Sunday, Aug 7 2022

FRIGHT NIGHT: The Stage Production

An Interview with Erynn Dalton • by Michael Miller

“Welcome to Fright Night”

With those opening words, Peter Vincent, actor and host of Fright Night, a late-night TV program focusing on B horror movies of the past (such as Octaman, which features one of Rick Baker’s first creations!), graciously  invites us into his world of demonically attractive vampires and their just as attractive and buxom vampiric seductresses, to bear witness, as he dispatches these spawns of Satan, stake held upside down in one hand, hammer in the other. However, Peter Vincent, the Great Vampire Killer, end’s up finding out what it means to confront an actual vampire … or two … or three, when high school student (and lifelong fan of Peter’s films), Charley Brewster, seeks out Peter and his vampire killing expertise to help with a teensy weensy problem; a vampire has moved in next door. A vampire who’s set his sights on Charley’s girlfriend, Amy. 

The 1985 vampire-next-door horror/comedy film, Fright Night, directed by Tom Holland (Child’s Play), was immensely popular amongst horror fans (and still is to this day) and helped usher in similar films, such as 1986’s Vamp (starring Grace Jones) and 1987’s The Lost Boys. Featuring a perfect blend of comedy and horror, along with an incredible soundtrack that includes songs by The J. Geils Band, White Sister, Autograph, and Devo, and an iconic score by Brad Fiedel (The Terminator), as well as jaw dropping special effects (courtesy of FX maestro Steve Johnson), Fright Night manages to have some fun with a few of the common vampire tropes, such as mirrors, holy water and the crucifix (“You have to have faith, for that to work on me, Mr. Vincent!”) but not TOO much fun. The vampires are truly terrifying, and Peter and Charley soon find out that not everything is the same as it is in the movies, particularly when doing battle with the vampire’s watchdog, Billy Cole. 

Fright Night has now joined the ranks of other popular horror films such as The Fly, The Evil Dead, and The Toxic Avenger by being re-introduced to the world as a stage production! Originally adapted for the stage by James Michael Shoberg and officially given a stamp of approval by Fright Night writer and director Tom Holland, Fright Night has been resurrected as an immersive and interactive stage production directed by Erynn Dalton of Infinite Abyss Productions in Fort Lauderdale, FL. Dalton, ( whose credits include director of the upcoming horror anthology Kindling, as well as the upcoming dark comedy, Big Easy Queens) has managed to put together an amazing ensemble of actors (including HorrorHound alum, Jason Hignite!) to bring the fun of Fright Night to a whole new generation of fans! So, sit back and enjoy my interview with this incredibly busy and astoundingly talented director as she discusses what it’s like delving into a world of teenagers, vampires and vampire killers…80s style! 

Welcome to Fright Night…for real!

HorrorHound: Why Fright Night?

Erynn Dalton: It was one of my favorite horror movies in the 80s. I wore out my VCR watching it, I knew every single line, every single song and moment … my teenage friends at the time and I were just obsessed with it! I now run a horror theater and make horror films, and when I read that [Fright Night] was available as a stage play, I flipped out! I found out about it in December and immediately sent an email to the playwright [James Michael Shoberg] asking about what I needed to do to obtain the rights. 

HH: I’ve always felt that Fright Night was perfect for a stage adaptation.

ED: Yes … and no [laughs] It’s challenging anytime you’re adapting a movie to a play. Movies tend to have shorter scenes that quickly cut into the next scene, and the way Fright Night was adapted for the stage, it stays very true to the film, fast transitions and all. With that said, it didn’t matter to us when we were evaluating the script. We were like, “We don’t care! We’re going to make this happen!” [laughs] 

HH: What did you find to be the most challenging aspect of bringing Fright Night to the stage?

