an architectural crush, the thing I love about my church most is that I feel welcome there.  It does not escape my notice that every Sunday the pastor makes a point to remind parishioners that all are welcome. I’ve known churches where the minister made it a point to bring up the “sin” of homosexuality every time I was in attendance, so I know the effects of repetition. But more than the gay stuff, I feel that I am welcome with my doubts and my questions. That whatever point I’m at in my spiritual journey, I have something to offer.

Every Sunday, there is a thirty minute organ prelude to the service. Yesterday, the organist concluded his prelude with Nothing Compares 2 U and then Purple Rain. Purple streamed from the lighting behind the church’s altar. A tribute to Prince is nothing I would have expected in the churches I grew up in and yet, I found myself profoundly moved by this gesture. I don’t say this in a mean way, but Prince seemed like a pretty scarred, broken man. And yet he had this incomparable gift, gifts actually. Could Nothing Compares 2 U be a song about God? Nothing can take away these blues because nothing compares to you.

I don’t know why there are so many religions, and then sects and denominations within those religions. And then disagreement within denominations and congregations. Is it our fault that we don’t know how to listen to what God is saying? 

  Something struck me tonight, as I drove home from a longtime co-worker’s going away party.  A little prosecco in me, nostalgic about the way people move in and out of our lives. As I left, one of the newer busboys asked me if he’d overheard right, me telling someone that I went to Bible college. And then he told me how he’d been a missionary and a minister in his home country. He told me he hoped to go to a Bible college here in Southern California. It seemed so fated or providential that we would have that conversation.

Similarly, it seems fated and providential that I find myself back in church after a 20 year absence. 

Anyway, the something that struck me on that drive home, will most definitely strike some as sacrilege. And don’t even look at it as something I believe, merely something to ponder, but maybe sometimes God feels like he has a hard time communicating with us too. Maybe sometimes he knows he wants to say something but he doesn’t know exactly what it is, or how he wants to tie it up, bring it home. Maybe he even looks out and sees a lot of glazed over eyes and thinks, what’s the point? Maybe God has writer’s block. I don’t know.

I’m sure, to some, the thought of a fallible God is unappealing. For me, I kind of like the idea of it. If we love people in spite of and sometimes because of their failures, why couldn’t we do the same with God? 

I don’t really know. Don’t come to me for the answers, I’m more or a questions guy. Especially at this moment. But it’s nice again to entertain these questions about God because ultimately, with every one, I think,  it brings me closer to Him.

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The Darkness of Our Souls

Michael-J-Pollard-The-Stripper-1963

One of the mostly darkly comic moments of my high school career was the day of officer elections for Fellowship of Christian Athletes. It was my junior year and I had been very involved in Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) since my freshman year. I went to every meeting, every weekend retreat, every Tuesday night bible study. I wasn’t really an athlete, but I sure was a Christian and I had every Amy Grant cassette tape to prove it.

If you are a person that remembers high school, you might remember how some clubs were a little nerdier than others. FCA was not a nerd club. I’ll never forget my freshman year, going to meetings, spellbound by the devotions given by junior and senior club leaders, popular boys and girls, who talked about how their relationship with Jesus really helped them get through the day. And also, to win games.

By my junior year, FCA was the one club I was most involved in. Many of the people I considered my best friends were also in that club.

When officer elections came up that year, I knew that I really wanted to hold some kind of office during my senior year. I aspired to be that upperclassman giving devotions, inspiring freshman about how Jesus really makes your day better. So I signed up to run for every office: president, vice president, secretary, treasurer. I think there was even something called stu-co rep that I threw my name into the hat for. I was sure that with all that putting myself out there, something would pay off. Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose.

The day of elections, my first clue of the tragicomedy to come was that every FCA member in the school showed up to vote. While FCA boasted a large membership, meeting attendance was never mandatory and often not heavily attended. That day was the exception, every lumbering football player, towering basketball player and Aqua-Netted varsity cheerleader showed up to vote for officers that day.

The first office that we voted for was president. I don’t remember how many candidates there were, I don’t remember who won. I just remember it wasn’t me.

I won’t drag this out for you the way that afternoon dragged on for me, but each election bore the same result. Each time my fellow FCA members had an opportunity to vote, they voted for the other candidate. By the time we got down to stu-co rep, there were snickers that travelled through the auditorium when my name was announced as one of the candidates. Like Carrie at the prom, in the moments after that pigs’ blood fell on her head, I realized that whatever it was that I wanted from these people, boys and girls I considered my peers, I was not going to get it. By a show of hands, the vote took place. Someone other than me won.

That afternoon, after the calamitous election, I went home and took to my waterbed. I don’t remember crying specifically, but I probably did. What I most remember is laying there, heartbroken and embarrassed. In all my years of living in Independence, I don’t think I ever felt so alone.

My only consolation was that someday I would leave Independence and leave Kansas and show them all. I would have a wildly successful adult life and when I came back to Independence to visit, everyone would clamor around me, wanting to get close enough that my stardust might rub off on them.

And while I have left Independence and left Kansas, my life is just kind of a life. Not too glamorous, barely any stardust at all.

Did I have any idea, on that lonely spring afternoon, as I pouted in my bedroom, how many times I would think of that day in the 30 years to come? I don’t think I did.

On that afternoon, I decided I was not going to be a member of FCA my senior year. I would not be sharing my athleticism or my Christianity with people who did not appreciate it. And I held to that resolution. Instead, my senior year was filled with rehearsals and performances for four different plays.

It’s no wonder I loved being on stage, acting in these plays. The thought of becoming someone else is what I’d spent 17 years dreaming about.

One of the plays I did in that busy senior year was written by William Inge.  The play, A Loss of Roses, was Inge’s first big Broadway failure, the first of more than a few.

Inge wrote quite a bit about his hometown, my hometown. In his adulthood, he did not spend a lot of time in Independence. From what I’ve read, I don’t think he liked visiting. An overly sensitive man, a success who never stopped feeling like a failure, I think his visits home dredged up too much pain.

It’s always a little embarrassing to write about one’s pains, one’s sensitivities. Inge did it beautifully, but now, now that we know how much sadness he bore his entire life, it’s heartbreaking. Lola, always ready to play the victim, but stronger than she realizes. Rosemary, on her knees begging a man she may not even love to marry her because the loneliness is killing her. Millie, overshadowed by her beautiful sister, defiant that one day she would leave Independence and live a successful, decorated life.

Sometimes I worry that I am in a downward spiral, that the trip to the Menninger Clinic that William Inge and Deanie Loomis took might be in my future too. There are days that I am overwhelmed by my sensitivities. There are moments when I wonder, am I the only person bothered that no one stops at stop signs in Los Angeles?

I woke up at 5:00 a.m. this morning with the fear that everyone in my entire home town hates me now. Over something I wrote about in a blog yesterday. And then I fretted over that fear because who really thinks that way except for the delirious and the paranoid?  And then to try to make sense of it, I sat on my couch and typed all this out into my little phone. And then, later, I’ll go back to reread what I’ve written and judge it and decide whether I’m willing to share it, the ramblings of my overtired, oversensitive, quite possibly delusional brain.

Of course, you know I published it. You know I took that risk. It’s what we writers do, we risk revealing the darkness of our souls. Even us failures, especially us failures.  And vultures that we are, we all take solace in being reminded of others’ failures, because they are not our own.

Dear Robert Brustein,

 Dear Robert Brustein,

Just two days ago, I didn’t even know who you were and now, since reading about you in the William Inge biography, written by Ralph Voss, A Life of William Inge, The Strains of Triumph, I have been scouring the internet, searching for all that I can glean about the man named Robert Brustein, the theatre critic, who some say instigated the beginning of the end of my favorite playwright’s entire career. (Boy, talk about a run on sentence.)

Now, I assume you remember the details, but I’ll refresh your memory. In 1958, you wrote an article for Harper’s about Inge titled The Men-Taming Women of William Inge. Within the article, you called Inge mediocre, a “dramatist of considerable limitations”, and also, a “fiddle with one string.” You took issue with Inge’s “dry, repetitive and monotonously folksy” dialogue. You painted a picture of a playwright who would not be valued in the scope of time.

According to the Voss biography and other sources as well, when the article appeared, William Inge was so upset that he called you on the phone to protest, weeping as he spoke to you.

Part of my exhaustive Google search over the last two days is an attempt to hear about the story from your point of view. In the book’s point of you, your article is labeled, the “beginning of the end” and the damage was so lasting that Inge was never able to recover from it. Don’t get me wrong, I know Inge battled deep depression throughout most of his 60, relatively short, years. I have read enough biographies to know that biographers tend to exaggerate the significance of certain life events and downplay the importance of others. Perhaps Voss exaggerated about the enduring effects of your article, which is exactly why I am writing this to you, I want your take.

