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Dread Awakening
Interview with Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa,
Clay McLeod Chapman, Eric Sanders, Justin Swain

By Beth Herstein

On April 6, Dread Awakening, four world premiere horror one-acts, will premiere for a two-and-a-half week run at the 45th Street Theater. The production features Bloody Mary by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa (a popular comic book writer and prolific and regularly produced playwright whose most recent full length work, Based on a Totally True Story, is in previews at the Manhattan Theatre Club), directed by Pat Diamond; pearls by Clay McLeod Chapman (whose work The Pumpkin Pie Show recently completed its run at P.S. 122), directed by Arin Arbus; Sleep Mask by Eric Sanders (author of It's a Dry Heat and Faint), directed by Amanda Charlton; Treesfall by Justin Swain (actor and the author of Bump and other one-acts), directed by Jessica Davis-Irons. The show promises to be quick moving and tightly crafted; the total running time for the four plays is estimated to be around 90 minutes.

I recently spoke to the four authors at a rehearsal space downtown before they headed to work on their shows. Their enthusiasm for the current project and for each other's work was clear throughout our discussion. So was their love of the horror genre in general. When I arrived, they were discussing the remake of The Hills Have Eyes; later, they mentioned the fact that Adrienne Barbeau, who starred in such horror classics as The Fog, is currently in town starring as Judy Garland in The Property Known as Garland. "She has to come [to Dread Awakening]! We should put her on the VIP list," said Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa.


Eric Sanders, Clay McLeod Chapman, Justin Swain, Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa

Beth Herstein:  Whose idea was it to put together the show?

Eric Sanders:    I've always been into horror, but I got very interested in it in the past six months. I wanted to do a show of horror plays, because I feel like it is something that isn't done enough. All three of these guys were writing stuff that I really responded to in their own ways. It's not like I had a list of 10 people, and I said, "Oh, these four will work." Literally, it was the four of us - that's what I wanted to do. A huge part of that is because they all have their own voices. I've seen tons of Clay's stuff, and you will never mistake someone else's show for Clay's. He's just meticulous. Even when Roberto's shows have different tones, you can always hear him. Justin, I've known for years, and I would never mistake someone else's show for Justin's. Hopefully the same is true for mine.

So, I asked these guys if they'd write something, and they said yes, which is great. Then we got the directors and the rest of the crew.

Clay McLeod Chapman:    Eric's Machiavellian in the positive sense. I ask myself why I would be in this room, if not for the fact that he roped all of us into it.

Sanders:    I hunted you down.

Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa:   I was at lunch with Wilson [Chin, the set designer] today, and he said, "How did this happen? I was having lunch with Eric and suddenly I was signing on to this all." He was joking - he's actually having a really good time. But I think it's a testament to the perverse charisma that Eric generated.

BH:  Had you all worked together before?

Chapman:   For the most part, we knew each other by name only. We were relatively aware of who was who by reading each other and seeing each other's past productions. Beyond Eric and Justin being the catalysts for this production, it seems the ligature is this affinity for horror. Whether it's just appreciation for the genre, or finding ourselves entrenched in it, that is the chemical process that's brought us all together.

BH:  How much, if at all, did you write pieces with the idea that they should fit together as a whole?

Sanders:   We hadn't heard each other's plays until the first read through a few weeks ago. It wasn't so much that we had to write something to fit as a certain mold. But, by default, our styles will just work together as a show. Roberto's play is fairly funny. Clay's may seem funny –

Chapman:   To the perverts.

Sanders:   Yeah, to the real sickos. So, it's just a matter of trying to find some sort of arc to the evening. Really, that is up to the directors. The directors have been having tech meetings to tech the transitions between the plays, because it's important that this feels like one show. Even though each play is its own world, as a whole it should feel like a real production.

Chapman:   It's hard not to talk in terms of film, even though this is a theatrical project. And, it has to be said that the horror genre, at least in cinematic terms, has this history of compilation projects. If you think back in terms of films like Twilight Zone: The Movie, or Creepshow, or Tales from the Darkside, there's this longstanding tradition of something for everyone, one chapter leading to the next with the connective tissue of horror. But, they do stand independently of one another.

Justin Swain:   When Eric and I were talking about this show in a coffee shop, we were trying to decide what would be the significant thing that would hold it together. We started talking about atmosphere and tone. We talked about taking the word horror but using it liberally - having it be what it means to each of us. How that tone carries through the evening is kind of the way that it combines itself.

