Small Town Scotland Inspires Stage Play
An American developer hoping to build a golf course in a small Scottish town runs up against long-held beliefs about the supernatural. Tony Award-winning playwright Arthur Kopit and director Christopher Ashley join us to talk about the new comic farce "A Dram of Drummhicit," which gets a world premiere at the La Jolla Playhouse.
Arthur Kopit is a Tony Award winning playwright. He co-wrote the play "A Dram of Drummhicit."
Christopher Ashley is the artistic director at the La Jolla Playhouse and he's directing "A Dram of Drummhicit."
The world premiere of "A Dram of Drummhicit" opens at the La Jolla Playhouse on May 17th and runs through June 12th.
This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.
ST. JOHN: You're listening to These Days on KPBS in San Diego, I'm Alison St. John in for Maureen Cavanaugh. As a child, I spent many summers in the western isles of Scotland, and I'm very familiar with the beautiful green machairs, as they're called, great stretches of smooth green grass where the sheep graze along the coastlines, and the locals would sometimes play golf along those stretches if they could get a break in the wind of so I was intrigued to hear that the latest world premiere at the La Jolla playhouse take place in Scotland, and telling the tale of the of an American developer who decided one of these islands would be the ideal place to billed a golf course. Now, you have to think twice before taking on locals from the Scottish highlands and Ireland. So I suspect this has the makings of a great comedy. And we have in studio with us to talk about, Arthur Kopit, who is the Tony award winning playwright who cowrote the play. Thanks so much for being with us, Arthur.
KOPIT: Thank you for having me.
ST. JOHN: And also Christopher Ashley, who is the artistic director the at the La Jolla playhouse. Pleasure to have you.
ASHLEY: My pleasure to be here.
ST. JOHN: Arthur, okay. Now, I want you to say the name of this play first 'cause it's a tricky one.
KOPIT: A Dram of Drumchhicit. Drumchhicit. You have to sort of spit it. But you can say drum-hicket, and it will get tickets to the show.
ST. JOHN: You won't be barred if you don't do the KH. So explain to the audience what a dram is.
KOPIT: A dram is a small glass in which you drink a single malt. So it's a wee glass. A wee dram.
ST. JOHN: A wee dram, yes. And what about the name of the town? Did you make it up? Or the island.
KOPIT: I semi made it up, it's on an island called Muckle Skerry, which actually does exist but is unpopulated, and is in the northern Hebrides. And the smallest body of land, apparently, that can be called an island, legitimately. It's very tiny. And I loved the name. And I kept trying to find a better name, and I can't, so this is not that Muckle Skerry, in case somebody ran into it on their boat. This one actually is ours, made up in the southern Hebrides.
ST. JOHN: And tell us what inspired you to write a play based on this little island.
KOPIT: About five years ago, I was just on line looking at news reports from around the world, which I would do to see what they say about the world in England and France and I saw a headliner from the London times which said, I think, Fairies cause Work Stoppage of Bulldozers to Stop Work. And I thought, fairies cause the work stoppage of bulldozers, and that seemed interesting. More interesting than what was happening in Iraq. And I read this article, and apparently there was in a small town in Scotland a major construction company was putting a road through, and everything was fine until they announced that they had to move a rock on top of a particular hill in and the town said oh, no you can't move a rock, the fairies live under the rock. And they were serious, even though it turned out nobody in the town had ever seen a fairy, they knew the fairies hied there. And the construction people sued, and in the Courts they lost, because the Scottish courts pay strict attention to tradition, and even to superstition. So at great cost, they had to move the road. And I thought that this was wonderful and would make a wonderful play because of the contrast between these sensibilities, and because I love Scotland very much, and knew the sort of reverence to the land and Celtic mythology.
ST. JOHN: Yes, so you've got a story about a clash of cultures here.
ST. JOHN: I imagine an American would have to have a bit of a self-depreciating sense of humor to appreciate some of what happened here.
KOPIT: Or a lot of whiskey.
ST. JOHN: You recommend people come with a little -- a we dram of whiskey?
KOPIT: A wee dram.
ST. JOHN: I had a look at the script, and Christopher, I was just wondering how could you possibly design a set that would duplicate a Scottish landscape?
ASHLEY: Well, it's upon challenging because it's gotta kind of capture all of these different locations in this very small, centric Scottish island. And also do it with mystery and move fluidly between the scenes. So I'm really pleased with what we've come up with, but when I first set the play to the set designer, he called me back and said I've got to be crazy. This is undesignable. But I'm really proud of what he came up with.
ST. JOHN: Oh, well, that's gonna be interesting to see. Is there rain involved in the set?
