The Evolution of Kathleen Cahill’s Course 86B

Kathleen Cahill directs the cast of her play Course 86B in a reading, photo by Gerry Johnson

The theatre lights dim and the stage transforms into a world where the audience forgets actors, costumes, and lighting. Transfixed onlookers are given a reprieve from their daily lives as captivating characters quickly become familiar friends. Plot seems to vanish as seamless storytelling weaves scenes that are more experienced than watched. When the lights come up, the room erupts with enthusiastic applause and lively conversation about the spellbinding play accompanies people on the walk to their cars. When live theatre is done well, it has no equal for its ability to enchant and intrigue an audience.

To a theatre-goer, a play is a diversion that happens over the course of an afternoon or an evening. But the amount of work invested by the playwright in crafting that experience can take months or even years.

On April 11, Kathleen Cahill, resident playwright for Salt Lake Acting Company (SLAC), will debut her latest work “Course 86B in the Catalogue.” It’s a project that began to take shape in 2009 and has been worked on intermittently for approximately 3 years. A trip to the desert landscape of Boulder, Utah planted the seed of inspiration that has grown into the piece that SLAC’s website describes as, “a comedic riff on evolution set in a small community college in an arid state where extraordinary artifacts from the ancient past abound – some of them still living.”

On her trip to Boulder, Cahill was struck by the abundance of relics from the ancient past. “Utah is really an archaeological dream land, a treasure trove of prehistory. Our guide told me about prehistoric plants on mesa tops that you can’t get to except by helicopter and he showed me dinosaur prints. It was just blowing my mind,” she says. This sense of wonder ignited ideas that became part of her play. “It came out of enthusiasm for being in a state where there are more prehistoric remains than almost anywhere else. That is so mysterious and unique.”

Kathleen Cahill directs the cast of her play Course 86B in a reading, photo by Gerry Johnson


Kathleen Cahill directs the cast of her play Course 86B in a reading, photo by Gerry Johnson


Kathleen Cahill directs the cast of her play Course 86B in a reading, photo by Gerry Johnson


Utah residents can take for granted that their state is home to rare paleontological resources and archeological artifacts. Locals can drive for a few hours and find themselves looking at rock art in Nine Mile Canyon, which has been called “the world’s longest art gallery.” It’s not uncommon to hear about the discovery of new dinosaur bones, and people can walk alongside dinosaur tracks, footprints left behind by creatures that haven’t walked the Earth for 65 million years.

Southern Utah can give a person a different sense of time because it allows one to visit dinosaur tracks and petroglyphs over the course of a day even though neither of these things existed at the same time in history. Considering this time warp Cahill started crafting a play set in an otherworldly wilderness where characters from different time periods live in the same peculiar place.

The work slowly evolved as Cahill wrote pieces of it on and off over the next two years. Her experiences in Boulder were finally translated to paper and turned over to the hands of actors. In February 2011 the first public reading of “Course 86B in the Catalogue” was held through SLAC’s New Play Sounding Series. Its opening introduced Stevie, a teacher at Delta Community College who has left her husband and retreated to the desert. She is a paleontologist teaching the “History of Life on Earth,” also known as Course 86B in the catalogue. The audience journeys with Stevie as she begins to realize the nature of her new town. Dell, Stevie’s student, has an uncanny ability to draw renderings of ancient life and possesses a robust familiarity with the Holy Bible. Dell’s boyfriend Sterling may evolve to be human one day, but he isn’t there just yet. To top it all off Stevie’s estranged husband Bill has lost his job in the financial sector, moved to the desert, and taken up residence in a chicken coop not far from Stevie’s house. The reading elicited frequent laughter and loud applause at the end.

After the reading, Cahill invited feedback and questions from her audience. Some were confused by Dell, saying it wasn’t clear if the character was from another time or if she was simply a country bumpkin. Sterling also presented a problem for some people because he was thunderously loud and too primitive. The majority of audience members had positive feedback and one young man noted, “The play is hysterical, and it’s unbelievable for such a young work.”

Reflecting on the first reading Cahill says, “The characters were very much in their infancy.” They grew considerably over the next year. Through a handful of private readings and a workshop, Cahill helped her characters mature. Dell survived her “adolescence” and emerged as a confident woman who is proudly from the 19th century. Cahill worked to characterize Dell through the language she uses and her timid approach to modern technology.

Sterling is still loud, but endearingly so. He clearly wants to be human and strives to be one of the guys. He even likes football. Cahill compares him to an adolescent boy, in part because just as boys are not yet men, Sterling is not yet a Homo Sapien.

Bill’s motives for following Stevie to the ends of the Earth are clearer, but to say what they are would give too much away. His story arc has been fleshed out and Cahill reveals that some of Bill’s character was inspired by the economic meltdown. “People were losing their jobs right, left, and center. And I thought, what happens to that guy from the financial industry? The idea is that he’s out there in the wilderness, in this wild place and he starts to become more genuine. More human.”

Stevie also changed. She has literally grown up. “I initially had her as a young PhD student and this was her first job,” Cahill says. Cheryl Gaysunas, who was seen in Cahill’s play “Charm,” read the part of Stevie and commented that she felt older than she was written. Cahill took note and made Stevie a more mature woman.

The characters have changed and the ending has undergone quite a bit of work. Plotlines have been expanded, written and rewritten. For Cahill that’s part of the process of writing a play. “It’s an odd thing. If you build a piece of furniture, you work on it until it’s done. But with a play or a novel and these kinds of things you’re making something out of nothing. It’s vague, amorphous, and ephemeral. You can put in a lot of time, but it’s not good time. I’ve ended up not liking tons of what I’ve written and thrown it away and just saved one page. It’s this constant shaping, thinking. It’s a messy process. And it’s hard to say when you’re done. At least for me. It’s so gummy.”

Playwright Kathleen Cahill, photo by Gerry Johnson

Gummy might be a word used to describe an idea that just emerged from the primordial ooze. At some point the idea evolves and takes shape. In Cahill’s case her most compelling ideas transform into plays. “As you travel through life some things stick to you and some things don’t. And there are things that stick to me because of who I am, and out of that comes my work. Someone else would go on that trip to Southern Utah and not have the same reaction. It’s a mixture of me and it. It’s the dancer and the dance. In this case it’s me and the experience that I had passing through me,” Cahill says.

Categories: Theater

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.