Aguirre-Sacasa:  I think there's also something to the idea that what scares one person doesn't necessarily scare someone else, and to the idea that horror and fear is deeply personal. Horror is something that rejects homogenization, because it's all about transgressing those boundaries and not fitting into the mold. Tales from the Darkside - I can't remember whether it had one writer, but the segments certainly were based on short stories from different writers, to sort of celebrate that diversity in horror. I think of my piece as a funny, almost send up of the horror genre. But, I was deeply disturbed by [Eric Sanders' play] Sleep Mask. Even just reading it, I found it deeply disturbing. Not that I didn't find the other pieces affecting, but for some reason the idea behind Sleep Mask - that there's this couple in a motel room, and there's this guy wearing a black leather mask that he says he can't, or won't take off - was deeply disturbing to me. So, it's kind of exciting, in that I'm also scared by some of the things that are happening in this evening.

Sanders:  Thank you for that. I am very flattered.

It's the same with the other pieces, too. In terms of what disturbs you ... Clay's piece is what I'm calling "the silent creeper." I can't say too much except that it's about a violation of power - about using an opportunity that is terrifying, if you take it at face value. Justin's is so bizarre - I won't even know for sure everything about it before I've seen it. It's strange and atmospheric, naturalism a little bit. Sort of a ghost story without a ghost. So, in the show, there are moments of boo-horror, creepy moments that get under your skin, and parody-horror that is also frightening. Roberto's piece is parody, but it's scary. Mine is disturbing, but - it's so interesting that, even as writers, we respond differently to the different pieces.

This isn't a competition, but let people go talk afterward and say, "I like this one, it's my favorite." That would be awesome.

Chapman:   It's the buckshot effect. We're aiming at the audience, and one of us is going to hit. It's the fact that we do offer a certain sense of variety, and in that variety each piece does complement each other. Everybody's approach is wildly diverse and there is this kind of accidental flow.

BH:  There are separate crews, cast and directors for each show.

Sanders:   Right. One design team, but everyone else is separate. We're approaching this like four separate new plays. ... Our directors [Pat Diamond, Arin Arbus, Amanda Charlton, and Jessica Davis-Irons] have been amazing. I can't say enough good things about the set designers [Wilson Chin, Marcus Doshi, Mark Huang and Candice Thompson]. Everyone involved in this production is amazing. We've gotten absolute top notch people, almost better than I thought we could have gotten. The top people I wanted in every category. Basically, people are really drawn to the concept, because it's a great opportunity.

Swain:   I've been really enjoying the collaborative part of the process. Working with my director, as well, has been great. Getting feedback from her and then bringing it back and working again, trying to bust out the kinks. Everyone is so creative and smart, in the team, it's been wonderful to work with them.

Aguirre-Sacasa:  I'm actually excited for us to all come back together for the production. Right now, we're all in our separate spheres.

Swain:   The night that we had our reading was a very exciting night. I was still in the process of rewriting. And, hearing everybody else, and feeling the vibe and the energy, and understanding how the night was going to work, really informed me when I went back to do my final rewrite. How it works in tonality with everything else - it just changed where I was going … because I find all their writing inspiring.

BH:  In promoting his movie War of the Worlds, Steven Spielberg stated that the popularity of science fiction movies peaks at times of heightened national anxiety. Do you believe that there's a correlation between the times - and what's going on right now, nationally and internationally - and the popularity of the horror genre?

Chapman:   My two cents is that the popularity is emblematic of the times. You can make a direct correlation between the race riots of the 1960s and Night of the Living Dead. Or, consumerism reaching its peak with Dawn of the Dead. There are certain cultural instances that are kind of filtered through the horror genre. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre could be a Manson Family derivative. But, now, whatever you want to pin to horror today - I don't know if this is me reaching a certain point where I'm getting older and not connecting as much. But, today, there are films like Saw and Wolf Creek, and the cultural filter seems to have more of a sadistic tinge. You have the direct corollary of Guantanamo Bay.

BH:  What has drawn you, individually, to horror writing?

Chapman:   It goes back to what hits you first when you are young. There's that window of opportunity where you were exposed to something. There could be that babysitter you had when you were six years old who turned on Halloween, and suddenly you were exposed to something. For me, it was the opening sequence of Friday the 13th Part Two, which is so innocuous when you reference it, to see a boot with some unknown assailant, with someone singing "Itsy Bitsy Spider." It's ingrained into my head. And, there's Saturday the 14th, an atrocious film - kind of a predating Scream parody of horror films. But, as a child watching it, it affected me in this profound way. So the catalyst is this completely innocuous moment in time where you're young enough to be impressionable and are exposed to something that burns itself into your subconscious to the point where you keep coming back to it.

