Keizer director, young playwright combine for digital debut

Director Dakota Saunders runs a virtual dress rehearsal to help his cast prepare for Keizer Homegrown Theatre’s upcoming production of Let the Right One Burn (Submitted).

Dakota Saunders has been in a number of Keizer Homegrown Theater (KHT) productions over the years as an actor. Now, for the first time, he will be in the director’s chair.

Just in time for Halloween, KHT will be putting on a spooky tale called Let the Right One Burn, written by Maeve Z, which is inspired by Julius Long’s 1934 short story The Pale Man.

“It’s a little surreal,” Saunders said of directing his first show. “There’s definitely some pressure that comes with being in the center chair, but it’s been a lot of fun. I have a great team of actors.”

For the second time in as many months, KHT actors will be performing the show over Zoom. Tickets are available by making a donation through the KHT website ( and will be available until one hour before the show begins on each night — an email will be sent with a link to the show on YouTube an hour before show time each day. Show times are at 7 p.m. on Friday Oct. 30 and 9 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 31.

Additionally, there will be five scripted readings on the days leading up to the main event. From Oct. 26-30, KHT will be sharing a variety of different actors reading a 15-minute scary story from numerous volumes and issues of the Weird Tales series. Each reading will be posted on Facebook and YouTube.

“We thought it would be a good way to get people in the spirit of things,” Saunders said. “I’m hoping it stokes the fire of imagination among our audience.”

Let the Right One Burn tells the story of Hazel Whittaker (played by Cassandra McKenna), a young reporter who has been sent to investigate the historic fire of 1938 at the Rosewood Hotel — a fire that started under mysterious circumstances. After meeting the owners of the abandoned hotel, she soon learns that some things are best left forgotten.

Saunders was inspired to bring The Pale Man story to life after reading while simultaneously watching the classic horror movie The Shining. However, the brief tale takes about 10 minutes to read, so Saunders’s goal was to extend the story and make it his own.

“After I read it, there were a lot of things that stuck out to me and I thought it would be really cool to do a show,” Saunders said. “I had a vision for it and I wanted to expand upon that.”

Part of Saunders’ vision was to have the show written specifically for Zoom and to make the dialogue of the show be similar to the movie Unfriended — a 2014 horror film where the entire setting takes place in an online chat session.

“The lack of movement can make it difficult, so we put a lot of focus on emotion and passion and putting emphasis on certain words,” Saunders said. “I am very proud of how the cast has adapted. They are total rockstars.”

To see his vision come to life, Saunders worked with Maeve O’Connor — professionally known as Maeve Z — a 19-year old scriptwriter from Portland who has written scripts for over two-dozen productions.

“Maeve listened and wrote down literally every detail I said and produced, in my opinion, a brilliant piece of theatre,” Saunders said. “She allowed me to build a play of this story. I was blown away by her.”

“Dakota gave me a lot of different ideas and guidelines to work within. The script was a change of pace for me, there’s no way that something like this would have come out of me organically, which is pretty cool. I’m really happy with how it turned out. The tone of the story really sticks with you. There is this lingering dread that will hopefully come across during the show,” Maeve Z added.

Maeve Z, who is currently attending the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York, spent three weeks writing the script. 

“It’s definitely difficult to write a virtual show because, when I lose some of the most important aspects of the theater, I feel like I’ve had a sense taken away. But when you put restrictions on a piece of writing, it gives it room to grow,” Maeve Z said.

As a first-time director, Saunders sought directorial assistance from Loriann Schmidt, who plays the role of Helen, the innkeeper’s wife.

Schmidt has directed multiple KHT shows in the past. With her role as the Theater Arts director at Village Home School in Salem, Schmidt also has experience with directing Zoom productions.

“One of the best pieces of advice I give new directors is to allow the production to find itself,” Schmidt said. “Every show has a personality of its own. The director is there to be the audience and essentially give feedback to the actors. I always try to coach directors to try and let the personality of the show develop and to seek the best expressions of the cast.”

Saunders is thankful for the chance to direct his first show and is looking forward to showing it to the community.

“I am immensely grateful for this opportunity and I am really excited to see how it turns out,” Saunders said.