These days, the problem with being in the business of telling tales of the macabre and legerdemain is that present reality often eclipses anything you can make up.
Despite this, Clay McLeod Chapman, a Richmond native who during the past two decades has made a niche as an author/performer/playwright/screenwriter in the darker spectrum, is yet undaunted. He returns at 6 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 21, to present selections from his 40-story omnibus of the creepy, weird and amazing titled “Nothing Untoward.” The event is free and open to the public at Carytown’s Chop Suey books.
Clay Chapman presents tales from his book "Nothing Untoward" at Chop Suey Books Feb. 21 and Pumpkin Pie Show monologues Feb. 23-24 at the University of Richmond’s Modlin Center for the Arts. (Image courtesy Clay McLeod Chapman)
He and longtime professional partner Hannah Cheek are also performing monologues from their Pumpkin Pie Show. The series is 20 this year — or about that old. Chapman started these events around 1996, here and in North Carolina, and in New York the next year. “The line feels fairly fuzzy,” he says. “When you get this old you get to pick your own birthday.”
This Pumpkin Pie anniversary performance occurs Feb. 23-24, 7:30 p.m., presented by the University of Richmond’s Modlin Center for the Arts at the Gottwald Playhouse in conjunction with the 5th Wall Theatre.
Just as scary stories get told around campfires to frighten the bejeebus out of you when out in some remote place, the Pumpkin Pie stories propel you from the theater’s dark into a space that seems at first familiar — and then the floor drops out. They are thrill rides of language. Keep your arms and legs in the car while it is in motion.
But these are not stories, really, about ghoulies and ghosties and long-legged beasties, except in the psychological shadows and by metaphorical implication. These are descriptions of people in extremis, who might seem normal but are desperately not. His characters are descended in their way from the luckless residents of Sherwood Anderson’s “Winesburg, Ohio.” That classic is now a century old, but, the isolation and anxiety are all too familiar.
Chapman, in a recent phone interview, explained, “I’m populating a fictional world with characters that are equal parts deplorable, but you can see something there, in some of the cases, that is sympathetic. I see it as a perfect storm of circumstance and fate and maybe a little bit of evil with a lowercase ‘e.’ ”
He makes no secret that in some cases he simply bases his stories on obscure newspaper reports buried beneath the fold and way down in the Metro columns. “I’m trying to find the humanity within these little news briefs about these awful things that happen,” he says.
The collection of “Nothing Untoward” picks up where his first assortment, 2002’s “Rest Area,” leaves off. With about 15 years of material gathered since then, Chapman had plenty to choose from. “It’s either an embarrassment of riches or toxic waste, depending on how you view them,” he says. “One man’s treasure is another man’s trash.”
He says somehow Applause Books was convinced that these are stories while also monologues. “I enjoy that duality of how you can either read them to yourself, [or] they can be read aloud.”
Performer, writer and Richmond native Clay McLeod Chapman (Provided photo)
Chapman's goal is to mix and mesh the stories between the Chop Suey and Modlin Center dates, “So that if by some fighting chance you want to see both, you won’t hear the same ones.” These will come from deep in the back catalog. Where for the Pumpkin Pie show, “We have our reliable warhorses that people like, and we’ll do some of those. I am dragging Hannah [Cheek] down here kicking and screaming. So, we’ll have a blast.”
During his Richmond dates, by day, he’ll visit schools in the region to discuss his trilogy “The Tribe,” which takes the struggle to survive middle school to a different "Lord of the Flies" level. Then by night, he’ll be sharing some “really dark stuff” not intended for younger audiences.
“It’s amazing how at this point I’m very fortunate to balance a career that is equal parts literary, cinematic, comic — the connective tissue being these stories,” he says, and in deadpan continues, “but if people who read 'The Tribe' series then read 'Nothing Untoward,' I might end up in jail.”
Thus, before Chapman is tossed in a dank clink from which there is no chance of rescue, you should take the opportunity to see him. Meanwhile, he’s just as aware as anybody as how genuinely strange things have gotten.
“You just keep the Twitter feed going and make sure there are no missiles in the air,” Chapman says. “Funny thing is, at a certain point, any joke or sarcasm could be foretelling the truth five minutes from now.”