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A-List: Helltrap Nightmare’s Sarah ‘Squirm’ Sherman and Julia Dratel talk comedy and the grotesque

Green Gravel Comedy Festival — Helltrap Nightmare

The Mill — Saturday, May 13, 8:30 p.m., $10-15
Festival Passes $25-45

Illustration by Lev Cantoral

In anticipation of their headlining show at the Green Gravel Comedy Festival on Saturday, May 13 I spoke with Helltrap Nightmare head writer/performer Sarah “Squirm” Sherman and producer/collaborator Julia Dratel as they traveled by van to their next performance on the East Coast leg of their tour. Their overlapping answers (as each jumped into the midst of the other’s sentence) are represented here.

Equal parts performance art and comedy, Helltrap Nightmare provides an exploration into the grotesque and disturbing intended to delight, more than shock, the audience. Tickets to the show at the Mill are $10 in advance, $15 at the door, with all proceeds going to Planned Parenthood of the Heartland.

How would you describe your routine to someone who is too lazy to Google it?

Sherman: It is basically bizarre, haunted-Pee Wee’s Playhouse-character-based, body horror, weird sound shit.

Dratel: The show opens with a sketch that uses a lot of art elements, including video, and it moves on through a series of comedy horror routines. There are at least two musical elements involved. There’s multimedia sketches, a few short comedy pieces, a drag piece and a longer musical/sound act, a break — and then we do it again. It is a series of shorter comedy performances followed by a noise piece.

Is it more art or humor?

Dratel: It’s definitely stand up, but it incorporates visual elements and sound. It is more of a performance art comedy.

Sherman: Helltrap Nightmare explores the grotesque and the female body through sketch comedy. Throughout the format of the show we use humor as a pathway to something more confrontational. There’s violence: The show is reaction against expectations to the female form and incorporates trauma. The grotesque is defiance. It is why we use harsh noise music and noise performers — it is brutal comedy.

How did Helltrap Nightmare evolve into its current form as a touring horror comedy troupe?

Sherman: I started Helltrap and did two on my own.

Dratel: I went to one, and offered to host it in a space she books in Chicago — it worked out well, so we curate it together. It is an organic process … Sarah develops pieces, I handle production.
Sherman: There’s videos, posters, props … Julia likes sound/noise performers who engage with it as a piece, not just as a song.

What kinds of experiences do you believe that your humor opens for your audience?

Sherman: In Chicago, when I started doing stand up two years ago, there wasn’t something like this. I wanted a comedy freak show experience — Chicago has stand up and improv, but there wasn’t an experimental freak show space. Audiences expect to laugh, but also to be horrified. People come to see comedy and are surprised and challenged by the noise music, and music people come to see their friends play and haven’t seen a comedy show — and it introduces people to both things.

Dratel: There’s a lot of judgment coming from either side — comedians who don’t think they’ll like the music, or musicians who don’t like to laugh. It provides a middle ground of confrontational performers. We’ve been doing this monthly for almost a year, and in that time we’re making a new thing — throwing out genre, and making it about a kind of experience. Looking at shows that have been happening, we’re seeing this fusion a lot more often. A lot of comedians use sound in a way that’s interesting — it isn’t normal speech. Noise music has a moment of humor in it — the unexpected.

Is this Brechtian? Do you want to alienate your audience?

Dratel: No: It’s a safe space, a supportive room that isn’t alienating. It’s … to find an audience prepared to turn on that part of their brains, that’s overwhelming but also entertaining. We don’t want it to be alienating at all! It lets comedians try something bizarre.

What kinds of misinterpretations of your work are you wearied of?
Sherman: Alienation … The goal isn’t alienation but showing how these things — bodies — have been alienated from us. Pubic hair doesn’t need to be alienating — it’s on your body.

How important is gender to the show?

Sherman: Not all of the work deals with gender. Gender is really important, but only as my experience as a person with a female identified body … Sometimes collaborators will develop things alongside us … and we like that. We try for every show to have a gender inclusive and diverse show.

Is the form of the show the best way to present the content?

Sherman: We are in a weird space — we’re not a performance art show, and not just a comedy show, and not just a music show. It’s a weird, soupy, sloppy space where people can just figure out — people are ready to laugh, and so you can test jokes and see if they hit.

Dratel: Our best shows are when the mood shuttles between states of overload (whether laughter or fear). For example: Sarah and Scott have a sketch where they’re two children troubling their babysitter until it evolves to their talking about trauma — but still making Austin Powers jokes. It’s one of people’s favorite sketches. And one of the noise musicians — they prepare while Sarah does jokes so there’s something going onstage.

What’s the relationship to politics?

Sherman: It is challenging, transgressive shit. We talked about the election, of course, in November. It isn’t didactic. It’s a politically radical space but it is enacted in terms of how politics affects the body rather than looking at it in terms of ideas. We had a 19-year-old frat boy volunteer — it is like a game show, but one that’s funny. We want to disrupt people’s idea of how the world works.

Dratel: Noise music does that — it creates sensory overload, dangerous thought that puts people’s thought in the same space it was before. We aren’t solely responsible — we book people we hope will be in dialogue.

Is Helltrap both curated and created then?

Dratel: Yes. We create the frame, with an opening sketch (that includes video elements), and then a bunch of comedians have to perform under this larger umbrella. It gives a tone/structure for others to perform within. We also have regulars — in addition to Sarah, the Shrimp Boys are on almost every show. They usually do a five-minute sketch. Scott Eggleston does his own stuff, but appears with Sarah, also. Helltrap Nightmare is a universe of its own — and Shrimp Boys is also dark humor. Hers is a gross-out humor, and theirs deals more with anxiety.

What makes a successful show?

Sherman: This is why I keep harping on this idea of alienation — when we have a successful show, it’s when people have a good time, when people have fun. It’s like a roller coaster that ends up being fun.

Your hope, then, is to have people learn to embrace the grotesque and the body — but what’s the point of laughter?

Sherman: It makes it more comfortable with accepting the horrible shit that happens in the universe. I have a joke about my fear of inheriting my grandmother’s breast cancer. It’s less about breast cancer than an anxiety about bodies. It allows us to explore anxieties in a fun way. It’s great if you have demons.

Daniel Boscaljon spends most of his time reading, writing, thinking and occasionally lecturing. You can hear more of his cultural reflections on his podcast, thesacredprofane.com, and www.humanistinquiries.org. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 220.

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