Telling Dark Tales
How to write a frightening play on spec without scaring yourself to death
by Jim Dalglish
Last fall I pitched a play to David Kuehn at the Cotuit Center for the Arts. It would be performed in the Black Box Theater the three weeks leading up to Halloween and it would be a collection of scary, original tales set on Cape Cod - something for adults with a taste for the macabre.
David had previously given the green light for three of my plays at CCftA - Bark Park, Unsafe, and Lines in the Sand. Those had been successful - winning great reviews and a few awards - so I was hoping that he would find it in his heart to take another chance on my work. He liked the concept and put it on the schedule for October 11 - 28, 2018.
I was thrilled. But also a little worried.
When David gave me the go-ahead last fall I had, in fact, not written a single line of dialog of the play. Not a single word, actually: I had no characters, setting, or storyline. I had nothing.
I wanted this play to be a bit of a departure for me - something new. Not that I think any of my plays are necessarily alike. If you have seen any of my previous plays, you might have a problem identifying what defines a Jim Dalglish play. Some people can see the similarities, but I guess my plays are for me like children are to their parents - individual and unique.
What would make this play different?
I wanted to set the play on Cape Cod and feature Cape Cod characters. I wanted them to tell stories set on Cape Cod - new stories accompanied by some fresh takes on the legends of Old Cape Cod. I wanted these stories to help illuminate the fascinating and unique history of the place in a way that was immersive, so that the audience felt that they were being taken back in time. Most of all, I want to show how the history of Cape Cod informs its present.
How to tell the tales?
I decided to explore a variety of story types: legends, myths, tall tales, allegory, contemporary horror, and even throw in some political commentary disguised as Grand Guignol. The stories would feature the Cape’s whaling history, the Pilgrims, its mooncussers, modernistic beach houses, witches, pirates, and politicos. Featured locations would include P’town Harbor, Horseleech Pond, Samuel Smith’s Tavern, the Barnstable Jail, White Cedar Swamp, The Three Sisters Lights, the Nauset Moors, the Chatham Bars Inn, and a certain family compound in Hyannis Port. I also became a little obsessed with Scottish Selkie mythes and I wanted to include them in the mix.
What served as my inspiration?
Before I wrote the play, I spent a few months researching Cape Cod history… its ghost stories, its legends, and the aspects of its culture that have been lost to time. I also drew on my years of living on the Cape and my feelings about what makes this sand spit so special.
For writing inspiration, I spent weeks listening to the recorded tales of Edgar Allen Poe, E.T.A. Hoffmann, Saki, and Hawthorne. I also listened to old radio shows and some contemporary Irish and British ghost story podcasts. Re-reading Conor McPherson’s The Weir and Shining City was also elucidating. It was important to me to figure out the ins and outs of presenting a traditional prose story narrative in a theatrical setting and these all helped immensely.
Overriding it all was my aim was to frighten, shock, educate, provoke, and titillate the audience.
Will it work?
I’m hoping I will be able to take audiences on a five-ticket rollercoaster ride that they won’t soon forget.
The play is called Dark Tales Told on a Cold Autumn Eve and it runs at the Cotuit Center for the Arts from October 11-28.
Check out the CCftA website for more information and tickets.
Dark Tales Told on a Cold Autumn Eve
written & directed by Jim Dalglish
Every autumn during a full moon, Sam lights a fire in the hearth of his old, abandoned tavern deep in the woods of Great Island. It’s a signal for the lost and forgotten souls of Cape Cod to emerge from the shadows to share their tales.
A collection of original stories - mysterious and haunting - of the supernatural world of Cape Cod. Written by the author of CCftA favorites “Lines in the Sand,” “Unsafe,” and “Bark Park.”
A perfect Halloween outing for adults with a taste for the macabre.
Black Box Theater
Cotuit Center for the Arts
Thursday-Saturday at 7:30pm, Sunday at 2:00pm
Tickets $20, $15 for members