[Originally hosted at LA Splash.]
Through his play Secrets of a Gay Mormon Felon, fascinating Seattle playwright Kimball Allen has found unexpected relief in reenacting painful moments from his life and sharing their impact with his audience.
Raised a devout Mormon, at 13 years-old he was subjected to a traumatic event that shattered his young spirit. Kimball carried on dutifully in both his family and faith, but began coping via unhealthy vices. He grew into a scared and empty-feeling adult, taking solace in bittersweet indulgences of alcohol, drugs, and sex. Manipulation of relationships, money, and secrecy were his means to get by, until his schemes came crashing down around him and he found that the animal he let himself become was caged in a jail cell.
“It’s definitely been a long journey. It began organically. I was sitting in a jail cell after I was arrested. I was in a really bad place, a really dark place in my life, and I started journaling,” he explains of his piece’s roots. “I wanted to find answers and needed answers, and this theme was coming out of it. I couldn’t stop creating. Over two years it evolved into a play.”
The material is entirely autobiographical and, other than adaptation of inconsequential data like ages of characters, is factual. He consulted his parents and spent “hours and hours” watching carefully documented family home video footage to recall details like his own mannerisms; which he says were, perhaps not surprisingly, less than in alignment with stereotypical straight little boys. “I’m in shock at how gay of a little kid I was!” he joked.
Kimball came up in rural Idaho, in a region he calls both very religious and very conservative, but he’s found that his true self always seemed to shine through. “There’s this theme in the play of the beginning of my homosexually being questioned,” he said. “But in my parents’ video of the school play, or my birthday parties, I can see it. Or in how excited I was when a friend gave me a crochet set,” he laughed. “I was living in this world of cookie cutter religious people and it was so foreign to them, I don’t think they could put in a title of who I was or what I was. But if I were accepted, if I were celebrated, would I be a felon today?”
He is reveling in his journey of self-discovery, though, and learning how to grow and move forward from looking backward. “I would say it’s surprisingly really fun playing the younger me; to tap into my youth again. As adults we reflect on our childhood, but never get to actually revisit it. But I played the darker elements and themes of myself, revisit those demons. It was very challenging. It was not only cathartic to write, it was emotionally challenging on stage. You’re completely vulnerable, opening your heart and your soul on stage, this very peaceful feeling. It’s religious!”
Speaking of religion, it’s safe to assume the Mormon community isn’t eager to get behind Kimball’s production, but he’s been pleasantly surprised by how some have embraced it. “I don’t think the Latter Day Saints Church is thrilled. It questions their doctrines and highlights the negative effects on an individual, on me. Of course I’m a former member, but a lot of my friends and family are still members, very active members. There are people not willing to see the play or have a conversation with me about it, and it’s unbelievably frustrating. It’s really shocking how quickly they’ll shut the door. You don’t question authority, god, leadership, your parents, etc. Ignorance is just fear.”
“With that said though, it’s been really interesting. There has been this incredible amount of support from friends from my childhood, the town we grew up in, and family members. People have sent some very thoughtful emails saying ‘We’re sorry we didn’t do more and are so happy to see the success of your play.’ Some people I was expecting retaliation and anger from, I got the opposite. I don’t know what to expect anymore.”
In addition to enjoying his production’s overall success, Kimball has experienced profound personal fulfillment that strengthens his sobriety. “It’s filled a void in my life, especially since becoming sober. A big part of the play is my drug use, hard drugs. You’re used to having that be a part of your everyday life.Taking that away and filling it with this artistic expression has been really beautiful, to see the path of sobriety and healing and filling it with this play. It’s been theraputic.”
“I never thought before that I would find closure with a lot of this inner turmoil. I’m beginning to find closure with my family, with myself, and with my religion.”
“Sometimes it seems almost hopeless, like you’ll never find peace with these challenging emotions and things in your life. Actor and playwright are titles I didn’t think I’d ever see on the timeline of Kimball Allen. It’s this whole new world and it’s been rad! Yes, without a doubt, it gets better!” laughing, he exclaims. He’s referencing, of course, journalist and queer activist Dan Savage’s widespread “It Gets Better Project”, steering at-risk youth away from destructive coping mechanisms, even suicide, and encouraging them to look forward to their future.
Kimball says he feels a profound responsibility to his community and already has plans in the works to support adolescents who may be struggling. “Being an advocate to the LGBT community and being an activist is important to me. Another project we’re working on is this workshop, a summer camp for teens. It will be a week-long mentoring project involving team building, workshops, etc. We’re going to do a workshop called ‘Discovering Your Proud Voice,’ encouraging self discovery. Everyone has a story and I’m excited to helping these younger artists discover theirs.”
Even the one burden he can find in his new found vocation, editing his work, he is turning into positive step. He’s found it tough taking his life’s stories, moments that he holds so dear, and putting them on the chopping block. “There is so much to talk about in my life, in my childhood, my family, and my religions– the challenge is editing, making it so people don’t die of boredom!” He’s utilizing those untapped monologues for his sequel, “Secrets of the Kool-Aid Sucking Society”, about working with his friends at a Boy Scout Camp during the summer as a teen. “It’s a secret club I had as a teenager with my friends. It’s definitely a dark comedy. If I had to describe it… it’d be like ‘Newsies’ with ‘Dead Poets Society’ sprinklings, a side of ‘Troop Beverly Hills’, garnished with ‘Goonies’.”
He finds the comparisons to essayist and fellow non-fiction funnyman David Sedaris to be an honor but he what he finds most rewarding is the connection he makes with the audience on stage.”This play has so many themes, from self discovery to drug use, to religion. There are also very controversial subjects like rape and abuse. Everyone is going to come away with something different. I’ve been surprised with people finding connections that I didn’t, and that’s awesome. That’s what art does. Everyone is inspired in a different way.”
“My desire is that people will leave reflecting, there is a lot of self reflection, and they should leave questioning themselves, authority, the world we live in, and the way they treat others. I hope that they leave being changed for the better, really.:
The play premiered last summer in Kansas City, Kimball says it’s “still very new”. In November he’ll take the play to Honolulu. Since his show is going to tour, he says, “I’m going to pick fabulous gay-friendly destinations! The intention is to go everywhere, from L.A. to New York.” He also hopes to share his story with Salt Lake City, Utah, infamously the Mormon capital of the U.S., in the spring.
To learn more about Kimball Allen and find out where ‘Secrets of a Gay Mormon Felon’ will be performed next, visit http://secretsofagaymormonfelon.com/.