I was born and raised on the northwest side of Detroit, Michigan, between 7 and 8 Mile. I was a good student at Winship Elementary. I know I was good because in all the time I went there, from kindergarten to Grade 9, I only once suffered Miss Fiddler’s cruel and unusual punishment: being pinned to her dress and made to sit under her desk while she taught the remainder of her lesson. I don’t recall what I did to deserve this sentence—everything went blank after the pinning.
It was at Winship that I first began writing for the school paper. I wrote an advice column, Dear Dennis, where I gave sage counsel to the needy. Being particularly needy myself, I composed all the questions as well as the responses. Needless to say, I gave excellent advice to myself and never took it.
I subsequently attended Cooley High School, which was a formative experience for me. About 3,200 kids attended the school (including key members of the Amboy Dukes, a band best remembered for A Journey to the Center of Your Mind). It was a tumultuous place. Half the kids were of European descent, half were African American. These were difficult times and the racial tension was explosive. Within months of the race riots on Twelfth Street that devastated the city, Cooley High had a race riot of its own. It was complete chaos. The hallways were filled with teachers and kids running for their lives. And the sprawling front lawn of the school was filled with hundreds of kids pummeling each other, black on white, white on black.
It was a terrifying and tragic event. Most of the kids who were fighting were blind to the reality around them. Cooley was a working class school, and most of my classmates were in technical programs, which meant they were being streamed into the armed forces to fight—and possibly die—in Viet Nam. But instead of fighting the Power, they were fighting each other. By the time I graduated to attend the Residential College at the University of Michigan, I was pretty disillusioned and did the only logical thing: I went into religious studies.
But while I studied the phenomenology of religious experience, another phenomenon occurred: I discovered writing. The Residential College was a creative hotbed. For the first time in my life, I met real live artists, writers, performers. And encouraged by an extraordinarily talented group of friends, I began writing fiction. When my first story won a Hopwood Award, and my first plays were produced to cheering crowds of hundreds (well, dozens), I began to fantasize about a career in writing, which seemed far fetched to a guy whose family was in the scrap metal business. When I was a kid, the only thing I knew about being an artist came from my mother, and everything she knew came from Puccini’s opera La Boheme: artists starved in garrets and died young of consumption. So you can imagine her horror when I told her I was going to the University of British Columbia to do an MFA in Playwriting.
My escape in 1973 from Detroit was not planned with incredible cunning. My goal was to get as far physically from that place as possible, and Vancouver, (2,540 miles away) sounded perfect. I bought a down parka that was good to 40 below and scored a ride to this west coast city that lives in perpetual spring. The feathers in my never-worn parka soon became moldy and I realized, here in this entrancing city by the ocean and mountains, I was very far away from Detroit indeed.
My two years at UBC were precipitous. Theatre in Vancouver was flying, some of the greatest talents in North America were performing here. I happened to write a horrendous play for children, a participatory piece about vegetables and a hungry spider, that some of my friends thought to produce. This became the first production of Green Thumb Theatre, a company that soon evolved into a cutting edge theatre with an award-winning repertory of plays about the reality of young people and the dilemmas they face. I spent the next 12 years as Artistic Director, writing, producing, and directing plays that toured all over the world. It was with Green Thumb that I began to synthesize my early experiences as a child and teen in Detroit, and began to write with a purpose. I began to believe again in the possibility of change.
I left Green Thumb in 1987 to devote my energies to my own projects. I continued directing plays and had the good fortune to stage productions in Toronto, Copenhagen, and London, England. But I was also drawn to writing for film and television, and spent several years learning the craft of screenwriting, and was lucky to work with some outstanding writer/producers who were also great teachers. I also got the creative rush of working in a wide variety of genres, writing cop shows, horror, sci-fi, cuddly family dramas, animation, you name it. At the same time I was preparing a script that encompassed many of my feelings about kids, society and politics, Little Criminals. It was broadcast on CBC-TV and throughout the world in 1996, and since then I’ve been spending the bulk of my time writing feature length scripts. And in recent years, having come full circle, I’ve rediscovered the kind of writing that made my mother so nervous in the first place: fiction.