They say you can’t go home again. You can’t ever revisit the people and places of your childhood as you remember them.
But for a long time, the playwright, actor and director Scott Bradley wondered: Who would want to?
Like many Iowa natives, he couldn’t get out of here fast enough. He grew up in Dallas County and dreamed of moving away to bigger cities in faraway states — a dream made urgent by childhood abuse. He eventually left, bouncing from New York to Seattle to D.C. and Chicago before returning to Iowa in 2015 with mixed emotions.
He recently unpacked some of that baggage in a one-man show called “Packing,” which received its world premiere last fall in Chicago.
“I found myself really conflicted with this return to my home state,” said the Iowa Artist Fellow, 53, who now lives in West Branch. “I felt some hostility and yet I also felt really pulled to come back, so I was interested in exploring what that homecoming meant for me.”
He drafted the script at the Iowa Playwrights Workshop, the University of Iowa’s MFA program, and didn’t try to sugarcoat anything. He tackled the tough stuff head on. His anti-gay bullying and physical abuse. His struggles with drugs and alcohol. His fears as a queer man during the AIDS crisis and his thoughts of suicide.
He recounted all of it, night after night, during About Face Theatre’s five-week run in Chicago.
“It’s incredibly brave,” according to the Chicago Tribune. “It’s not just the act of getting on stage and telling a group of strangers about your life. Rather, it’s doing so in a way that is so open and honest that it doesn’t shy away from mistakes and flaws from your past.”
The director, Chay Yew, specializes in solo shows and has directed plays and operas around the world. He was drawn to “Packing,” Bradley said, because of how Bradley’s own story fit in with the broader sweep of LGBTQ history from the late 1960s to the 2010s — from the notion of homosexuality as a mental disease, through the AIDS crisis and on to the fight for marriage equality. Before “It Gets Better,” it was worse.
Recalling his performances, Bradley was surprised by how easily he could tap into all of those emotions — “how present those old pains and joys are still in our bodies,” he said.
He was also gratified by how audiences responded. People stuck around after every show to tell him how his story reflected their own.
He plans to keep that going by touring the show across Iowa and, perhaps, leading workshops to help students tell their own stories. He is also pitching the script to theaters out of state.
Meantime, his Iowa Artist Fellowship has helped him develop several other projects, including a script about Grant Wood, another artist with ambivalent feelings about his home state. The famous painter didn’t leave much of a paper trail, for obvious reasons, but history suggests that he concealed his homosexuality to protect himself during the polarized politics of the Great Depression and World War II.
Bradley is also writing a “door-slamming bedroom farce” about a theater in an Iowa small town. The story starts at the grand opening 75 years ago and then fast-forwards to the present, when the townsfolk are squabbling about whether to save or destroy it. Their debate is shaped, in part, by a younger generation that spent some time away.
For Bradley, it’s a familiar refrain.
“So much of my story is about me finding a way to reunite with that kid I left in Iowa,” he said. “It’s about finding a sense of home.”
This is one of five profiles about the 2019–2020 Iowa Artist Fellows, each of whom recently filled out a worksheet about what makes them tick.
— Michael Morain, Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs