by Heather Beasley
Kimball Allen’s theatrical work to date is a mix of deeply personal confession and performance art. When mistakes on his career path landed him in prison, he began keeping a journal as part of his self-rehabilitation. Although his formal education had not exposed him previously to performance studies or theatre history, he felt drawn to theatre as the best art form in which to tell his story. His self-produced first play, “Secrets of a Gay Mormon Felon,” was staged in Kansas City and Honolulu. His performances have since led him deeper into his encounters with live theatre, as he generates new work that explores controversial topics and taboos within his former religion and his personal life.
Heather Beasley: I read “Secrets of a Gay Mormon Felon” and was struck by your rural upbringing, your story of a barn-based Christmas pageant. Did religion play as big a role in your childhood as the script suggests? How close did you stay to autobiography?
Kimball Allen: I grew up in rural southeast Idaho, in a town called Blackfoot. There really weren’t any secular spaces in the small town. We moved from there to the suburbs in Utah, where I went to high school. There are some skewed perceptions of the Utah community as being diverse, but even in public schools we used religious titles for our teachers, calling them “Brother” in gymnastics and other after-school activities. It was somewhat Stepford-esque. The piece is very autobiographical.
HB: What led you to choose theatre as the medium, as the right form for telling your story?
KA: I saw it as a form of therapy, something cathartic. I began by keeping a journal in prison, asking myself to write about what I had done, and to figure out, how did I get to this place in my life? I felt some sort of divine inspiration to write a play, so that maybe others could get something from it.
HB: Tell me about your first performance of “Secrets of a Gay Mormon Felon.” Where was it performed, and how did it come to the stage?
KA: It was in Kansas City, Missouri, in Westport/ Midtown, the Crossroads Arts District. I had a personal network of connections there. In Mormonism, Independence, Missouri is part of the story of Adam and Eve. It’s where the second coming will happen for Mormons. So I thought Kansas City would be a good place to reach breakaways from the Mormons, those who were progressive or left the Mormon church or other churches. My first ah-hah! moments were when people were touched, moved, hungry for these powerful stories. I heard about GLBT audience members’ traumatic experiences, some Mormon, some Catholic. The first version of the script was very rough and experimental. It ran five shows, and each one got better. It was a cool, explorative experience. I thought if I could work on the show in Middle America, than it would be easy to take to the coasts where there were many more progressives.
HB: What made you decide to take it elsewhere? What was the second round of performances like?
KA: When I lived in San Francisco, I had a group of friends who were really enablers of my lifestyle, mostly innocent bystanders, not intervention types. After going to prison I cut ties with all those people, moved to Alaska, went through rehab, tried to find my soul and get out of debt. The second set of performances I did was in Honolulu at a festival there. Those friends came to Hawaii, about two years after I’d cut them off. They had a lot of questions, and we needed a chance to reconnect. The friendships came back together, and some of them apologized for not stepping in, to call me to action or to make the major lifestyle changes I needed to make. I did three performances there, and they were really in this new, uncharted territory. The audiences were right there in the zone with me, going over the cliff with me. They laughed, cried, and were so authentic and natural. There was a mutual banter of energy, like ping-pong, a beautiful marriage. And the venue was ideal: 40-50 people at a show, so this close sense of family and connection.
I had the opportunity to meet and greet audiences again at the end of the shows, which was so powerful. It made me feel stronger, empowered, lifted, full of gratitude for getting to do that work. Before one of the performances I went and did a radio promotion on a late-night university radio show. I didn’t think anyone was awake to hear it, but it ended up that a whole sorority came to my show. They had this great willingness to give it a try, to feel uncomfortable. People were really open to it, which was great because I wanted to tell stories that people weren’t expecting.
HB: Your show’s name is “Secrets of a Gay Mormon Felon.” Why not “ex-Mormon” in the show title?
KA: That’s a good question. I’ve taken on a lot of ex-es. “Ex-felon” now, since my charge has been reduced to a misdemeanor on my record after the prison time. I have a lot of anger and resentment toward that faith but it is still part of my identity. Culturally, and ethnically, I feel that Mormonism is for me, and goes back generations in my family. I have a sense of respect and loyalty to it. But I’m an ex-Mormon because I’m not practicing, not because they threw me out although excommunication, that can happen.
HB: What is excommunication from Mormonism? How does that work?
KA: I exited the church on my own before that happened. I left at 18 when I departed Brigham Young University. 19 would have been my mission year. There’s a quality of being an adult first, an adult in the church, before you would ever be excommunicated. That’s a big penalty. But even then you can still go to church. My family is still in active practice, and they are very influential in my life. My father represents the Mormon Church professionally, and works for the Boy Scouts of America. The Boy Scout experience, that is a big part of the play I’m working on now. That second time I was performing, in Honolulu, was during the 2012 Summer Olympics, and one of my shows, the second performance, was the Olympics’ opening night. There were two tickets sold, and I totally expected no one to show up. The first night was so personal. I was so nervous, and just ready to kind of stumble through it rather than being really prepared. But for the second night, with the Olympics and the small house size, I pulled up about three minutes before curtain. I was just going to stroll in. But there was a line outside the door and down the block, into this 70-seat basement venue. There was only one staircase into it, so I had to follow the crowd downstairs, make my way up to the stage, and start from there. It was a good lesson learned, to treat the audience professionally, and always prepare. Always prepare.
HB: What was the best thing about performing such personal material, and what was the hardest part?
KA: In “Secrets of a Gay Mormon Felon” I did the scene about my first consensual gay sex experience, the Boy Scout camp scene, and most people loved it. Hetero women especially love it, because it’s a sweet scene. It’s not graphic. It’s about love, and done innocently. I didn’t need to push the envelope, even though I was playing a little with what would be inappropriate. I did that scene wearing a sleeping bag. But there was also the previous scene with the rape, which was so difficult for me and for audiences.
HB: Were you familiar with other similar plays? Was there work that inspired you, around the issues of rape and abuse, by other artists that you knew?
KA: I am more curious now about what other artists are doing. I was so afraid to see their work and compare myself with them, when I was working on “Felon.” I wanted to stay true to my own discoveries and my own story. But I’m finding there is so much learning possible with stage techniques. Every time I perform I experiment and gather unexpected audience reactions.
Now I’m starting to write theatre critiques and reviews, gaining exposure that way. I work with Edge Media out of New York City, and I have a different access level to artists so that can become my education, because I can learn from that. There’s a lot of solo performance that draws on interviews, and how you present yourself, as yourself and as different characters.
HB: What do you see in the future for your first play?
KA: Chicago will be the last set of performances for it, coming up late summer/ early fall 2013. When I wrote it, I needed the healing. It was cathartic. But the piece has done what I asked it to do, and I’m ready to move on.
HB: Tell me more about what you’re working on now, theatrically. What’s next in the pipeline?
KA: I’m working on two plays right now. The first one is called “Secrets of the Kool Aid Society” and it’s drawing on my Boy Scout summers, in a lot more detail. It is chronologically fairly authentic, about a magical summer when I was 16, on Catalina Island at Boy Scout camp. It’s a coming-of-age story involving boys from different walks of life. It’s not as autobiographical, not necessarily a solo show; the multiple characters mean it could be an ensemble piece. It’s a dark comedy, with elements of Dead Poets’ Society mixed with musical skits and songs in order to work in some gay camp elements. It was about that time when I really started to explore my sexuality. So the play focuses on a group of six friends, who are still friends today. It will also flash forwards to where they are now—one in south central LA, one was a black man who died in Iraq, one is a musician who’s helping me with the score.
The second piece is called “Poz-Boyz” [“Poz” pronounced like “Positive”] and it’s a bunch of related stories about HIV-positive men. Their stories of contracting and living with HIV, based on personal interviews. I’m still deciding if the piece will be done with different actors, versus one person. It’s very authentic. My uncle is in it. [In Scene 13 of “Secrets of a Gay Mormon Felon” a letter from his grandfather tells about Kimball’s Uncle Seldon dying of AIDS.] He married a woman so he could die at home. She was his friend in Germany. I interviewed her, and will tell his story through her voice, which is very controversial to my family. There’s still a lot of classism around who is and isn’t, lots of fear and hurdles around how to enter that relationship. I want the play to be a beautiful tribute to these men and their families.
Excerpt from “Secrets of a Gay Mormon Felon
Scene 8: Welcome to Adulthood
One chair is positioned in the front-middle of the stage.
My family spends Thanksgivings at my mother’s childhood home in Phoenix, Arizona. I am 13. My brothers, and a few cousins, go to the Arizona Mills Mall for Black Friday. They spend all of their time at the sports store and arcade. I am accustomed to spending a lot of time on my own. I love the sense of independence and the solitude from my large family. I often dream of what life would be like if I were the only child.
