ORLANDO — If you’re of a certain age, you probably remember how wildly popular the occult soap opera Dark Shadows was in the 1960s, when vampire Barnabas Collins brought mayhem to coastal Maine.
If you’re younger, you might think of Johnny Depp playing Barnabas in director Tim Burton’s 2012 comedy/horror remake of the series.
Either way, you get the concept: traditional soap opera is upended as the cast and crew deal with vampires, ghosts and witches rather than teen pregnancy, junior announcing he’s gay and dad sleeping with his secretary.
A play with a rather Dark Shadows-esqe premise is on its way to the Orlando International Fringe Theatre Festival next month. Titled Black Wood, the show by playwright Steve Schneider is set in 1967, and follows actress Caroline Logan as she joins the cast of TV’s top supernatural-themed soap opera — and immediately finds that network censors (this was the 1960s, don’t forget) are a problem. And then there’s this vampire, you see ….
What is the Play Black Wood All About?
Schneider, bringing his sixth production to Orlando Fringe, called Black Wood “a hilarious and sometimes poignant new comedy” that takes a behind the scenes look at daytime soap productions.
“On a basic level, it wouldn’t be wrong to say that Black Wood is to the old Dark Shadows series what Laughter on the 23rd Floor and My Favorite Year were to Your Show of Shows,” he said. “It’s a comedy about the pressures of putting on a regular TV broadcast in the early days of the medium.
“But it’s also a character study about six people thrown together at a seminal moment in time,” Schneider added. “While they’re struggling to put on a micro budget daytime drama about vampires, ghosts and witches, these folks have to weather sweeping social changes – some of which they see coming, and some of which they don’t.”
Schneider first presented the play last August during a reading at the Starlite Room at Savoy Orlando. The Fringe production is the play’s first full staging, courtesy of director David Russell, president of Sak Theatre Company and a veteran of numerous Mad Cow Theatre productions.
“This production is a confluence of several wonderful elements for me,” Russell said. “I have loved the previous productions written and produced by Steve. Now I get to collaborate on one, and it’s an opportunity to get back into the Fringe fold, having been only a spectator for the past several years.”
And the references to Dark Shadows didn’t hurt, either, he added.
“I was enthralled with Dark Shadows as I was growing up,” Russell said. “I even took the name of the lead vampire, Barnabas Collins, as my confirmation name. Turns out Barnabas is a Saint as well.”
The cast includes Melanie Leon, Holland Hayes, James Honey, J.D. Sutton, Shami J. McCormick and
Intrigued, Freeline Media reached out to Steve Schneider to learn more about his production.
How Did This Play Get Developed?
Freeline Media: While writing Black Wood, were you initially inspired by childhood memories of the soap Dark Shadows?
Steve Schneider: The play is definitely inspired by Dark Shadows, although my childhood memories of it are relatively few, given that the show terrified me! My grandfather had to sit next to me on the sofa and hold me while I watched, and even then I couldn’t always get through it. I was little, and spooky stuff just petrified me. But as I grew, I caught up with the series in reruns when I could, and then on home video. And I really enjoyed the remake that aired on NBC in the early 90s.
The play is also inspired by My Scrapbook Memories of Dark Shadows, a book actress Kathryn Leigh Scott wrote a few decades ago. But I deliberately didn’t reread the book or re-watch the show while writing the play, because I was much more interested in building on my memories of them than on what they actually contained.
FM: It sounds like the play is also about how putting together a TV series has changed dramatically since the late 1960s. Is that correct?
Steve: It definitely touches on that. If anything, we exaggerate the difference by having our soap opera be one that is broadcast live every afternoon. Dark Shadows never really had to do that; they went to tape first. But they were under such time and budget pressure that all but the most catastrophic mistakes made it to air. It was easier and more dramatic to depict Black Wood as a show whose goofs were experienced in real-time by the cast and audience alike.
FM: You mention your characters also dealing with sweeping social changes going on in 1967 ….. similar, would you say, to what’s happening in the country today?
Steve: In a way, I guess. That wasn’t my overt intention, but I think everything you write is always really about what’s happening to you at the present moment. Even if what you’re writing is a period piece that’s ostensibly about other people.
If anything, the social context of this play was just organic. Once you have a story taking place in 1967, you’re going to be dealing with a lot of cultural currents flowing in various directions, even for people who are sequestered within the fairly insular confines of a TV studio. It was just natural to wonder how a group of supposedly liberal East Coast show-business types would be reacting to the upheavals going on nationally.
FM: You had a staged reading at Savoy last August. Has the play evolved since then?
Steve: I’d say the changes have been relatively few but hopefully significant. It’s always interesting to solicit opinions of your work while it’s in progress. Some people have very useful suggestions for helping you realize your vision; others might have ideas for a potentially very interesting show that doesn’t happen to be the one you want or need to write.
But audience feedback helped me put a cap on some scenes and plot threads that in retrospect really needed it. Our friend Douglas Houston contributed a line of dialogue that was so good I knew right then and there it had to be in the show. In fact, it’s probably one of the best lines in the play, and it resolves a subplot that I didn’t even think could be resolved. Thanks, Doug!
FM: You have a large, spacious stage in the Gold Venue at the Orlando Museum of Art. Are you planning to take full advantage of that?
Steve: To the extent we can and is appropriate for the material. This is the first play I’ve written that I envisioned being performed on a proscenium stage instead of a 3/4 thrust, so it’s nice to actually have the former. But this show is really driven by the characters and the dialogue. I’m trying to avoid the temptation to gussy it up unnecessarily, just because the environment says we could.
After my show Escape From Baldwin Park was a big hit in 2014, I almost fell into the trap of thinking everything I did had to be equally elaborate just because the public now expected it of me. There was a period early in the writing of my next show, The Wait List Murders, where I found myself wondering where I could work in big props and video, since those elements had been part of what made Baldwin Park work. But I quickly realized that the show I was now writing didn’t need them, and that any attempt to incorporate them would have felt forced and inappropriate. Since then, I’ve been pretty good about just letting every show be what it is, no more and no less.
Something else to remember is that, as depicted in our script, Black Wood is a really low-budget TV show that was put together half a century ago. So a very elaborate production on our part might run the risk of short-circuiting that central gag. Overall, we want the thing to look just cheap enough to be funny. And that’s an approach I’ve tried to carry over into our posters and other marketing as well.
Black Wood is being presented in the Gold Venue inside the Orlando Museum of Art. Shows are at:
* 8:45 p.m. on Thursday, May 16
* 3 p.m. on Saturday, May 18
* 10:45 p.m. on Wednesday, May 22
* 1:45 p.m. on Saturday, May 25
* 10:45 p.m. on Sunday, May 26.
Tickets are $12 (Fringe buttons are required for entry). All seats at the Wednesday, May 22 show are just $6.
Tickets are now on sale at Orlando Fringe.
For updates about the play, visit their Facebook page.
To order merchandise, advertise with the show or donate to the production, visit Black Wood.
Michael Freeman is an Orlando journalist, playwright and author of the book “Of Cats And Wolves.” Contact him at Freelineorlando@gmail.com.