I’ll tell you a bit about myself. I do not claim any sort of objectivity about Inge. I grew up in his hometown, Independence, Kansas. Like his Sonny in Dark at the Top of the Stairs, I was always passionately devoted to anything that was about Hollywood or celebrity. I loved my books, too, they were a window to the world out there, the world beyond Kansas.

Every Spring, as far back as I can remember, my town held a festival honoring not only William Inge, but also the art of playwriting. As junior high and high school students, we were bussed to the community college where lectures and performances awaited us. In my senior year of high school, I played Jelly Beamis in a Inge Festival production of A Loss of Roses. When I read your (relatively) youthful disdain for Inge in that 1958 article, I remembered a conversation I had at 17, with the director of our play. During rehearsals in the aptly named William Inge Theater, I said, “I kind of hate Inge. His plays are too depressing, why doesn’t he write happier endings?”

That was nearly 30 years ago. In that time, I went to Bible college in an attempt to not be gay, worked as a youth minister, moved to New York, came out of the closet, moved to Los Angeles, moved to San Francisco, then back to Los Angeles. I have worked in plays and television, in restaurants and law firms. I have been in love and out of it, had my heart broken significantly no less than 4 times. I don’t mean to ramble too much, but my point is that, at 17, I had no idea what the trajectory of my life was going to be and how my experiences would mold the way I absorb and respond to art, any art.

Two years ago, I was lucky enough to be on the fourth row of the Broadway revival of Picnic starring Ellen Burstyn, Maggie Grace and Reed Birney. As a Kansas boy, I was certainly proud to see my little town represented on that big 42nd street stage. I had been as proud when I’d watched the 1993 Scott Ellis production with Polly Holliday, Kyle Chandler, and Ashley Judd. But this 2013 production, really burrowed into me. I’ve always loved Rosemary and Howard. I guess you may not appreciate that iconic scene, her on her knees begging him to marry her, but it gets me every time. I’ve been the beggar on his knees and I’ve been the guy who wanted to get on his knees, to beg, but was so afraid of the consequences that he didn’t take the chance. I wept at the end of the play, it was the first Inge that my partner, then of two years, had ever experienced. We are in our forties, met in our early forties. When I was in my thirties, I never did not feel like a Rosemary Sidney, a spinster school teacher. I guess, what I’m trying to say is, if I can find love after 40, maybe there is hope that Rosemary and Howard can have a happy life. Maybe there is even hope for Madge and Hal. To me,

Inge’s work says there is always hope, even when it’s only a sliver of it. But let me stress, that’s my take. And my point of view is no doubt molded by my life experiences.

As I said, I have been on a mission to learn about you, Robert Brustein. You have accomplished much in your 87 years and that you continue to write and create is inspiring. You have been a director, playwright, professor, Huffington Post columnist, husband, father, critic. In a 2012 interview, when asked by the writer, why you aren’t resting on your laurels, you confided that you felt like you didn’t have any laurels, that you hadn’t “gotten there” yet.

Well, I want you to know that you have gotten there. You have survived and thrived and, as much as this little odyssey of mine began with disdain, it’s concluded with a true respect and admiration. That there is someone else who felt he never achieved laurels or “got there” is I’m sure not lost on you. And I must say, I wish Inge had had a bit more of you in him, that drive to keep going. I’ve read his later years pieces and without fail, there is always something in it, maybe it’s just a line or two, that moves me with its truth or perception. He wrote until the end of his life, I just wish the end had not come so soon.

So, here is the question, I don’t know how this might even find you, so, I doubt that you will be able to answer it, but do you regret any part of that infamous 1958 article? If you could go back, what would you change, what would you keep? Also, do you still feel the disdain for Inge’s writing that you felt in 1958? In the 56 years since, you have seen your own plays produced, endured the victories and challenges within, do you still see Inge the same way?

Last night, I was on Instagram, checking for hashtags. That there are only 200 pictures of #williaminge disappointed me. Maybe you have a point, maybe his enduring effects were not what the 1950s indicated they were going to be. It occurred to me that I should search for #robertbrustein, too. There were three pictures. One was a picture of a woman’s lips with a quote credited to you, another appeared to be some scaffolding and the writing was in Asian symbols, except for #robertbrustein. But the third picture was the best, my favorite. You are flocked by young college students, all clearly proud to be taking a picture with a living legend. And in the center, you stand, smiling, the elder statesman, not quite resting on his laurels, but enjoying the moment anyway. Once the critic, now the teacher. Sliver of hope.

