I spent the summer of 2001 working (unpaid) for a small artists’ venture called St. Jayne’s Theatre Company. The company was founded by a girl I knew from college, who I would have described as a “frenemy” if we had that word back then. She was passionate and driven and was dying to produce good theatre. But she could also be vain, obstinate, and a bit of a drama queen. I was concerned when she asked me to be on her board of directors because I didn’t trust her leadership and I was worried the project would end badly. I also wanted to be making theatre and there were a number of other people on the board I respected, so I said yes. I thought there was a good chance we would pull it off.
I was wrong, though. It didn’t end badly. It started badly. It got worse as it went along. And then it ended in tears, accusatory phone calls, and terminated friendships. What I hadn’t counted on – what I didn’t realize at the time – was that I could also be vain, obstinate, and a bit of a drama queen. And the two of us together, my frenemy and I, twisted our vain obstinate energy into a vortex of destruction and bitchery. But somewhere in the middle of all of that, we put on a play.
I’m glad that I did it, though. I learned a lot. We overcame some serious obstacles to persevere and I am still proud of the production. The play was SubUrbia, and there are two things that I remember most about it. Both require a little bit of explanation. The first one is the sound wall.
We were doing the play outdoors at a music venue called Kilby Court, which is in the center of a block in an industrial area of Salt Lake. It made sense because the play takes place in the parking lot of a Kwiky Mart-type convenience store, but if a band was playing on the stage across the alley, it was too loud to hear the actors. So the board decided that we would need to get a contract from the owner of Kilby Court that stated that we had exclusive performing rights on the nights of the show and we tasked the founder of the company, my afore described frenemy, to get the contract signed.
I asked about the contract during rehearsals and my frenemy responded by saying vaguely, “yeah yeah, it’s fine… it’s taken care of.” In fact, she had approached the owner with the contract and he refused to sign it because he couldn’t afford to lose the profit from the bands and take the risk that we would be able to deliver a similar amount. It was smart, and I understood where he was coming from. We never drew in the same sized crowds as the bands. But she was afraid to tell us what happened, so she just… didn’t. We didn’t find out until the weekend before the show opened that the owner of Kilby Court had booked bands in his other space for every single night we were performing.
That night we were sitting on the deck trying to figure out how we could possibly make it work. We talked for hours and a plan began to form. Twenty four inventive hours later, we stood in the alley of Kilby Court looking up at our brand new, functional sound wall. That day, we rented two stories of scaffolding from a construction site, assembled it ourselves, and filled it with a ton of hay that we bought off a local farmer. Then we covered it with tarps. It wasn’t beautiful, but it worked. The show could go on!.
The second thing I remember most about SubUrbia is the giant purple dildo.
The main female character in SubUrbia is a twenty-something girl named Suze who is planning to move to New York to become an artist. In her first scene on stage, Suze presents the performance art piece that she has been developing.
The monologue is a fuming estrogen-angst filled rant that is desperate to be shocking, but comes off as a poor knock-off of Ani DiFranco lyrics from the early 90s. We wanted it to be a parody of clichéd performance art. We had a trunk full of props. We put her in a body suit that she could paint on as she wore it. And best of all, we got The Blue Boutique to donate a large double-sided dildo in exchange for advertising in our program. Every night, Suze ended her monologue by swinging the dildo over her head and then letting it go, making it thwhack the brick wall behind her and fall down behind her feet with a thud.
The only problem was that people actually lived at Kilby Court and there were a couple apartment windows that ran along the wall that we were using as our Kwiky Mart. So we were really careful to choreograph the dildo-throw to make sure that it always hit the bricks and only the bricks.
I was elated when closing night arrived. After a series of ugly arguments, my relationship with my frenemy had devolved to fit under the less complicated “enemy” category. We were a handful of livid phone calls away from never speaking to one another again. The audience turn-out was a less than half of what we had hoped for. Everyone involved in the company was losing money, and I couldn’t take the stress much longer.
I was sitting in the audience, thinking “all I have to do is get through this performance, unload a ton of rain-sopped hay, disassemble two stories of scaffolding, return it to the construction company, and I will be done with Saint Jayne’s and I’ll never have to do theatre again…” when, something went wrong with Suze’s dildo-throw. For some reason, after weeks of perfect executions, the throw went wild and the dildo sailed through the air and disappeared through one of the darkened apartment windows with a slap and the tinkle of shattered glass. The audience must have known that wasn’t the plan, because that was the only night we didn’t get a big laugh. There was some laughter but it was mostly uncomfortable.
