"SQUEAMISH, SQUEAMISH, SQUEAMISH..."
Setting the stage: Imagine 30 children chanting SQUEAMISH as Alison Fraser settled into her chair for her Broadway Books First Class guest artist visit last month. The Pre-K and Second Grade students were eager to hear all about her latest theatrical triumph - Alison is currently nominated for several awards recognizing her work, including the Outer Critics Circle Award - in Aaron Mark's one-person horror play SQUEAMISH. During her visit Alison walked them through the overarching themes of the show in child-friendly terms, topping it off with "You actually can have too much of a good thing".
The little ones were fascinated and throughout the conversation brought Alison back to the dark, frightening, exhilarating, heart-pounding mystery evoked by the bloody handprint shown on the poster. She masterfully led the discussion, spending over 10 minutes on the ideas presented in SQUEAMISH.
Children have a desire to be safely scared. They want to push the boundaries, face their fears and know it'll all turn out okay in the end. We all do. Well, except me. I lose my shit in a haunted house but even I realize the benefits of fear.
After Alison's visit they still wanted to talk about the show. They drew SQUEAMISH-inspired pictures and came up with some of their own eye-popping stories. So, I was over the moon when Alison introduced me to Aaron Mark on Opening Night of CHILDREN OF A LESSER GOD. At the after party I talked with Aaron about the children's reaction to his play and he was intrigued. I extended an invitation to him to come and talk to them about his work. He accepted on the spot!
We decided it would be too challenging to find an appropriate snippet from one of his plays to read aloud so we found the next best thing. He would read three German cautionary tales - THE STORY OF LITTLE SUCK-A-THUMB, THE DREADFUL STORY ABOUT HARRIET AND THE MATCHES and THE STORY OF AUGUSTUS WHO WOULD NOT HAVE ANY SOUP - from STRUWWELPETER (Shockheaded Peter). The second graders were already familiar with suck-a-thumb and the great tall tailor so I knew they could handle them (it turns out they thought the stories were either funny or terribly sad). After Aaron's reading of poor Harriet (who is reduced to ashes after playing with matches) we had to take a break for a fire drill. Coincidence?
I couldn't wait to go back to school to tell the young horror show fans that AARON MARK himself was coming to visit them. And their reactions when I did? A gasp, wide eyes, open-mouthed smiles and words of happy disbelief. A week-long study of Aaron and his work followed as we prepared for his visit.
The children decided on three questions...
1. How do you come up with your plays without scaring yourself?
2. How many shows have you written and what was your favorite?
3. When did you start directing and why?
We were ready but I sensed that although the students were excited it was tinged with a bit of trepidation. Some children expressed that they thought he might be "creepy" or scary. The dark side of me wanted to tell him to arrive in costume and run into the room laughing BWAHAHAHAHA! But alas, he did not.
As a matter of fact, after he settled into his chair - as Alison did the month prior - we showed them a picture of Aaron in Second Grade. This was a genius move for who could be frightened by adorable little Aaron? The picture set the friendly tone, "He's just like us". And off we went!
So, how does he come up with plays without scaring himself? He doesn't! He writes about things that frighten him. After all, we are generally frightened by things we don't understand so facing them head-on is one way to take away their power over us. And when another student asked, "How do you know it's going to scare people?" Aaron said he sometimes gets it wrong. Things he thinks will make the audience cringe in fear is seen as hilariously funny OR something he thinks is funny and no big deal at all has the audience covering their eyes.
This led into a discussion of the writing process. A writer keeps writing, trying out different things, getting feedback from others, seeing what works and what doesn't work and learning from it all. This understanding is something we are trying to instill in our students. As Aaron said, "Writing is rewriting".
Next, Aaron talked a bit about his play EMPANADA LOCA. It was inspired by THE LEGEND OF SWEENEY TODD so once again he had to tread carefully. Those who could read between the lines caught on to the ingredients of the empanadas but it went over the heads of most of the children (I think). We even touched upon Greek Mythology with his play ANOTHER MEDEA. His fourth offering in the "scary one-person play" series is on the way!
We wrapped up the Q&A by talking a bit about his directing experience and discovering there were five people in the room who have a twin. We ended the visit, as always, with gifts. The children signed a copy of STRUWWELPETER for him and Aaron was the first recipient of a black Broadway Books First Class t-shirt.
Thank you Aaron for spending the morning with us (and for bringing Abby). And thank you Alison Fraser for the introduction.
Broadway Books First Class