“I Went to the Stork Club!”

One of my favorite William Inge characters is Irma Kronkite in Picnic.  She’s a school teacher who lives with her mother and every summer, she leaves Independence to go to New York where she studies at Columbia in hopes of completing her Master’s degree.  In every one of the few scenes that she’s in, she talks about the things she did in New York, at one point, excitedly sharing that she went to the Stork Club with a fellow (male) student.  “It was nothing serious,” she tells her friends.  “He was just a good sport, that’s all.”  I love her because I get the sense that her reality is those precious weeks in New York and during her long months in Kansas, she is merely marking the days until her return to the place where she is the happiest, where her life is the richest.

Eric and I have started planning our yearly New York trip and I must say, I kind of feel like Irma.  In the next weeks, I’ll scour the internet for hotel and flight deals.  I’ll make notes about exhibits or shows I’ve read about in New York magazine.  I’ll find popovers with strawberry butter, John’s pepperoni pizza and La Bella Ferrara’s cannoli making guest appearances in my dreams. I’ll remind Michele that we’re going back to Eataly, now that we’ve figured out how best to navigate it.   I’ll Google Earth Manhattan neighborhoods, make a list of streets that I haven’t been to in years, promise myself that this time, for sure, I’ll finally make it to the Cloisters.

I’ve talked about my years living in New York and it’s the only city that I know I’ll always feel like both a local and a visitor, it’s ever-changing and ever-constant.  The New York that Irma Kronkite visited was probably a little different from my New York, or Alicia Keys’ New York, but I’m sure if she heard Alicia sing: “these streets will make you feel brand new,
big lights will inspire you” she’d think, oh yes, that’s where I belong. And she wouldn’t be alone.

Neewollah

189143_106824046067080_2529733_nA few years ago, San Francisco’s historic movie palace, the Castro Theatre, ran the film Picnic.  I was lucky enough to be in town when it was playing and I went to see it with my friends, Michael and Kim.  The Castro is a gorgeous old theatre on Castro street, smack dab in the middle of the Castro, San Francisco’s gayest neighborhood.  I’d obviously seen the movie a few times before, but I’d never watched it with two hundred gay men and their straight girlfriends and I listened to it for the first time through the filter of my people.  I’ll never forget the shrieks of laughter that occurred when Rosalind Russell came to the window, her face covered in cold cream, and pondered, “Anyone mind if an old maid school teacher joins their company?”  But the thing that touched me the most was the pride I felt when Kim Novak sailed down the river, the newly crowned Queen Neelah, and the townsfolk called out to her, “Nee-woll-ah, Nee-woll-ah.”  And while the Neewollahs of my own youth did not include the queen riding down the Verdigris River on a candlelit float (that’s not safe!), it did remind me of the many, many Neewollahs that I’ve enjoyed since I was knee high to a grasshopper.  

It doesn’t matter, where I am: when this week, Neewollah week, rolls around, I keep an ongoing timeline of what is happening back home.  Last night as I was driving home, I wondered who the new Queen Neelah was going to be, even though I’m sure I did not even know any of the candidates.  This morning I thought about how today is probably the first day of the rides at the carnival.  Also, it used to be that today was the first day of the food vendors.  I can taste the jaffles and apple fritters even still.  Friday afternoon, I’ll be thinking about the Kiddie parade, where one year I went as an astronaut (Dr. Ryan Stone?) and the next year, I wore a frog mask and the same astronaut costume and went as the Martian who killed said astronaut and stole his ensemble.  On Saturday, when I am at work, believe me, I will wish that I am at the aptly named, Grand Parade, running into old friends and feasting on barbecue and cinnamon rolls, and sneaking in another jaffle.

I haven’t been to Neewollah for about 15 years now.  That seems unbelievable, but it’s true.  The last time I went, my Dad had just recovered from his first bout with cancer and I remember it felt like we had something to celebrate when we went to the Parade.  We did. The Grand Parade is for many of us who grew up in Independence, a holiday like Christmas and New Years that marks the passage of time.  

