• Ryan Oliveira

On Iowa

A mass of theatre people and non-theatre hangers-on arrives at The Mill, Iowa City’s beloved watering hole. As far as I know, there are three events happening: a playwright friend is celebrating her birthday; an actor (and my composing partner-in-crime) departs for adventures unknown in New York City; two terrific shows are closing. The parties aren’t really connected; in fact, it’s more of a Serengeti animalscape descending upon a reliable bastion of alcohol. This descent, however, alarms the staff, and fairly so; the kitchen’s about to close and twenty-plus hungry, hungry theatre hippos have decided to order at the same time without warning. (Note: Apparently, it’s been a recurring issue for weeks, so note to whomever in Iowa is doing that: JUST LET THEM KNOW AHEAD OF TIME, DAMMIT. And don’t be manipulative about it.) Kitchen closes, staff think it’s best to corral this entire party into one tab.

And guess who gets to be responsible for said tab? Me.

I didn’t plan the party. I don’t even go here!

But I’m the common denominator among the groups.

This must be what celebrity feels like.

Luckily, we were given a pass on account of the “freak-ness” of the incident, but it was more magic than coincidentally running into friend I ran into from Portugal at the Bluebird Diner – a friend I never thought I’d see again since he planned on trading America for Portugal’s fadistas.

It doesn’t help that Adele’s “Hello” came out right as I departed for a place that was my academic, artistic, and social home for three years. There were gripes, of course – the winter wind was a whip-wielding bitch, food options were sparse, a world away from agents and “commercial” theatre access – but there were friends. There were drinks. There were experiences. And here I was, recently graduated five-ish months (two if you consider convalescing in Iowa City because of uncooperative tonsils) wishing hello from the other side with…what would I “hello” with?


About as many tears as Adele conjured in my friends Nina and Zoe as they watched her crying out to the Montreal winds in the music video for “Hello”.

Understand that this weekend in Iowa was the first time in months that my fellow graduated playwrights had seen each other since we split. (We keep in contact on Facebook messenger, but it isn’t the same.) And it was as if nothing had changed – okay, several things had changed, but we were “adults” now! We were free! Young artistic professionals who - who am I kidding, we needed breaks from barista miseries and metropolitan navigation. (Except for Sam. She had a show to direct at the University.)

But things certainly felt different. Some of my students grew up before my eyes. A shy playwriting student took charge in designing lights for back-to-back shows (and beautifully, may I add). Others were participating backstage; one, in particular, finally took her space and commanded punk as Whatsername in American Idiot. (Proud teacher, right here.) Other students – actors, playwrights, slashers – who I worked with were blossoming into forces of nature onstage, becoming the twisted Scissor-Sister talents I’d always hoped they’d be. New projects were being concocted and players were changing roles, but still being brilliant craft-masters. My heart filled with pride over what was being produced.

It was as if I never left. But I did.

Carol MacVey, University of Iowa acting teacher and wonderful human being, remarked that I would be a ghost in the theatre building. People would expect my usual presence in the theatre lobby, but never find me, perhaps even long for me. I thought it was hogwash; who would ever miss me?

I walked into the theatre building. A friend hugged me, begged me not to leave. Another friend couldn’t believe I was there; she assumed I was still in school, but maybe our schedules didn’t line up, but no – here I was, in the flesh, and in flooded the feelings. The theatre felt a lot quieter while I was there - maybe a bit colder on account of the seasons changing, but the quiet was undeniable.

I missed the carpet. I missed the noise. I missed being the theatre’s information broker. I missed working on shows in whatever capacity – board op, playwright, assistant director, performer, shit, I’ll even take that. I missed teaching. Embracing my students who were once terrified of my standards, but respectful of my bowtie-bound charm. I missed working and living and breathing with beautiful talents all around me. And here everyone was, working on, living on, breathing on, becoming better than I ever believed in three years. Peers growing up, becoming fearless, owning their art…

…and I let it go. More like my eyes let it all go. Five times in public, countless times in private - I couldn’t even speak straight without my lips quivering. And through all this, I couldn’t believe I was missed. Even I, in a weird way, missed me. The me that was happiest in grad school.

But all that goes away, maybe comes back in another form, but never carbon-copies its way back as it did before. Longing for the life you loved and lost and, by original standards, could never get back, longing for the home that was - what this weekend ended up being was an exercise in possessing saudade. But it was also a celebration of people discovering success upon returning home, or risking everything to test their talents in the Big City. The tears I shed were of massive transition, a catharsis to all the changes we were living with or without each other – if you could stay a little longer, if you don’t have to go, if you could do one more round, if you could, if you could, if you could – but no one can.

I think that’s what I’m struggling with the most, the impossibility that we could ever be stable just this once. That you just have to take the moment for what it is and accept the change. The air is crisp, crackling, enjoy it while you can and no, you can’t have me as your playwriting teacher again. You have to move on. I have to move on.

But I was reminded that thus far, the friends I made, the students I taught, the artists with whom I collaborated (and admire) – they made the best three years of my life in this Midwestern town. And if a bar can’t imagine this microcosmic theatre world without me…then I’ll tearfully accept the celebrity the three years made me.

And I’ll bring flowers to my Iowa ghost.


Shout-outs to the cast and artistic teams of American Idiot, Féminaal, my former students, professors, Lauren, Taylor, Alysha, Micah, Rukie, Adam, Aneisa, Marina, Rob, Zoe, Nina, and Gabriel for filling my aquarium-heart with enough bubbles and teardrops.

…I love you.

Sam and Sarah – Let’s never forget how happy we were together this weekend. And how much we still rock.

And special thanks to the Mill. Still my favorite bar. :)

#TheMill #Iowa #saudade #gradschool

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Ryan Oliveira

Ideas.  I'm full of them.

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