It’s that time of year again, and everybody’s favorite Mom and Pop horror mavens are at it again. Annually, Charmian Creagle and Sean Lujan, the wife-and-husband team otherwise known as The Reformers, push the envelope of theater while trying to horrify, mystify, and challenge their audiences, often all at the same time.
This October brings one of their most ambitious pieces yet, a project that manages to incorporate such disparate elements as iconic film museum and video store, Movie Madness, “drag clown” icon Carla Rossi, who may or may not actually be in the show, C-grade (at best) ’80s slasher flicks, and The Reformers’ own first foray into filmmaking. They toss all of this into their bubbling cauldron of daring and subversiveness and have come up with something they call /SLASH/ that will be performing at Movie Madness October 13, 14, 20 and 21. They’ll be running four shows a night, each about half an hour, and taking audiences on a journey through Movie Madness, culminating in the climactic film short.
If you know Sean and Charmian (and I do) you know that for them horror — the look of it, the feel of it, its resonance in the human condition — is about something deeper than the latest Hollywood blockbuster laden with jumpscares and CGI. They are special in that horror is part of the glue that holds their relationship together, and always has been.
It’s an aesthetic they enjoy and that expresses something deep-seeded about who they are or who they want to be as people. They’re perfectly pleasant humans to know, but both of them are attracted to – fascinated by – the other plane of existence, the unexplained, the phantom world.
“I enjoy playing in the world of my shadow side,” says Creagle. “I don’t want to live there, I just want to play in it. Like a child plays with dropping a doll off of the edge of a sofa. No harm done, but thrilling to me and my audience.”
The two of them and their children, Duncan and Cleo, are almost the Addams Family of Portland. Their Halloween decorations every year take a back seat to no one. They host an annual or semi-annual Day of the Dead party. And they are The Reformers, a risk-taking, convention-spurning, stereotype-smashing theater company that produces, among other things, a Halloween or horror-themed show every October, oftentimes, right in their own home.
“There is an energy that is around during the month of October,” says Lujan, that is “for things like [/SLASH/], creepy little experiences. We tap into that every time we do a show.”
In recent years they have pared the “company” part down to just the two of them and Cleo, “for as long as she’s interested,” says her mother. (Duncan is less involved, having become more of an athlete.) For each project they bring in artists with whom they have developed a rapport. The simplified version of their structure is that both Lujan and Creagle function as producers, with Lujan focusing on writing and Creagle on directing. The reason for the downsizing was simple: “We found it difficult as a company because we wanted everybody’s voice to be equal,” Lujan says, “and yet, the buck always had to stop with us.” With the new simplified structure in place, Lujan says, “we know what we want the Reformers to be.”
Since their inception, The Reformers have remained restless, searching, ambitious, rarely doing the same thing twice, eschewing anything resembling the traditional trappings of what the public recognizes as theater; playing constantly with form, technique and theatrical vocabulary. In recent years, Reformers productions have taken place in spaces as diverse as a garage, inside a moving van, online, or in an abandoned storefront at the mall, to name a few.
Their aim is to engage as many different senses in as many different methods as they can come up with to tell stories in new and interesting ways. It’s a path strewn with artistic and aesthetic booby traps, to be sure, but a path they tread with audacity, fearlessness, and a not small amount of self-aware humor.
What that is in 2023 looks entirely different from what they were doing when their production of Scott T. Barsotti’s The Revenants exploded onto the Portland theater scene ten years ago. Different, but you can see the same basic principles still at work. They’re still intensely immersive, still finding different ways to explore the relationship between the performer and audience, but now they’re entirely uninterested in conventional, script-driven theatre. “I really want to keep our work more avant-garde, more surreal, more absurd,” says Creagle.
She had been interested in working with Rossi (Anthony Hudson) for years: “I fell in love with them when I saw them MC the Drammy Awards.” She introduced herself and the two talked about the possibility of collaboration. Creagle discovered that Hudson shared her passion for horror, even to the tune of producing their own podcast, Gaylords of Darkness, a highly entertaining, weekly (“every Wednesday when the clock strikes 6:66,”) podcast, whose essential goals, Hudson says, are “to chart the arcane world of horror through a queer lens – with occasional visits from ghouls, goblins and briefcase women from the 1980s.”
A relationship was developed, but actually being able to collaborate was a bit trickier, what with Hudson’s busy schedule and a world-wide pandemic and all. But Hudson did come to see their We’re All Gonna Die, and, according to Lujan, “just absolutely loved it,” and they all agreed that at some point they should work together.
In the meantime, an idea was starting to form in Creagle and Lujan’s collective mind, centered on creating work at the Hollywood Theatre on Sandy Boulevard. However, coordinating that idea around the Hollywood’s own agenda proved complicated.
As the result of an impromptu meeting at a food cart, Hudson’s partner, Jason Davis, a manager at Movie Madness, had the idea of The Reformers exploring their idea at the venerable video icon. Creagle and Lujan were excited about the idea and thought about how to make it unique to Movie Madness. “We wanted to link it to the space,” says Creagle. “There’s no point in doing something site-specific unless the space is somehow connected to the story.”
One of the many things that make Movie Madness special in this age of the internet and streaming is that it has a ton of movies that are difficult, if not impossible, to find through those methods. One example is ’80s horror flicks – especially slasher films.
In the past few decades slasher movies have been one of the more overt cultural spasmings of our collective neuroses. “Slasher films are really a pivotal point for [The Reformers] as horror-lovers,” says Creagle. “Sean’s favorite film is Halloween.”
Initially, The Reformers were considering big-time slasher films such as that John Carpenter classic, but then they hit on the idea they should instead focus on lesser-known flicks that you might only find at Movie Madness. They finally landed on Killer Workout (or Aerobicide, its UK title, 1987); Intruder (1989) which stars Sam and Ted Raimi and the King of Camp himself, Bruce Campbell; and Stage Fright, an Italian slasher film that takes place in a theater and features an owl-headed killer, which will resonate even more with you when you come see the show.
Blending these three films with a plot about The Reformers making their own movie, and AI getting involved, and Carla Rossi (who may or may not appear), in a horror/comedy at Movie Madness is the kind of crazy combination of disparate elements that only The Reformers might attempt, but they brought in a little help. Lujan had met Chris Brantley while working on The Seafarer at Imago, and The Reformers brought Brantley in as cinematographer for their film. Brantley, who has much more experience in film than either Creagle or Lujan, turned out to be invaluable working on the screenplay.
“What I really love about doing horror theater,” says Creagle, “is that it’s not about just the words. It’s about everything else going on around you. It’s the sound, the set, it’s the design, how you do the scares. There are so many characters at play that aren’t just physical humans.”
Whether there will be more films, or longer films, after this one by the Reformers is still up in the air. But for now they are content to keep on making up their own rules as they go along, to keep playing with the boundaries of live theatre or erasing them all together.
“Coming from an avant garde background, we are running from wordiness as an art form,” Creagle says. “We enjoy the sound, movement, set, props, lights and quiet being complete beating heart characters of their own. This is not an art form where you can go without these elements in their fullest forms. And I love making monsters; making monsters for a show gives me so much joy.”
And if the audience gets a laugh or a thrill during that process, that is so much the better.
The Reformers’ “/Slash/”
- Where: Movie Madness, 4320 S.E. Belmont St., Portland
- When: Oct. 13-14 and 20-21
- The Lowdown: Several half-hour shows nightly, a walk-through experience at Movie Madness with 25 audience members per show.
- Tickets: $25, at thereformerspdx.com