I’ve travelled a certain amount and I’ve lived in a few large cities.  I used to live in New York and I never went to the Macy’s Parade.  I live miles away from where the Rose Parade takes place every year and I’ve never gone to that either.  I guess you could say that Neewollah spoiled me on parades, when you’ve grown up with the best, you have no interest in lesser versions.

I’m 45 now, at an age where I’m realizing that few things I experience will resonate in the way the memories of my youth do.  The scariest Magic Mountain roller coaster will never compare to the Tilt-a-Whirl, Yo-Yo Ma will always be second fiddle to Jana Jae. No brush with celebrity compares to the time HBO came to film a concert with Roy Clark, Ronnie Milsap and Merle Haggard and we all thought it was going to make us famous. The prettiest beauty queens will always be Gail Moore and Jeannine Bailey and Missy Housel and Shelly Nelson and Kara Woods. And of course, the most exquisite, sophisticated, delicious, exotic food will always be the jaffle.

Laughter Through Tears

Picnic-dancing-scene-Kim-Novak-hot-heatIt’s been over a week since my last post.  I had a show on Saturday night that I was nervous about, I felt that I had to conserve all my creativity for that.  It ended up being a great show and my set went pretty well, if I say so myself.  That being said, all I can think about is the saying that goes something like, it never went as good or as bad as you think it did, which, of course, I only think about when something goes well. I tried googling the expression, but just came up with a lot of articles about this.

Anyway, I will tell you what I talked about on Saturday.  The theme was theme and the show’s host, my good friend, Traci Swartz, asked us to explore our themes.  What’s your theme?  Everybody comes to Hollywood with a theme.

A couple weeks ago, I was at home by myself with the dogs on a Friday night.  Eric was in Temecula visiting his parents.  There is something that I like about being home by myself, like it’s a little date with myself.  I had a nice bottle of wine, some leftover pizza I’d made (in my show, I said I’d made a delicious turkey sandwich, which was an unintentional lie, I found some old notes, indeed it was pizza, not that it’s integral in ANY way to this story), and I curled up on my couch like the Little Mermaid to watch Turner Classic Movies, specifically, an interview with Kim Novak, the notoriously shy pinup girl from the 50’s and 60’s, most famous for movies like Vertigo, Pal Joey and of course, Picnic. I’ve always been a little judgemental about Kim Novak’s Madge, that she was a little too much of a movie star in the role, but listening to her talk about the film and the character, I realized I’d been wrong.  Much of Novak’s own life echoed Madge’s and I understood how Madge’s beauty was a burden for her.  Novak spoke of director Josh Logan’s autobiography where he commended her performance and wrote that Novak wore her Queen Neelah crown as if it were a “crown of thorns.”  And I think throughout Novak’s career, she always had to fight to be seen as an actress instead of as a movie star.  

Later in the interview, Robert Osborne (and let me just take a moment to say how much I love Robert Osborne, no one could be the spirit and voice of Turner Classic Movies better than him) asked her about the movie Liebestraum she made in 1991.  She said that she’d been nervous about making a movie, because she had not made one for a while, but when she talked to the director, Mike Figgis, she felt like they were on the same page.  Then when filming started, things went awry, she and Figgis had problems communicating.  She became quite emotional sharing that she wanted to talk to him about it, to get things on track, but she didn’t and that she regretted it.  Fidgeting with a crumpled tissue, tears streaming, glistening down her face (even today, nobody cries more beautifully than Kim Novak), she confessed, “I just couldn’t make a movie after that.”  Maybe it was the sauvignon blanc, maybe it other things, but I immediately burst into my own, less videogenic tears.  It resonated with me, because I have my own tormented relationship with acting, that at times, it’s just too painful.  And I have this thing about how much we all need our art to survive.  We are all artists, and that’s not to say we are all good artists, but I believe it’s something our souls need.  

And then I became VERY emotional, I got up from the couch and walked into my bedroom and flung myself on the bed where Millie (named after Picnic, btw) was on her pile of pillows, licking them.  I took her into my arms and buried my face in her fur, drowning it in my tears.  I wept for Kim Novak, that I’d been so judgemental all these years about her Madge, for her hypersensitivity, that she might someday act again.  I wept for myself, weeping for the acting class that I left because the teacher told me my Vanya was too weepy (can you imagine?), for the fact that I had not had an audition in weeks.  I wept about my day job, that has become increasingly soul crushing.  And I wept about a few others things, too.  And the weeping sort of turned into wailing.  It turns out, I had a lot of pain that night.  Ricky had joined Millie and me on the bed and he couldn’t understand what was going on.  I was moaning and wailing.  Millie was growling because she doesn’t like anyone touching her pillows.  And then Ricky started howling.  Wail, growl, howl.  Wail, growl, howl.  We made for a loud, dramatic chorus.   While I was weeping for all that made me heart break, I had a little out of body experience where I could see, or rather, hear, how we must have looked, and it made me laugh.  Actually, it made me laugh pretty hard.  And then as I lay on the bed, tears, growls and howls subsiding, I immediately felt better, something had been released.

Big surprise here:  when I was little, I cried a lot, and I always remember my mother holding me, patting me on the back, saying, “It’s okay, get it all out.”   I think we all have a few themes, one of mine is that I cry, a lot.  Someone once told me that I luxuriate in my tears and if I wasn’t so true, I would have been offended by such an outrageous statement.  But we need our tears, as much as we need our laughs.  Stresses and sadnesses and hurts build in our body until there has to be a combustion.  

I feel like Robert Harling really nailed it when he wrote Steel Magnolias, that there is something synergistic about crying and laughing, that not only can they feed the other, perhaps it’s their job to feed the other.  Either way, I agree with Mr. Harling and Truvy Jones and Dolly Parton, in fact, it is my theme:  Laughter through tears is my favorite emotion.

Guest Blogger, Joel Williams: Independence. Does that mean Freedom?

imagesA few days ago, I asked Joel Williams, a longtime friend and another Independence, Kansas product, if he would like to be a guest blogger here.  We have much in common, but the one thing I think that binds us together is our interest, perhaps one could say devotion, to all things related to William Inge.  I love what he had to say and I know you will, too.  Here it is:

 

Independence. Does that mean Freedom?

Like Ray, I grew up in Independence, Kansas. Like Ray, I’m a fan of William Inge, playwright and novelist (1913-73).

What I don’t know is if Ray is looking for the same things in the work of Inge that I am. What am I looking for? Oh, of course I’m looking for the familiar, for signs of the past, for explanations of human behavior, especially those humans in Freedom, Kansas, Inge’s version of my hometown. I’m also looking for what my particular experience growing up in Southeast Kansas did to and for me. A decade or so ago, I bashfully told a friend about William Inge and my hometown, downplaying its significance, and he buoyed me up, comparing his experience and saying, “No one ever made art about Reston, Virginia.” I doubt the literal but not the essential truth of that statement. It made me take a deeper look at the matter.

When I was about 13 years old, my mother took a night class at Independence Community College (once attended by the playwright himself) that had Inge as its subject. She came home and discussed the class, the teacher, her fellow students, and, finally, the plays and the novels. I took an interest, slowly understanding that his work was all about people I knew. My parents pointed out the houses around town that figured in the plays. As adolescence proceeded and I came to regard my hometown as a closed, insular environ worthy of escape, I got even more curious about Inge. I learned that he performed his own escape act, moving away while casting his eyes back toward Independence and keeping his hands on the typewriter.

Every few years, I find myself going through a self-imposed Inge Intensive. I haul out “Four Plays,” then force my partner Roger to sit through a dinnertime viewing of Splendor in the Grass. Recently, I ordered my own copies of My Son is a Splendid Driver and Good Luck, Miss Wyckoff, and read them before flying back to Independence for the Inge Festival. Do enough of that reading and all you think is, funny, there wasn’t much freedom in Freedom – all those old maid schoolteachers accepting or rebelling against the strictures of small-town life and beauty queens dreaming of hopping a train to Tulsa to get together with shiftless bad-boy ramblers.

So, what are the results of growing up in The Real Freedom? I suppose that being surrounded by actual Kansas schoolteachers, beauty queens and bad boys while comparing them to their analogues on stage and screen made me acutely, intimately appreciate what an artist can do with words on a page and actors on a stage. Compared to other small-town natives I know, I think I see my hometown as something of a stage set, a place where Human Drama Happens. And I do occasionally find myself putting my life experiences into the narrative frame of an Inge play – oh stop it Joel, you’re acting just like Sonny! If I can’t have Bud I’m gonna go crazy, crazy!!! And when I think about the reason why I left Independence, I guess I was afraid of becoming a kind of old maid schoolteacher and yearned to run off to the city on a boxcar. So I did.