Clay McLeod Chapman adores horror stories. The performance artist has been telling them professionally for more than 20 years, relishing in any opportunity to lure people out of their comfort zones using spoken word.
“I will confess I’ve always erred on the side of the macabre, or the dark,” Chapman, who lives in New York City, said outside the Under St. Marks theater in late August. “I grew up reading Edgar Allan Poe and even Edgar Lee Masters, so taking a first-person narrative and leading someone through a story, that’s interesting to me.”
The influence of those literary giants is woven throughout Chapman’s latest performance series, “The Pumpkin Pie Show: One-On-Ones,” presented by Frigid New York. The premise is simple, yet unnerving: Chapman assumes the identity of a frightening character and recites an original monologue to a single audience member at a time, who is seated directly across from him.
His alter-egos include a woman who struggles to take care of herself after contracting a flesh-eating virus, a guest attending a doomed slumber party and a homeless man who catches a mermaid, among others. A convincing performer, Chapman contorts his face and body to match the inner anguish of his characters, resulting in a chilling one-on-one experience that is suited for the Halloween season. It deliberately evokes both the intimacy and novelty of a campfire story, an experience that Chapman took delight in as a child.
Clay McLeod Chapman sits across from a single audience in the otherwise empty basement theater at Under St. Marks and recites a chilling monologue.
“The campfire experience to me as a kid was kind of like a holy experience,” he said. “You as the listener are suddenly aware of what’s behind me, what’s next to me. We may not be in the woods, but as possible as it is in this city to push all that [noise] out, I’ve tried to do it.” The spare setting of Under St. Marks, which is decorated with just two threadbare chairs facing each other, adds to the eerie effect.
Since its opening on Sept. 2, interest in the weekly show has grown organically, mostly through word-of-mouth. Chapman has even opted to extend the series from its original closing date of Oct. 7 to Oct. 28, following the positive responses. “I am literally receiving audience members one at a time at the front door, ushering them in, subjecting them to this 20-minute diatribe, and sending them on their merry way,” he said with a laugh. “And then I bring in the next one.”
Ticket sales aside, Chapman said that “The Pumpkin Pie Show” is a success if each person leaves with a renewed appreciation for stripped-down stories. “We, as an audience, have come to demand these spectacles,” he said. “This isn’t that. There’s no chandeliers crashing, no helicopters landing on stage. It’s just me, the story, and the audience member.”
When it comes to this show, that’s enough to spook even the most ardent Poe fan.
Top Image: Antonia Stoyanovich