ED: The number of locations and the amount of quick scene transitions were initially tough to figure out for our 55-seat black box theater. Just like the movie, the play’s script moves straight from Charley’s front yard to his living room, into the school cafeteria, then to Jerry Dandridge’s front yard, for example. We had to find clever ways to stage those moments while keeping the action moving quickly. Thank goodness we have an awesome set builder (B.A.R. Scenic) and lighting designer (Michael Graham) who helped me create those spaces effectively on our small stage! We also have a spectacular ensemble cast (Christopher Pinto, Cameron Nolan, Willy Le Sante and Brett Watts) who are literally carrying the weight of the show by making quick set changes happen in between the scenes. This show truly requires everything to move like a well-oiled machine for it to be the best it can be.

HH: Is this the first ‘official’ adaptation of a Fright Night stage production?

ED: The playwright also has a horror theater in Pennsylvania and produced the world premiere of Fright Night in 2019, I believe. We are the first outside company to obtain the professional rights to produce it.

HH: I’d read that Tom Holland approved of your stage production! 

ED: Yes! The playwright adapted the film with Tom Holland’s permission, so both he and the playwright, James Michael Shoberg, had to decide if they wanted to grant us the rights to the play. I was so excited when they approved us! Once the show opened and it started garnering critical acclaim, Tom sent out a tweet with one of our reviews congratulating us. It was such an honor!

HH: That had to be a bit surreal for you! 

ED: It was. Tom’s tweet came so unexpectedly. The cast and I were getting ready to go on stage when I received the tweet saying, ‘the real Tom Holland followed you’! And I said “Oh my God, you guys! Tom Holland is following me!” [laughs] And then right after that he posted the tweet congratulating us. All of our jaws were on the floor! [laughs] I’m such a fan of Tom Holland’s work, and it helped shape my views of what makes horror storytelling effectively- I’m sure I’m a horror creator today because of Tom Holland’s influence. Because of that, I wanted more than anything to pay homage to Fright Night on stage, using our own unique style. That’s a tricky balance to strike as an artist who is also a big fan of the original work, but the reward is that, if you pull it off, even the staunchest fans will approve and enjoy the ride with you!

HH: How challenging was it for you to recreate some of the more intensive special effects sequences from the film, such as Evil Ed’s transformation to and from a wolf? 

ED: Oh my gosh, when you asked about the challenges, I should’ve put that as number one! [laughs] The special effects were crazy! The vampire transformations, Evil Ed turning into a werewolf, Billy Cole melting… we really wanted to do justice to those moments that made the movie so cool and unique. Without a huge budget it’s hard to pull things like that off on stage, especially in such an intimate setting where everyone is so close to the actors. Luckily, the actor who’s playing Jerry Dandridge, Andrew King, is also an incredibly talented special effects creator, so he pulled double duty to figure out how to make these effects look great in such an intimate environment. I think the effect I’m most proud of is the melting of Billy Cole- Jason Hignite (who plays Billy) gets drenched in slimy goo that fluoresces when we throw an intense UV light on him. Add some gross melting noises and shrieks of pain from Billy and he becomes a melting, glowing, slimy blob- it rocks! That moment gets applause every night!

HH: That is very, very cool with how you’ve also got that audience participation. I’d read that the club scene is a moment when the audience really gets a chance to participate!

ED: Yes! My company, Infinite Abyss, is known for adding immersive elements to the shows we produce, so whenever possible in Fright Night, we keep the audience on their toes by having actors entering from behind the seats and traveling between the rows. Our audiences know when they come to an Abyss show that they’ll likely be part of the action, and I wanted to find a way to honor the iconic Fright Night club scene by making it really memorable in our show. In our marketing, we encourage the audience to come dressed in their best 80’s clothes to get them “in the mood” and then encourage them to join the actors on stage and dance in the club scene. It usually doesn’t take much prodding- we are lucky to have the coolest audience a theater company could hope for, and they come to our shows ready to experience something unique. 

HH: Who knows? This might become The Rocky Horror Picture Show for this generation! 

ED: That would be amazing!

HH: Let’s talk a bit about your cast members, starting with Matthew Salas as Charley Brewster. Did he have any difficulty evoking the spirit of Charley from the film? 

