My fascination with Dracula began when I was 8 or 9. I encountered Bela Lugosi on a local late night horror show, probably “Friday Night Fright.” TV stations bought packages of 16mm Universal Horror movies from the 30s, 40s and 50s and played them until the prints wore out. At Universal, Dracula had a daughter, a son, a house and ultimately met Abbott & Costello. The CBS Late Night movie got into the action in the 70s airing the Technicolor Hammer films starring Christopher Lee as Dracula and I remember reading in the pages of Famous Monsters of Filmland that Lee was fed up with the role because it wasn’t like the book. A book? What book? I found a very thick paperback with no pictures, tried it, gave up and tracked down an illustrated comic book adaptation. It was full of wild adventures, eccentric characters and some very unsettling moments.
I got my hands on Dracula recordings, Dracula comic books, Dracula magazines, and then inspired by a 1973 Disney TV Movie called The Mystery in Dracula’s Castle, where a pair of kids made their own Super 8 Dracula movie, I borrowed my uncle’s movie camera and made a Dracula film of my own.
In Mrs. Denny’s high school English class, the scales fell from my eyes. She spent weeks enthusiastically guiding us through Stoker’s novel, exploring its very modern structure of diary entries, letters and news clippings. This coincided with a four-hour Count Dracula on PBS starring Louis Jordan and featuring the marvelous Frank Finlay as Van Helsing. Stephen King’s literary riff ’Salem’s Lot was on the book shelves. Frank Langella’s performance in a Broadway revival would break box office records, and I eventually saw the show in Los Angeles starring Jeremy Brett. Dracula was everywhere – or so it seemed to me.
In the years that followed, I worked as a screenwriter in Hollywood, where I wrote my own contemporary riff on Dracula, which was optioned but never made, as well as a very faithful four-hour miniseries that suffered the same fate. I was hired to work on a film about the ill-fated voyage of The Demeter, the ship that carries Dracula to England and crashes on the Whitby coast, its crew wiped out by the Count. That film has been through multiple writers and directors but, like Dracula, has neither seen the light of day nor been truly put to rest.
So it was with all of this obsessive baggage and the good fortune to know John Rensenhouse that I was able to pitch my take on a new adaptation of Dracula to the folks at KCAT and UMKC. It is hard not to feel like I’ve been working toward this my whole life. I am positively thrilled to have such a wonderful cast and creative team, the extraordinary resources of the Spencer Theatre and the guiding vision of a director who has played Dracula not once, but in two different productions of the story.
Adapting the novel has brought me back into contact with the elements that first seduced me: Dracula’s malevolent lust for power, the family of friends who stand together against him and, of course, the supernatural spectacle of blood, magic and faith.
Like movies, plays exist in multiple time frames. The time when they are written, when they are set, and when they are performed. Our version uses the text and setting of an Edwardian novel, but its concerns are very much those of the 21st century. Ours is a tale of predation, deception and fear, but also one of friendship, resistance and love.
“Dracula,” by Mitch Brian, is being presented by Kansas City Actors Theatre and UMKC Theatre from October 12 – 21 at the Spencer Theater on UMKC’s campus for only 11 performances. Get tickets and information at www.kcactors.org or by calling the Central Ticket Office at 816-235-6222.