“I’ve kept a diary since I was 6—it’s the best therapy,” recalls Portland-born, L.A.-based comedian Simone McAlonen. “Going back to read old entries is like having a conversation with a different version of yourself.”
Three years ago, that conversation proved especially fruitful. Recognizing that the Netflix hit documentary Wild Wild Country had reawakened public interest in the ‘80s cult community that once spanned more than 60,000 acres in rural Antelope, Ore., McAlonen harked back to summers spent attending an evangelical Christian youth camp located on the site of the former Rajneeshpuram. Poring over old journals from that time, she ended up collaborating with her 12-year-old self on Wild Wild Christian: a lighthearted reverie following our young diarist’s adventures and revelations as she navigates early adolescence through the repressive haze of one religious compound built atop the bones of another.
While the actress and playwright readied the hometown premiere of her acclaimed show, WW spoke to McAlonen about returning to camp.
WW: How did this production come about?
Simone McAlonen: When I was 12, my dad started working for Young Life, a nonprofit Christian youth organization, and we started spending summer at their camp out in Central Oregon. We did that for a few years through middle school.
Was that fun?
Initially, I didn’t want to go. I was kind of sad because, like any kid, I wanted to hang out with my friends during the summer. That first summer in Antelope, we were the only people out there—some of the first people living there since the Rajneeshees left—so it was a little bit lonely with just us on this big 60,000-acre ranch. I ended up coming around and feeling like it was pretty cool because it was such an interesting, different experience.
What did the camp look like?
It was really almost like time traveling back to the Old West. We lived in an actual farmhouse from the 1800s that had been a stop on the Pony Express. There were horses, ranch hands, huge mountains, blue sky, rattlesnakes, tumbleweeds and, of course, tons of these weird abandoned buildings from when the Rajneeshees were there. As a kid, I’d go exploring. Nothing crazy, but I’d poke around and get into some mischief. My brother and I would ride our bikes over to the crematorium, and we’d make up stories about finding a finger, even though we really didn’t.
At the time, did you know anything about the Rajneeshees?
I was told that before the camp was overtaken by the Christian youth organization something bad had once happened out here. It was basically framed as God using something that was once bad for good. Everyone at the camp would talk about how it was crazy that not a lot of people knew this incredible story and how it would make a great movie someday. As I got older, no one really knew about the Rajneeshees until Wild Wild Country came out. Then, suddenly, everyone did.
When was the last time you visited the camp?
In 2014 or 2015. It was nice to be back. I have so many happy memories from my childhood there, but it was also kind of sad for me to come back as an adult and get the full picture of how limiting and close-minded that culture can be. I remember last time I was there I saw a group of kids running around in the yard playing and just being happy and free. One of the kids tied up his shirt and started sashaying around playfully. I saw an adult who worked there come up to him and reprimand him for acting too feminine and made him untie his shirt. Seeing someone so innocent shamed for playing with their gender expression, it broke my heart. I hate that the closed-mindedness of others could potentially deter a kid from exploring their own spiritual life. To me, that feels like a bigger sin than anything else, really.
Had you always planned on turning your experience at camp into a production?
Working as an actress and comedian in Los Angeles, I’d always in the back of my mind thought about putting together a show or writing something about growing up around this Christian summer camp. Growing up, Christian culture put in a lot of effort to make religion more appealing and relevant to young people. Every mainstream popular music artist would have a Christian counterpart that mimicked their style except all of the lyrics would be about God—like Nirvana or Britney Spears but Christian. It’s funny because for a long time I was embarrassed about growing up so religious, because it felt like something that was weird or different than a lot of my contemporaries. But now, I realize that it’s a really important part of my perspective, and embracing what makes us different or weird is actually really important.
SEE IT: Wild Wild Christian plays at the Siren Theater, 315 NW Davis St., wildwildchristian.com. 7 pm Friday-Saturday, Sept. 25-26. $15.