interview with Scot Burklin & Jeff Griffith
Published : 30th August 2006
Nicolas Botti: Can you present us the cast and crew who work on the play?
Scot Burklin: We’ve been very fortunate in being able to assemble a pretty phenomenal cast and crew. Just to name a few highlights, our producers, Helen Harwell, Amy Buffington, and Julie Quinn are responsible for a number of the award winning and highly successful shows in our company’s history. And our executive producer, Taylor, is also the company’s founder and couldn’t be more supportive of the project. Our set designer, Desma Murphy, has won numerous awards for her work and our cast features some incredible resumes. For instance, if you’ve played a video game in the last 5 years, chances are you’ve heard the remarkable voice work of James K. Ward who plays Sergeant Gilks. I could go on and on, but it’s probably easier for folks to visit us at http://www.dirkusa.com for a more complete run down of everyone involved.
NB: How did you discover Douglas Adams’ work in the first place?
SB: I had friends that had been telling me to read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy since I was in middle school. I was already a huge fan of similar styles of comedy work, like Monty Python, but for some reason I just stayed away from Adams. Then, in high school, my parents bought me the entire trilogy, (which I think, at the time, was four books). I’ll never forget my mom coming in to my room to see if I was ok, as I was laughing so hard she could hear me on the other side of the house. And the love just grew from there.
Jeff Griffith: I had a friend recommend the book The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy when I was in High School. I laughed out loud, which was a very unusual experience for me while reading (not so unusual while at funerals, oddly). Obviously the book is funny, irreverent, and blisteringly clever—but I really loved the way that Douglas Adams could throw in very dark and very deep commentary on people, government, and religion without giving any sense that he was preaching to you.
NB: Your work is based on James Goss and Arvind Ethan David’s play “Dirk” staged for the first time in Oxford during the nineties. How did you discover this play?
SB: Sometime around 1999 or 2000, I was searching the web to see if I could find information on the script to the stage play version of Hitchhikers. At some point, I probably typed in “Douglas Adams Stage Play” and lo and behold, a site popped up for Dirk, (I believe it was a site that James Goss created/maintained). I remember thinking, “That’s cool, but not was I was looking for” and I filed it away in the back of my head. A little over a year ago, a different project that Jeff and I were trying to get off the ground fell through. I remembered the “Dirk” site and thought, “What the heck? I’ll try to track down a copy of the script and see if the performance rights are available”. James’ site was no longer operational, so I had to track it down through Archive.org. From there, I was able to get James’ name and a Google search later I discovered he was now with the BBC cult television division. When I e-mailed him he was impressed, (and perhaps a bit disturbed) that I had gone to such lengths to track down a copy of the script. He e-mailed it to me, we established a performance rights contract with Ed Victor, Ltd., and the rest, as they say, is history. And while on the subject, I’d just like to add that Arvind, James, and Grainne Fox at Ed Victor, Ltd. have been absolutely fantastic in their help with making this production a reality. We wouldn’t be where we are now with the play without their support and assistance.
NB: This play was first a student production. How can you explain its success through the years?
SB: I think one of the major factors is that it is some of the only tangible media that exists beyond the novels. Hitchhiker’s had the novels, the radio show, the TV series, and the feature film. I even played the text adventure on my Commodore 64 in high school. With the “Dirk” series, there aren’t really a lot of other forms of media that exist. The play gives the Adams fan base an opportunity to actually see Dirk’s world come to life. And it’s pretty damned funny to boot, which doesn’t hurt.
JG: Without detracting from James and Arvind’s contributions, I would have to say that its success is found in the quality of the original material. The characters are fleshed out very well, they’re likeable and interesting, their interactions are entertaining, and the basic story is compelling. This gives us a great starting point for quality theatre (which James and Arvind had vision enough to recognize and act on).
NB: Goss and David wrote several versions of this play, improving it with the years. Is your version a new one? Did you change some parts of it?
JG: Essentially, the script is the same, though I did ask to tweak the location of a few scenes including where the intermission falls in the play. However, like any stage production, the differences are found in the staging and interpretation itself. This is where I think we can add new level of polish.
NB: In several versions of the play, there was computer graphics sequences included and projected on a screen above the scene. Will you use some?
JG: We’re using a large amount of semi-interactive projected media that will allow us to span 4 billion years, travel through time, murder people, and turn some lights on and off when we want. Most sets/locations will be projected images with some embedded video or animation to make them come to life. We also have access to technology that we feel, allows us to handle some of the visuals and sight gags in ways that might not have been possible in past productions. If all goes according to plan, I think we should have a pretty cool looking show (stay tuned).
NB: How much work is needed to produce a play like Dirk? Is it more difficult than a more traditional play?
JG: I guess beyond the multimedia and all the complexities inherent in that, the play at its core isn’t any more or less difficult than a traditional play.
SB: The primary difficulty to me was overcoming the technology hurdle. This is the first stage production I’ve ever worked on where we basically had to create “proof of concept” demonstrations, (for both our company’s artistic board AND ourselves) to convince those involved that our vision of how we would present the show was achievable. But, as Jeff said, once you get beyond those hurdles, it’s fairly similar to the process we’d go through to mount ANY show.
NB: Do you think that Douglas universe is rather difficult to put on stage? Not too many problems with the complicated storyline?
