Phishing for love

Local Theater Company explores the connective power of jam bands

Credit: Ligature Creative

It’s no secret that the love affair between Boulder and jam bands is central to the cultural landscape here. But with Topher Payne’s You Enjoy Myself, a new world premiere from Local Theater Company borrowing its title from the 1985 Phish classic, it’s now fodder for a theatrical stage. 

“While it never became my music, Phish’s ability to create a welcoming space truly driven by acceptance and healthy curiosity about other people was very instructive,” says the playwright whose first husband introduced him to the band and its rabid fanbase. “I wanted to tell a love story in that world, or, actually, several love stories.” 

To that end, You Enjoy Myself follows three couples: one in the glow of a budding relationship, one at the end of its life cycle, and another rekindling an old flame. Former partners Judith and Eileen, who met through their love of Phish, are reunited through an Instagram post, along with four other lost souls searching for meaning.

“We’re still retraining ourselves on how to connect with other human beings,” Payne says of our post-lockdown years amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. “I do not find it surprising that the first thing I wrote after coming back from that experience is something that is desperately trying to be a Bat-Signal to let people know that there is a safe place to empathically engage and be courageous enough to be vulnerable.” 

The play’s exploration of personal growth and leaning into the unknown aligns with the theme of Local’s 13th season: “Lose yourself to find yourself.” According to Betty Hart, co-artistic director of the company and president of the Colorado Theatre Guild, she saw the optimism of that maxim on full display during her first Phish concert in Denver earlier this month. 

“The fans were so welcoming and embraced me even though it was my first journey,” Hart says. “There was just so much joy, energy, passion and a real desire to be together in a time when our world feels so fractured. It was really powerful.”

‘Dreams, passion and sex’

Payne, who is originally from a small Mississippi town, has been living in Atlanta since 1999 — more than a thousand miles from the rural Vermont farmhouse where his latest work is set. That’s where he met Hart, then a staff member with Kaiser Permanente’s educational theater program in Georgia, when Payne auditioned at a Southeastern Theater Conference. 

“Topher immediately caught our eye, so we invited him for a callback, and he got the gig,” Hart recalls. “He literally told me in our first live meeting that, although he was here for acting, he was going to be a playwright whose plays would one day be performed all over the world.” 

This meeting heralded the beginning of a partnership that has spanned years and produced a number of highly regarded theatrical works. Payne’s Hart-directed play about New York public school teachers, Evelyn in Purgatory, marked a turning point in his career. The work gained attention, subsequently leading to other productions, including the off-Broadway success of Perfect Arrangement in 2015, which received a rave review in The New York Times.

Payne’s career took another turn when he began writing for the Hallmark Channel in 2016, contributing to six films. Nevertheless, he remained dedicated to playwriting and started working on You Enjoy Myself at a workshop in Massachusetts. But COVID-19 would disrupt this creative journey a few short years later.

“I was one of those writers who didn’t find the pandemic to be a productive period,” Payne says. “While I respect people who used that to finish their novel, everything that I do is based on the conversions in the room; that’s where the play becomes the play. Since I didn’t have access to that, I took an extensive break from playwriting starting in 2020 and didn’t return to it until I got a call from Betty.”

The following year, Hart reached out to see if Payne had any plays he’d be interested in submitting to Local Lab, the company’s new play festival. The unique blend of humor, music and romance in You Enjoy Myself won over the Local staff, and it was chosen with Hart attached as director.

On top of those winning qualities that first endeared the work to the company, Eden Lane, a Colorado Public Radio arts reporter who played Judith in the original reading and is reprising her role in the current production at the Dairy, praises the play for its inclusion of older women in stories — a rarity in the theater world. “How often do we not see older women included in stories like this? [In] this show, we have two who have goals, dreams, passion and sex,” Lane says.

But despite hitting the marks on so many key points, You Enjoy Myself didn’t quite fit into what co-artistic director Nick Chase called its “season of women,” which was already in development to include titles like Raised on Ronstadt and UNDONE: The Lady M Project.

“Shortly after we presented the developmental workshop of the play in our 2022 Local Lab, we concluded as a team that we wanted to pursue a full production of that work,” Chase told Boulder Weekly in June. “We all agree that we wanted to support it, but we had just scheduled our 12th season, and it had a lovely theme that this play didn’t fit into, so we decided that it would be our Season 13 opener.” 

The world premiere production builds on the work done by Hart, Payne and the actors — four of whom reprise their roles — during the play’s workshop in April 2022. And now, after years of development, You Enjoy Myself is about to make its debut, giving audiences the opportunity to rediscover the beauty of vulnerability. 

ON STAGE: You Enjoy Myself. Sept. 21–Oct. 14, Dairy Arts Center, 2590 Walnut St., Boulder. Tickets here.