Sanders:   It's fun to be scared. Roberto's play makes a brilliant point, when a character says, "I feel most alive when I'm scared."

Aguirre-Sacasa:  People go to horror movies because they enjoy being scared. It's also a safe kind of way to be scared.

I had a dream about three nights ago, where I was walking home with my sister and we were mugged. Not horrifically violently, but when I woke up I was terrified - in a way that The Exorcist and Friday the 13th didn't scare me. But I was really unnerved about the idea that - it gives us an outlet to experience this primal emotion.

Swain:   Fear is such a primitive emotion. We keep talking about movies, but I'd like to pull it back to theater and talk about why horror is so important in a theatrical venue. Bringing it into the theater and putting the horror five feet away from you, if it's done right, you feel everything that's involved in it. It's like being involved in a fight. If you have ever been in a bar when a fight is going on - the air is charged. Boom! It's alive and right in front of you. So, when you do horror live, it's so important to do it well. People experience viscerally what it's like instead of sitting back and looking at it on a screen. You're more part of the experience.

Chapman:   And, to hop onto that, one of the most primal forms of theater is sitting around the campfire telling ghost stories. I think one of the first exposures to theater that most people have is not a Broadway musical or seeing a show, but that summer camp experience with a bonfire and roasted marshmallows and someone tells a ghost story about a guy with a hook for a hand. Suddenly, you are having this theatrical experience. It's just storytelling.

Swain:   The psychological aspect, for me - it brings me right back to being a kid. Being afraid of the dark, of what's out there. If you get involved in the inner life of the audience, you can bring them back to that. For me, it reminds me of all the things in my life that I love and I could lose. Because I'm afraid of losing those things I end up appreciating them when I am not scared anymore. ... For me, the piece that I'm writing is about losing the things you love the most, and feeling vulnerable and childlike once again.

I hope people in the audience go home and have conversations - asking, "Do you believe in ghosts? What is your take on that stuff?" I think it's a very interesting thing to put in their minds.

BH:  You're bringing up two points. Partly, there's a question of whether people are open to believing in things outside of the norm, but also there's the fact that horror can be most frightening when it connects to things that are real in people's lives. It sounds as if all of you are trying to touch on both of these in your plays.

Chapman:   It's the shared experience of it. Being in an audience - a mass of people. One of them will respond to one kind of fear tactic, another will respond to another. What fear or horror has the potential to do is plant a seed that sticks in your psyche for the rest of your life.

Sanders:   Absolutely. One of the reasons I got the idea for putting this show together, is that I got into H.P. Lovecraft, a cult writer from the twenties and thirties, totally ignored in his lifetime but a genius. The thing that freaks me out about his stuff is the idea of dislocation, or disassociation from your own life. He has a story called The Shadow out of Time, in which the main character finds out that he had lived five million years before. He discovers in a vault in the desert a book that he wrote five million years earlier. That freaks me out more than anything, the idea that your whole universe can be undermined by one detail.

Chapman:   It's a part of the fabric of our lives. You can go back further than your first theatrical experience, to your early life experiences. Hearing Grimm's Fairy Tales. Our upbringing as children, nurtured into this culture, reading about cannibals, ogres, bone eaters, witches, getting lost in the woods, big bad wolves. Fear is kind of this learning tools. It's educational. You touch the hot pot of boiling water and you're never going to touch it again. It's nice to think that something along these lines, we can transport this adult-based audience back to this status of being. They can become malleable once again.

Swain:   For me, horror is the place in the genre where anything is possible. It opens up a creative door. Horror is malleable in a way, because it can become what you need it to be, for you.

BH:  How is the show coming together?

Aguirre-Sacasa:  My director, who I've worked with before, and the two young actors in the show - one of whom I'd worked with and another I had not - have had a couple of rehearsals. I couldn't go to first one, but then at the next one I watched and I was surprised, thinking, "Wow, people are taking this really seriously." When Eric first told me his idea, I told him, "Yeah, sign me up," thinking this would never happen. You know, a lot of times these things fall apart. But, suddenly it's happening, and suddenly it's a real thing. It's just a great energy.

Swain:   It's incredible that it's come to fruition in the way that it has, and it is coming together full steam ahead.


Dread Awakening begins April 6 and runs through April 23 at 45th Street Theatre, 354 West 45th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues. Tickets are available at Smarttix.com. For more information, visit www.dreadawakening.com/index.html.


Photo: Kara Siemiaszko


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