Forget werewolves, aliens zombies and creatures from the black lagoon. The real monsters are lurking within and among us. With Scary Stories to Save Your Life, About Face Youth Theatre taps into horrors more terrifying than anything your basic scary movie franchise is apt fo crank out.
"There [are] no witches, no Frankensteins, no exorcisms," said youth ensemble member Via Haman, a freshman theater/psychology major at the University of Illinois, Chicago. "When I was writing my piece for the show, I was thinking about the day after the 2016 presidential election." Haman's "Help"one of 12 playlets in the productioncenters on a young person abandoned to the locked ward of what could be a "conversion therapy" unit.
Opening Saturday, July 14, at Center on Halsted, the Scary Story one-acts run about 10 minutes each. The 13-to-24-year-old playwrights set their stories in banal places: Hospitals, high schools, offices, homes. What transpires in these ordinary settings will leave you with a sense of unease ranging from pleasantly tingly to pass-the-Xanex.
Director Donny Acosta, 27, began working with the 10-member ensemble last October, leading weekly three-hour workshops that segued into rehearsals as the months went on. He started with a writing prompt.
"I asked everyone what their anxiety would look like if it were a monster," the Orange County native and veteran queer performance artist said. "If you could write a letter to your anxiety what would you say?" Acosta said.
Given the topics at hand, making the rehearsal room a safe space was an imperative.
"There's no room today to be uneducated about what's going on around us," said Haman. "But being educated can be scary, and we got really deep into some really scary things. There was a lot of hugs and a lot figuring out how to do self-care," they said.
Peruse the script and the necessity of a debriefing process becomes clear. In "Trust," social media takes a turn for the profoundly sinister. In "Red," life in an office turns bloody. In "Skin" a superficially "revitalizing and noble" political slogan is stripped down to its weaponized, deadly bones.
In sharing, the youths found solace and common ground. Haman, for example, related to "Red" and its take on traditional business culture.
"I had a job at the East Bank Club," they said of the upscale River North sports/spa/dining facility. "I was one of two out queers in 600 employees. We'd complain to each other about the gendered bathrooms and feeling invisible. We were working in a space that wasn't meant for us. That can make you anxious."
Acosta can relate. "Before I came to About Face full-time I worked as a shift supervisor for an online grocery delivery service. The atmosphere was super masculine and misogynistic. I had to be super careful about how I acted, what I said," he said.
Haman has been writing on Scary Stories' themes long before getting involved with the production. Their college entry essay was about being a non-binary person in a binary world. Haman's not one for labels. "I have never felt a connection to womanhood or manhood," they said. "There is So. Much. In. Between. I'm a person. I feel great as a human."
"I hope the play starts a dialogue," they said. "I hope it makes people more aware. It's like 'hey, there are humans being marginalized oppressed. What are you going to do about it?'"
Within the horrors of Scary Stories, Acosta said, there is truth and power. "As queer performers, we aren't represented a lot. Or when we are, it's as the sassy gay best friend. Or the tragic guy with Aids. The chance to tell our own personal stories through our lenses is empowering. "
And all the right kind of scary.
Scary Stories to Save Your Life runs July 14-22 at the Center on Halsted, 3656 N. Halsted St. Tickets are $20 or pay-what-you-can; visit AboutFaceTheatre.com .