ED: We are so lucky to have found him! This is our first time working together and he’s been a dream- he’s so professional and talented. With all of the flashy roles in Fright Night like Evil Ed, Jerry Dandridge and Peter Vincent, Charley doesn’t get enough credit for being the driver of the story. He’s the straight man who is constantly in a panic and warning everyone about Dandridge. If Charley isn’t played right, the character can come off as grating and whiny. Obviously, William Ragsdale played Charley beautifully, so the challenge for Matthew Salas is playing Charley in a way that makes him relatable and real, while also not being a carbon copy of Ragsdale’s performance and keeping the show moving. It’s a big responsibility for an actor on stage, and Matthew does a beautiful job with the role. 

HH: How did Andrew King’s Jerry Dandridge stand up against Matthew’s Charley, as far as antagonist vs protagonist? 

ED: One of Andrew’s favorite things is to scare people, and he’s been a scare actor many times (for haunts and escape rooms). He’s also had a lot of movement and fight choreography training, so Andrew was able to help craft some really intense fight stunts for him and Matthew Salas (who plays Charley). Matthew was game for making the fights between Charley and Jerry look as real as possible, so between the two of them, the fight sequences look so scary! At one point, when Jerry attacks Charley in his bedroom, Andrew throws Matthew against the wall and lifts him over his head by the throat. It sounds dangerous, but the move is perfectly safe and looks terrifying! The audience gasps at that moment every night. We could have never pulled that off if Andrew and Matthew weren’t so committed to making their scenes look as believable as possible- they really are a dream team.

HH: You have Joseph Zettelmaier as Peter Vincent. Did he do well with all of the personality changes that particular character goes through throughout his story arc? 

ED: Yes he did! Joseph is a nationally recognized playwright and I’ve produced and directed his scripts previously, but he’s also an incredible stage performer. He lives up in Michigan and we brought him down just to play Peter Vincent. He and I talked a lot about Peter Vincent’s arc, as I think it can be argued that Peter experiences the biggest arc of all the characters. It’s fun working with a playwright/actor like Joseph because his instinct is to examine and understand Peter’s place in the entire story. We both felt strongly that Joseph would make Peter Vincent his own, because Roddy McDowall’s performance is brilliant and it would be wrong to try to duplicate it. Instead, Joseph plays Peter a bit darker and more bitter- we used the spirit of Alan Rickman’s character in Galaxy Quest as the model – a failed actor who has lost his inspiration. 

HH: From what I’ve read about the show, one of the standouts is Tyler Charles Kane as Evil Ed.

ED: Here’s the tricky thing with Evil Ed – you can go a lot of different places with some of these Fright Night characters and get away with it, but you cannot screw up Evil Ed- that would be unforgivable to fans! I’m so proud of Tyler because he’s ridiculously talented and even though he’s young and was unfamiliar with Fright Night, he totally understood Evil Ed’s vibe after our first reading. 
I pre-cast Tyler because I’ve worked with him many times before and knew he would pull out all the stops for this character. His look is different from the film- the stage adaptation focuses more on the idea that Ed is being bullied, so we wanted him to look different from Charley, style-wise. We chose an 80s punk look with spikey purple hair and makeup. While Tyler’s version of Ed is his own, he’s captured the laugh, the wildness and the comedy of the character. Audiences love him! After Ed gets staked by Peter Vincent, we allow him a tender moment with Peter just before he dies. When the lights go to black, the audience always gives a huge round of applause in honor of Ed. Tyler deserves all the applause for his work in this show.

HH: The character of Amy, played by Amanda Ortega, has her own story arc, going from virginal teenager to vampire seductress, to monster. Amy is part of this, I guess, love triangle with her, Charley and Evil Ed. So, again, another difficult role to pull off. 

