It was supposed to be a lark. My wife and I were in the middle of a busy Friday evening, but The Pumpkin Pie Show: Commencement was supposed to be pretty short. I knew the writer, Clay McLeod Chapman, from a skit show I was periodically working on with the Rapid Response Team. The idea behind Rapid Response was to create short plays based on breaking news stories from the previous week and Chapman’s contributions were always standouts: dense but lively monologues plumbing possible motivations driving people who all too often come off as ciphers in news stories.
So sure, I liked Clay’s stuff, and sure, Sandy and I had a window of time to see a short show that particular Friday night in 2009. So why not, right? We were running late and almost missed it, but Chapman—who was also running the door—found a way to squeeze us into the overstuffed Theater Under St. Marks to watch his longtime collaborator Hanna Cheek perform that year’s installment of his long-running Pumpkin Pie Show.
When the show came down an hour or so later, I could barely walk. And not just because I’d been sitting on a radiator. Commencement was an astonishing achievement. A one-person show about a school shooting, Commencement told its story through three monologues, all performed by Cheek, from the perspectives of 1) the mother of the shooter, 2) one of the victims, and 3) the mother of that victim. The show led to one of those marvelous moments of theatrical transcendence, as the three women’s voices came together at the climax in a natural, unforced synthesis that was heart-piercing without straining to be so. Cheek did not change costume between the monologues, but wore the same plain white outfit throughout. Nor did she strive for an Ullman/Leguizamo-style showy virtuosity; instead, using Chapman’s carefully delineated language, she differentiated the women through three subtle, meticulous performances. I left 1) devastated and 2) a Pumpkin Pie Show fan for life.
Which makes me something of a Johnny-come-lately. Chapman coined the term “Pumpkin Pie Show” in 1994—his sophomore year of high school—as the title of a self-published literary anthology. Chapman’s contribution was the story of a man who mistakes his killer chimney for Santa Claus before the chimney devours his entire family. (While Chapman’s subsequent Pumpkin Pie writings didn’t often draw upon the supernatural, the theme of self-deception would return again and again.) In the years since, the PPS has become one of downtown New York theater’s best-kept secrets—a cult success that loyal fans eagerly await every Halloween. As Chapman prepares to bring the show back this month for a three-night victory lap entitled Halloween All-Stars (featuring some of the series’s most successful pieces and boasting a superb lineup including Chapman, Cheek, Kevin Townley, Abe Goldfarb and Brian Silliman)—it’s worth taking a look back at where it all started.
As a senior at the North Carolina School for the Arts, Chapman discovered quickly that he wasn’t cut out for acting in the conventional sense. “One of my acting instructors, God bless her, suggested I try writing my own roles rather than murder characters written by others.” Where another actor might have been crushed, Chapman simply booked a theater and wrote an evening of monologues. On Halloween of 1996, The Pumpkin Pie Show— described by Chapman as “part storytelling session, part boxing match, and part shamanistic ritual”—was born.
It also launched Chapman’s tradition of performing the PPS on or near Halloween. While the show is rarely a horror anthology in the conventional sense, the stories his characters tell lean toward the twisted and the unsettling, eschewing ghosts and vampires in favor of chronicling unpleasant deeds carried out by disturbingly relatable people. In 2010’s PPS: Amber Alert, Cheek portrayed a teacher of special needs students sitting down for a conference with the parents of one of her students. The piece lures us into a trap: we sympathize with a woman juggling a sensitive, high-stress job with a brutal ongoing divorce, so that by the time the true nature of her relationship with the student is revealed, our response goes deeper than simple prurient shock. We realize with horror that we understand how she got there. The piece closes:
You have to understand—your son has given me back the belief, the confidence that I am somebody special. My feelings matter too. That’s what Connor’s taught me. I didn’t even realize I’d given up on ever getting that happiness back, settling for less in my life.
These intentionally bland bromides are what the teacher clings to in the wake of the appalling thing she’s done, and it’s all too easy for any of us to recall or imagine a time we justified hurting another through this particular brand of narcissism: “I’m special. My feelings matter too.” In another Amber Alert piece, performed by Chapman, a theoretically reformed pedophile allows himself to return to his predatory ways while pretending that’s not what he’s doing. As he sits in a car with a young girl, he thinks, “And with every second, with every breath, I’m checking in with myself, as if to say—See? See how in control I am? See how easy it is for me to hold myself back?” In the universe of the Pumpkin Pie Show, the most dangerous thing in the world is the human mind’s ability to tell itself a deceptive, self-justifying story.