Meandering my way through the enormous mall, I arrive at the bookstore. I love to read and oddly enough, for being a Mormon, I find the aroma of coffee to be very comforting. (Kimball sits.)
I find a comfy chair, and jump into my pile of books and magazines.
(Kimball gets up and walks)
Once exhausting my pile, I walk down each aisle, to my shock and intrigue I find the gay section. Looking cautiously from side-to-side, to make sure no one was watching, I turn the captivating pages of my treasure trove of literature.
I lose track of time, and, to my surprise, a gentlemen in his fifties taps me on the shoulder; I thought I was in trouble.
He wears a thick wool sweater, carries an umbrella, and his cologne smells of a cedar chest.
Instead, to my delight, he behaves differently than any other adult that I knew. Befriending me, he buys me a chocolate sundae from the espresso bar. We chat casually, and, nonchalantly, he invites me to see his car.
My new friend is the coolest adult I ever met. How could I say “No thank you” to his offer? The car is a green Lincoln Town Car with an Arizona license plate. He drives me to a nearby park. Reluctantly, I get out of the car. He escorts me to a public bathroom and tells me to be a good boy and behave, or else I would be in a lot of trouble.
I hear the bathroom door lock behind me, I don’t run, I don’t yell, I don’t beg. My hands and face are pressing against a cinder block wall. How cool the wall feels.
(Kimball faces the audience holding onto the chair, he spreads his legs and forcefully pulls his pants and underwear down.)
I don’t know what to expect, I’ve never been with a man.
(Like being violently spanked, Kimball winches, tightening his buttocks punctuating each sentence.)
A burning pain tears into my virgin hole. The dry burning is relentless.
(Kimball closes his eyes)
I believe that, once satisfied, this man will kill me. I am numb; I feel nothing, I hear nothing.
I do not cry, only a small stream of blood runs down my leg.
(Kimball is shaking as he pulls his pants back up.)
I am standing at the mall entrance.
(Kimball leans on the chair for support as he mimes vomiting.)
There is no sight of the older man, I’m alone. I now have a scary secret and no one to tell it to.
Now, I understand why my mom told me not to kiss boys.
Scene 9: Boy Scouter
Kimball wears a Boy Scout shirt, kerchief and shorts. As he assembles a “pup” tent, he proceeds with his monologue. The tent is larger than a pup tent to give the impression he is smaller. The sloped canvas roof and walls are held up by poles and nylon ropes. It is open-sided to the audience. On the floor are sleeping bags, a lamp, and other camping gear.
Lighting: Late afternoon, which slowly darkens into sunset, until becoming night.
Ironically, the most conservative, youth-oriented organization in the United States was my playground for hedonistic exploration. That’s right, I was a Boy Scout, and trust me, I could pitch a tent in record-breaking time.
My parents had full faith in the Boy Scouts of America and the positive impact it would have in my life. Similarly, the Mormon Church had fully adopted the organization for their entire young men’s youth program.
At times I loathed attending my weekly scout meetings. My scouting peers called me “fag,” ostracized me, and, when the adult leaders weren’t looking, they threw punches at me. Little did my family and religion know it molded me into everything that they feared. On a Boy Scout camping trip, I experienced my first consensual sexual experience with another guy.
(Kimball enters the tent and lights a flash- or battery lamp.) Lighting: Finally fully night.
Kimball drinks beer and smokes weed.)
(Kimball laughs a little too loud.)
Truth or Dare, Bud? Okay, truth it is. Have you ever kissed a girl? (making the scout salute with hand) Remember, Scout’s honor!
Ha! Yea I knew it! (beat) No, I haven’t either.
Lets see, I pick dare.
Dude, I can’t do that! (beat) Shut up, I’m not a wuss. I juss … fine.
(Reluctantly Kimball takes his scout shirt and shorts off, leaving only his underwear on.)
Payback time! Truth or dare? (beat) I dare you to take off your uniform as well.
I guess I’ll pick truth.
No. (Kimball hangs his head) I have never touched a naked guy before. (Kimball reaches over to other scout, he nervously touches the boy’s bare body.)
Yes, don’t worry; I’ll turn off the light.
(Lamp goes out.)
Whoa. Oh my …
(To audience) I slept soundly in his protecting arms that night. It was the first time I heard another boy’s heartbeat. The rhythm put me fast asleep.