ED: It is difficult! Like Matthew playing Charley, Amanda has to walk that same tightrope with Amy to make sure she’s true to the character without being unlikeable. Amanda Bearse (the original Amy) did a great job striking that balance, and I think Amanda Ortega’s version of Amy succeeds in that, as well. As a director, I really love working with actors and finding justifications for their actions in the script, asking them things like “Why are you angry here? Why are you throwing the hamburger in Charley’s face? What did he specifically say that triggered you?” You don’t want actions to feel random to an audience (we can’t assume everyone knows the film), and I was lucky enough to have a great actor like Amanda who loves doing character work to make Amy’s feelings seem real and justifiable, which keeps the character grounded.         
We worked hard to find moments of tension between Amy and Evil Ed because the Charley-Amy-Ed triangle has its own story arc, with Amy taking Ed’s place as Charley’s main focus. The playwright added some moments that weren’t in the movie between Amy and Ed, where they are trying to figure out how they’re going to help Charley because they think he’s lost his mind. They have to get over their rivalry and come together to help their friend, and it was fun being able to explore their relationship a little more than the film did.         
I think Amanda has the most fun with Amy’s moments of transformation, starting with the club all the way to the end when she goes full vamp. Amanda is pretty in a girl-next-door way as Amy, but when she begins the transformation after being bitten by Jerry, she becomes HOT. I think every audience member- male and female- falls in love with Amy when she’s bathed in red light on stage, convulsing, hissing at the audience and turning into a vampire. The moment is so cool that even the cast members backstage secretly poke their heads out to watch it happen!

HH: Jason Hignite plays Billy Cole, which is also a tricky role to play because he’s the watch dog for Jerry. However, he’s also got that charming side he shows to any outsiders that try to come in. One particular scene involving Billy makes me curious; were you able to pull off Billy’s ‘melt-down’ scene? 

ED: It was so tough trying to figure that one out! As I mentioned before, that moment has easily become an audience favorite in the show and I’m so happy we could do it justice in our small space with our limited budget!         
In the stage adaptation, Billy Cole’s character has been expanded quite a bit, with more lines and scenes than in the movie. Since Billy is a bigger character in the play, we felt comfortable going in a different direction with the look. Billy is Jerry’s bodyguard, so my thought was to cast someone who looks imposing enough to scare anyone off who might try to get close to them, and that is Jason Hignite. Andrew King, who plays Jerry, is not a small guy, but he is absolutely dwarfed when standing next to Jason on stage! I wanted the audience to be scared of Billy before he even says a word on stage. When Jason does deliver Billy’s lines, though, he sounds downright jovial. I love actors who don’t make obvious choices with sinister characters- Jason’s Billy may be an evil eater of human flesh, but he sure is funny! 

HH: You pulled double duty as not only the director, but you also played the role of Charley’s mother, Judy! 

ED: I did, and up until we opened, I regretted that! [laughs] This show is so big and challenging that the last thing I wanted to do was take the time to learn lines and do character work for Judy, but when I was first casting the show, Joe [Zettelmaier] said, “You HAVE to be in this- it was your favorite movie- just take a small role! Be Judy! You have to do something!” and I agreed. Once we started rehearsals, though, I kept thinking, “Why am I on stage right now?! I need to be watching this and making sure we can pull off this beast of a show!” [laughs] Once we got through tech week, and I trusted that we were in a good place, I was able to let go and get to know Judy and make her my own. Now I’m so happy I did, because sharing scenes with Matthew (Charley), Amanda (Amy) and Andrew (Jerry) has been tons of fun!

HH: It had to be pretty stressful juggling both roles, director and actor. 

ED: It was a lot! Even though I was a trained actor before I became a director and Judy’s role is relatively small, I was constantly directing in my head when I was supposed to be on stage rehearsing as Judy and couldn’t focus on just being in the moment. I was mortified whenever I had to rehearse scenes with Matthew because he’s so great and would deliver a full performance at every single rehearsal and I’d be the slacker calling for Judy’s lines from the stage manager. I’d whisper to Matthew, “I’m totally letting you down right now! I don’t even know my lines yet! I’m so sorry!” [laughs] But he was so sweet about it and believed in me – obviously we pulled it off! 

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Photo credits (in order): 
Jerry Dandridge: Andrew King
Evil Ed Burned: Tyler Charles Kane
Neon Billy: Jason Hignite
Photos by Chris Bare