JG: I admit that the mystery of DIRK turns out to be a bit convoluted. The idea of the show is to have many seemingly random and non-connected events all plug into the central mystery. But the clues you are given throughout the show tend to have little to do with the actual solution—which I think is essentially the joke of it. I think the biggest challenge of putting on a Douglas Adams play (or movie for that matter) is capturing that magic quality he has of establishing the spirit of the world he creates. Read this excerpt from DIRK GENTLY’S HOLISTIC DETECTIVE AGENCY: “You see what I have done?” (Dirk) asked the ceiling, which seemed to flinch slightly at being yanked so suddenly into the conversation. Anthropomorphizing the ceiling in this way is so uniquely Adams. It’s unexpected, it’s charming, and it’s a bugger to try to emulate outside the narrative of a novel.
SB: Jeff summed it up pretty well. So much of Douglas’ brilliance as a writer lies in character thoughts and character and situation description. And that’s the exact sort of thing that’s a real bear to put in front of an audience. That being said, Arvind and James did a fantastic job of pulling those moments out of the novel in a way that allows you to show them on stage, whether it be through dialogue or action.
NB: Which are the most difficult parts of the play to put on stage?
JG: For those familiar with the story, the most challenging thing to stage has been Gordon’s drive, his “accident”, and his immediate “return”.
NB: Will you get a real horse to put in the bathroom and did you succeed to find a real electric monk and a Dodo?
JG: No real horses or Dodos were used in this production of DIRK. Marvelous creatures, though… And the Electric Monk was the only one who ever believed he was real, anyway.
NB: How would you describe Dirk Gently’s character and the universe of the play?
SB: How much time do you have? Seriously, though, to say the character of Dirk is challenging for an actor is putting it mildly. I tend to focus less on how my characters refer to themselves during the course of a show and more on how OTHER characters describe them. It tends to give you a more realistic and unfiltered view of how the character behaves outwardly. The problem with Dirk is that no one ever seems to be sure if he’s behaving seriously or just having everyone on and getting extremely lucky in the process. The Dirk Gently Wikipedia entry goes so far as to actually refer to him as a “con man”, (but Wikipedia is made up of user submissions, so for all I know it also claims that he is 900 feet tall and possesses radioactive laser vision). I think to simply refer to him as a con man is inaccurate and somewhat dismissive of the character.
Without going into TOO much detail, the view that Jeff and I have arrived at is that he was probably about as mundane as a human being could possibly be at University. In order to improve his social standing, (and to just plain get some damned attention) he concocted a number of ludicrous claims about his background and his abilities. The problem came when one of his “claimed” abilities actually manifested itself, causing him to spend a considerable amount of time in prison and changing his outlook on the potential for such things. His agency is not so much a front for a con, but more a manifestation of his true holistic belief that somehow all mysteries will eventually resolve themselves to him, as everything in the universe is interrelated.
JG: My short answer would be that DIRK is a sort of grounded, real-world cousin to Hitchhiker’s Guide. It’s not as absurd, but it’s definitely a Douglas Adams world.
SB: Special thanks to Jeff for providing a short answer after my long winded one.
NB: Of course your play is still a work in progress, but which are the main problems, achievements and big decisions you made till now?
JG: We knew early on that we wanted to go with as much multimedia as we could. How to exactly achieve that on our budget in this non-Broadway level of theatre was our single largest hurdle (and a subtle second was that all of us are experienced in traditional theatre, so dealing with multi-media was going to involve a learning curve for us as well). We had the great fortune to gain access to a very impressive video server system called Maxedia. It’s through the Maxedia system that we’ll be presenting all of our multimedia.
NB: Which are your ambitions with this play? SB: I would be thrilled just to present something that the fans enjoyed and felt was true to the spirit of Douglas. Oh, and I’d also like to make a billion-trillion dollars so I can purchase some sort of atomic powered rocket car.
JG: Personally, I’d just like to have a fun ride and make a fantastic show. And then win many awards, garner fame and wealth, and be asked to work on a sequel.
NB: There has not been a stage production of Hitchhiker’s guide to the galaxy for years now (since Disney bought the rights). Would you consider to make such a production if it was possible?
JG: Yes, please.
SB: Ford Prefect has been on my “dream role short-list” since first reading the novels in high school so what Jeff said. And, on a somewhat related side note, I was a frequent visitor to your h2g2 movie site when the Hitchhiker’s movie was being made which demonstrates, as Dirk would put it, “The Fundamental interconnectedness of all things”.
NB: Can you tell us more about your company which celebrate this year its 15 years?
SB: The Road Theatre Company is a non-profit corporation that produces theatre under the Actor’s Equity Association 99-Seat Plan. We’ve enjoyed an amazing fifteen-year history, during which our main stage productions have been honored with 9 “Critic’s Choice” selections from the Los Angeles Times, 4 “Pick of the Week” selections from L.A. Weekly, 11 “Critic’s Pick” selections from Back Stage West, 61 Valley Theatre League Artistic Director Achievement (ADA) Awards, 8 Drama Critics Circle Awards, 4 L.A. Weekly Awards, 5 Robby Awards, 32 Back Stage West Garland Awards “Critics Citations,” and 14 Ovation Awards. Additionally, the company was awarded the 1998 Drama Critics Circle’s prestigious Margaret Harford Award for Sustained Excellence in Theatre 2003 Back Stage West Landmark Award for Sustained Excellence in Theatre.
In addition to producing exciting and thought-provoking theatre, we are also the administrating organization for the Lankershim Arts Center, a community arts center that provides over 60 hours of arts programming per week at a low cost to the community. We’re located in the heart of the North Hollywood Arts District, and have provided numerous community outreach programs in our area. And folks can always learn more about our company, it’s members, and our shows, by visiting us on the web at http://www.roadtheatre.org .