ASHLEY: We don't have actual water, we have video rain, and wind and magic of all different sorts. And late in the play, the rock where the fairies live kind of goes crazy on these Americans. And that was really intense fun to design.
ST. JOHN: To produce, yes.
KOPIT: Part of the trick of it is that it has to be magical, but it also has to be real, but if it's too real, it doesn't involve the audience's imagination.
ASHLEY: It's also tremendously funny. I read a lot of plays, running the La Jolla Playhouse, and rarely do I laugh on every single pagend 6 times. And actually, the day I first read it, I ended up at a party with Phil Michelson, and everybody, was, like, the entire party was golf, and everybody was talking about the Torrey Pines, and it was the year that the open was here, so it seemed like, wow, an intensely funny play with mystery and magic in it about golf, what could be better for La Jolla. And also I love scotch. So it was a good combo.
ST. JOHN: That attracts a wide variety of people. Do you think that the Scottish would enjoy the humor too? Because it's interesting. There is a very different sense of humor in Scotland than America.
ASHLEY: I think so. Because it's a kind of clash of cultures between American money and Scottish community, there's somebody for everybody to laugh at, right?
KOPIT: I hope so.
ASHLEY: We sort of make fun of both sides.
KOPIT: Oh, yeah, yeah.
ST. JOHN: You've spent time in Scotland kind of appreciating the gent will humor, yes.
KOPIT: Oh, yes. It's kind of like new England humor. It's very dry and under stated, you have to wait a moment and say, oh, yes, that is funny.
ST. JOHN: Now on one of the topics that come up in the play is bog people. Can you give us a quick description of that?
KOPIT: Well, the bog people who play a major role in this are iron age people who slipped into the bog. And because of the Pete in the bog, and the lack of oxygen, their bodies are preserved and mummified. And on numerous occasions, they can emerge from the ground. They can sort of pop up, and they're down there, and also they're quite mysterious, and this is true, also of them have nooses around their neck, but no one quite understands why. Because you actually can't hang someone in a bog because it's a very slow decent. So there's a lot of mystery to them. And they're very eerie looking. And they have red hair, and they will emerge, which, if you're building a golf course can be trick etch.
ASHLEY: It's a different kind of hazard.
ST. JOHN: Okay. We're talking with Arthur Kopit, who is the coauthor of a Dram of Drumchhicit, and we'll be right back.
ST. JOHN: You're back on These Days. I'm Alison St. John, in for Maureen Cavanaugh. And we're talking about the latest world premiere at the La Jolla playhouse, which will be opening later this -- a little bit later next month, I guess, with the coauthor, Arthur Kopit, and the artistic director of the La Jolla playhouse, Cristopher Ashley. The name of the play is a Dram of Drumchhicit, and it is set on an island on the west coast of Scotland. And it features basically a conflict of cultures between, perhaps, American priorities and Scottish priorities. More than priorities and Scottish priorities. So we were talking about the bog people that emerged out of the bog. And you may need to explain a little bit about what a bog is too, Arthur. But my question is, how can you possibly build a golf course on top of a bog where bog people are, emerging from the depths as you were describing from before the break.
KOPIT: Well, you would have to curve the course around it.
ST. JOHN: I see. That would be a design challenge.
KOPIT: It's a design challenge, ask it seems that the -- part of the developing team was unaware of the bog, and the bog people. So it creates a problem.
ST. JOHN: Well, I know bogs can be big problems of they come right over the top of your Wellington boots if you're not careful.
DEFENDANT: And deeper if you don't get out fast.
ST. JOHN: People have been known to disappear altogether, in bogs. Are there bogs on this island?
KOPIT: In the second act, we will find out.
ST. JOHN: Okay, so this is all some of the unexpected challenges faced by the American developers who are here to build a golf course. There's a fun character in this play call MacKenzie Stewart. Tell us about him.
KOPIT: He's the pub master, and in this very tiny town, and this tiny island, probably like the mayor, and the person who knows the most about it, and he's just a central figure.
ST. JOHN: And when you were developing these characters, this whole may, you did it with a partner, right?
KOPIT: Yes, Anton Dudley. I coauthored it with Anton of and it's actually too lengthy and complex to describe, but because of that process, Anton, I told Anton about the story, he grew up in northern England, I thought he had a feel for this -- the magic, the land, he grew up there. And I knew Celtic literature and Celtic background, but he breathed it. And he brought in the idea of the bog people, I brought in others, and we worked out the story. And it's an amazing process because we were able to examine the story in a way that I think by myself I would have sort of gone crazy trying to figure it all out.