“Oh my God, ohmigod, ohmahGAWD!” I was thinking, as I snuck out of the audience by squeezing through a gap in the hay. “We’ve killed someone. We’ve killed someone. At the very least, we’ve killed someone’s cat…”
I I pictured a leathery old man – recently homeless, reentering society through the devalued rental property of Kilby Court – sitting in a rocking chair and reading a tattered paperback copy of Keats poems. When suddenly, without warning, there was a crashing sound and… “wisht, wisht, wisht…” something long and purple spinning through the air, and then, “BAM!” right to the forehead, knocking him backward, over, and out of the rocking chair! And then, SILENCE. Death by dildo…
I found one of the managers at Kilby – a really nice guy named Mike – and I told him what had happened. He told me not to worry about it. He said he knew the guy pretty well, and he would talk to him. I snuck back into the audience and watched the rest of the play, which unfolded without further incident, but I was distracted. We were going to be sued; I was sure of it. I was twenty-four, unemployed, and done with theatre. And, at that moment, I was quite certain that I was going to have to go into some sort of indentured servitude to pay for the ex-homeless man’s funeral and a new window for Kilby Court. At that point in my life, I would have had to go into indentured servitude just to buy the man a new cat.
But after the show, I found Mike again to see what he found out and he told me the man wasn’t home. “Whew. That’s a relief,” I said.
“Trust me; it’s fine. I’ll talk to him when he gets home.”
I expected to hear more, but I never did. I wasn’t even contacted about paying for the new window, which I thought was the least that would happen. About half of the cast showed up to help me return the scaffolding to the construction company, and a friend with a truck was kind enough to come and take all the hay out of Kilby. I was done with the show and I promised myself that I would never use my degree in theatre again, and I have mostly kept that promise.
Then, ten years later, I spent a weekend this fall at a writer’s retreat in southern Utah. I was one of six other writers staying on a small ranch outside the desert town of Torrey. We were all from Salt Lake City and we spent the days writing and the evenings talking about writing and making one another laugh.
One of the writers was a musician named Jeremy Chatelain. Jeremy has toured with a bunch of east coast bands over the years, but he has also been in a lot of bands here in Utah. Another writer remembered him from a band called Iceburn Collective and the two of them started talking about these old local Utah bands that I’ve never heard of. In fact, I was basically tuning out of the conversation until he mentioned that he had been in a band with a guy named Gentry.
I interjected then and said, “Wait, Gentry Densley?”
And Jeremy said, “No way, you know Gentry?”
And I said, “No, not at all. But I remember that his band played at a fundraiser for a theatre company I worked for a decade ago called Saint Jayne’s. He was great.”
Another one of the writers named Adam said, “I remember Saint Jayne’s.”
“That’s not possible,” I said. “We lasted one summer and no one came to our shows.”
“Oh no, I remember. I was living in an apartment at Kilby Court that summer. And they were doing a play called Suburbia. And I remember that I came home from a late shift at the hospital one night to find broken glass everywhere and I giant purple dildo in my bed. And this guy, Mike, who was running things at Kilby, came running in and was like ‘oh dude, I was hoping to catch you before you got home… I wanted to try to explain…’ But I was like, ‘Dude!? How? How could you ever explain THIS?”
And I said, “Oh my God… I’ve spent the last ten years wanting to ask you if you were okay! I remember watching it go through the window and thinking, ‘oh Christ what have we done?’ So let me just finally officially say to you, I am very very sorry about that.”
I didn’t think we would ever stop laughing. I was relieved to find that he wasn’t angry. He was just disappointed that they didn’t let him keep the dildo.
“I was going to frame it and hang it on the wall so I could point to it when I told the story.” Then he pointed at a random spot on the wall and said, in an old man voice, “And that thar is the very same dildo that came through my window that night…”
“Really?” I said. “Because we didn’t get it back! I would have let you keep it, for sure. Mike would have known you shouldn’t use it after it’s been in contact with broken glass, right?”
The next morning we told the rest of the writers the story and Adam said, “I’ve been telling that story for so long now, as an example of the texture of Kilby Court and what it was like to live there. Who knew I would come down to Boulder Utah and meet the person from the other end of that dildo?”