When Chapman brought the show with him to New York in 1997, one of the first elements he added was live music. PPS performers have been joined onstage over the years by punk bands, cello quartets, and even a marching band and cheerleading squad (for the 1996 high school-themed installment Junta High). “I always thought of the Pumpkin Pie Show as more of a band than an actual ‘play,’” Chapman says. “Each band brings a pretty distinct aural heft to the text for that particular show.” In 2011’s Lovey Dovey, Chapman and Cheek were joined onstage by Sky-Pony, a band led by Chapman’s frequent collaborator Kyle Jarrow.
Chapman met Cheek at Sarah Lawrence some years before they became PPS collaborators. A lifelong fan of horror films, Chapman was immediately drawn to the girl wearing the C.H.U.D. T-shirt (referring to the 1984 underground cannibal thriller directed by Cheek’s father Douglas Cheek, later the subject of a disturbingly hilarious PPS piece). Four years later Cheek was living in Los Angeles when Chapman contacted her and asked what it would take to get her to return to New York. “I told him, ‘A show,’” Cheek recalls. “I think someone had actually bailed on him, an actress was supposed to do the PPS and backed out, so I grabbed that slot and ran with it. For 10 years.”
I asked Cheek to account for the longevity of her collaboration with Chapman, given that both remain busy with other pursuits as well. “The Pumpkin Pie Show is the grounding element of my career,” Cheek says. “At least once a year we get to dive into the psyches of fascinating, sometimes evil, often damaged characters and bring them to life, make them relatable. His gift of writing characters that you wouldn’t think you want to hear from lines up perfectly with my desire to act them out and give them voice.”
Over the years, the PPS has varied its format to include multi-performer shows, two-person shows, a band, even knife-throwing—and content has ranged from serial killing to human experimentation during the Holocaust and the spread of venereal disease among both high school wrestlers and senior citizens. I’ve found myself wondering: what elements do Chapman and Cheek consider essential for an evening of monologue performances to merit that name?
Chapman points to certain governing aesthetics:
We’ve steered clear of costumes and sets, for the most part, for the entirety of the show’s existence. I like starting from a near-sanitized blankness. One of the ways we achieve this is by wearing a certain “uniform”: white button-up shirts and khaki pants. It’s such a bland, clean slate onstage that the audience has no idea what kind of character will come launching out from the performer until they begin performing.” Thematically speaking, Cheek notes, “The common factor in every PPS is that the audience is given the opportunity to really identify with each character, whether they want to or not. Sinner or saint, the character slowly unfolds and by the time it’s over you can’t deny having identified with them. It’s what we go to theater for in the first place.
To attend a Pumpkin Pie Show is to be powerfully affected by this intersection of form and content. As an audience member, the experience is one of spending time in a small room with an unpredictable person. Stripped of much of the artifice of theater, the characters don’t seem all that distant from you. There’s no production design buffering the distance between performer and audience. So, as Chapman’s characters begin to talk, as they spin out their terrors and their justifications, the sense I most frequently have is that there’s no escape. I’m going to have an encounter with this strange person and I won’t be able to mitigate in any way how that encounter will affect me.
This is clearly intentional. PPS, as Chapman explains, “has its roots in medicine shows and tent shows, those fire and brimstone revival meetings where there’s a charismatic preacher hooting and hollering his way through his sermon, while keeping as hands-on with his audience as humanly possible.” This intimate contact naturally requires an intimate space: “I don’t know if the show would do well in a large venue. The whole point to the Pumpkin Pie Show is that we can see the whites of our audience’s eyes and they can see the sweat rolling down our brow. It’s fragile enough to collapse with an apathetic crowd, but man does it ever blow the roof off when there’s an audience ready and willing to go along for the ride.”
This month, you have your chance to go along for the ride. Three nights in a tiny theater means there can’t be that many seats to go around. This recommendation is as genuine as any I can offer you: snap up one of them and see how much Chapman, Cheek, and their collaborators create out of so little. This, after all, is theater at its core. As Chapman explains: “You start with an empty stage, an empty vessel, a vastness that has no shape, no definition and limitless potential—and from that vast expanse comes everything.”
The Pumpkin Pie Show: Halloween All-Stars runs from October 26 – 28 at the Theater Under St. Marks. For more information and tickets, visit claymcleodchapman.com