ASHLEY: When it was first sent to me, that was actually one of the first things that I queue about it, was that it was a play that had been kind of passed back and forth between two writers and one of them would try to crack a scene, and the other would write a new idea. And I was so fascinated by how do two people arrive at a play that is supposed to have on voice. And it's been really amazing to watch them do that. And Arthur is a fearless rewriter. He's been every day in rehearsals scribbling away and passing us new pages.
ST. JOHN: So this is a world premiere, so it's changing as we speak.
ASHLEY: It is, it is, every day.
ST. JOHN: So how do you deal with that, Arthur, when you have a coauthor who's on the other side of the country.
KOPIT: Well, he trusts in what I'm doing, and I contact him with the ideas, and we've been completely in agreement. And I have to say that it is far easier to do rewrites when you have Christopher Ashley as your director, who is actually making suggestions that make complete sense. The a very different story when a director asks you to do something, and you think, oh, my God, he doesn't understand what's happening of it's not been the case. And the actors are wonderful. So the process has been collaborative, and theatre it. You need actors, a writer writes a play, but then you need actors to do it, and the director to stage it, and the audience to complete the process. So it has been a very exciting true collaboration.
ST. JOHN: Would you say he's been the one who's represented more sort of the Scottish culture and you the American culture or have you both shared?
KOPIT: No, it's equal.
ST. JOHN: Uh-huh.
KOPIT: He does have a feel for the -- the super gnarl background.
ST. JOHN: Yes, there is something that's really hard to describe, isn't there, about that layer of experience in life.
KOPIT: It was in his blood the way it wasn't in mine. And he felt things, and he knew things about, if you look up Scottish faeries, they are alphabetized, and the history of them is quite staring because they are -- this is not, to them, silly stuff. And it's there. Oh, yes, I know that fairy. Oh, no, that fairy, they live over here, and they live there. No, we've never seen them, but they're there.
ST. JOHN: I think when I first came to the United States , more than between the years ago, that was the thing that I noticed most was that there was a dimension almost missing because of the recent history. You know, there's this depth of history that you get in Scotland and much of Europe, of course. Whereby there is a sort of another layer, almost a fourth dimension of reality.
KOPIT: Absolutely. Absolutely, and these power pocket, these places, standing stones, cultures who were there before, and the land has a spiritual value that it doesn't to us newcomers who are moving through.
ST. JOHN: Which is a wonderful theme for this play where America comes up against this dimension.
ASHLEY: That's really the center of the play, too, this American kind of has to grapple with what is it that these people are seeing and believing in, and he comes to believe it in some way.
KOPIT: And can't quite believe that money won't buy them off. That it isn't the most important thing for them.
ASHLEY: There's also a romance at the center of the play, which asks the somewhat strange question of what's it like to fall in of with a fairy.
ST. JOHN: Okay. That sounds intriguing, Christopher. And I guess there's gonna be lots of opportunity for humor in all of this. Is there a good haggis joke in this play?
ASHLEY: There's a couple.
KOPIT: There are a couple of haggis jokes, yes, yes. Apparently the pub, they offer haggis, but the Americans there -- allows that he doesn't really like haggis, and the waitress says, well, you wouldn't like this, then. The suggestion is that this is the worst haggis. Even Scotts are not gonna eat this haggis here.
ST. JOHN: Oh, that must have been bad. Because a good haggis and very good.
ASHLEY: It is. And you know that the character has gone native when at the end of the play, he actually has his own recipe for haggis.
ST. JOHN: The American?
ASHLEY: Yes, exactly.
KOPIT: Haggis a l'orange.
ST. JOHN: A l'orange.
KOPIT: He's invented it.
ST. JOHN: Oh, that is -- combining cultures.
ST. JOHN: So just there is a man of the cloth, as they say in Britain, a man of the church.
KOPIT: Yes, he's having a very hard time because nobody comes to his church, and he believes they're all pagans issue and he wants to be transferred of it's the end of the line for a minister to be in this particular church. Even his predecessors, nobody comes to this church. But he ends up -- something happens, and things work out for him.
ST. JOHN: Well, you definitely managed to intrigue me. This sounds like a -- quite an experiment, and I'm look forward to hearing more approximate it. The world premiere of a Dram of Drumchhicit opens at the La Jolla playhouse on May 17th and runs through June the 12th. So I'd like to thank you both very much for coming in, Arthur Kopit is the coauthor, thank you Arthur. And Christopher Ashley is artistic director. Good luck with the production.
KOPIT: Thank you.
ASHLEY: Thanks very much.