Josiah Thomas Turner’s UTNT (UT New Theatre) script Jinkies! or The Dog Play prolongs the nearly 60-year legacy of our favorite gang of meddling, mystery solving teens. But unlike its predecessors, Turner has revitalized these characters, opening up their identities beyond the images plastered on TV screens and lunchboxes for decades. We delve into the complexities of UTNT’s presentation of Jinkies! or The Dog Play with Turner, director Braxton Rae and members of the cast to better understand the development process and the new life being brought to this classic cartoon.
“Because Jinkies! or The Dog Play is a riff on a very specific gang of teenage-mystery-solvers, many iconic aspects of their personalities are largely set in stone,” shares Turner. “They’re static yet defined, unrealistic but governed by a set of ever-shifting rules, forever young yet building on a 60-year legacy of televised, lightly serialized meddling. All of these challenges are also advantages, as the defined characters offer structure to build new iterations upon, and the shifting rules offer a chance to add some of my own, while a part of this piece is in continuing that 60-year legacy of the franchise. The flatness of the world offers a blank, white canvas to fill with color and life, and my hope is that the archetypal characters will be a way in for audiences to engage with some of the heavier subjects of the piece.”
With Turner’s foundation in mind, the cast was able to play with a blend of realistic and light-hearted cartoon traits when developing their characters. Director Braxton Rae and actors Karla Bermudez, William Cotton Hearne, Shabnam Rasul and Jay Suresh discuss the rehearsal process and working with fellow cast members and collaborators on the evolution of these characters.
In terms of character development, how are you drawing a distinction between pulling inspiration from the original cartoons and your own portrayal of (Vel, Norville, Rick, Daph) as a unique character?
Karla Bermudez (Vel): It is definitely tricky to not copy too much of my character’s personality from the cartoons. I focused mainly on basing her movements off of the ones we see in the original shows. I also made sure to keep some general characteristics that are sort of defining features for “Vel.” Her sass, intelligence and curious nature are all aspects that could not be left out. Other than that, I sprinkled in some made up elements into her backstory based on some ensemble work and conversations with Brax and Josiah, that way her story and interpretation would be authentic.
William Cotton Hearne (Norville): It really is a mixed bag. There are core “Shaggy” elements that felt too critical to let slip. For example, my “Norville” voice (this airy, rangy, raspy amalgamation of sound) is inspired of course by the classic voice that persists in every iteration… However, I think where my personal touch has been felt the most is in his relation to the rest of the gang, and really all the characters. I have seen the development of these relationships through endless hours of rehearsals that have allowed “Norville” to become his own expression in the world of Jinkies! that stands on his own two feet (though, perhaps with a cane or walking stick from the original show).
Shabnam Rasul (Daph): The majority of my inspiration for “Daph” has come from the script itself. Josiah, our playwright, had already provided an in-depth look at all of our characters and where they stand today 10 years [after going their separate ways]. It was all a matter of working through the script and extracting that information. The original cartoons served as a fantastic resource that informed “Daph’s” personality, physical traits (her walk, talk, mannerisms and general nature) and, most importantly, relationships with the rest of the gang.
Jay Suresh (Rick): In terms of acting, the script already does a great job in hitting much of “Rick’s” mannerisms, but I had to do some digging of my own. I watched some episodes to get some of the voice and chauvinistic elements of “Rick,” but a lot of my performance is a blend of my own instincts – “Rick” has gone through so much since the gang was last together with the catastrophe that was the Borkman case [which sent them on their separate ways 10 years ago], and I want the audience to see a different, more perturbed version of him. A lot of my inspiration comes from Arthur Miller (a favorite playwright of mine).
Tell us about the process of working with this team on Jinkies! or The Dog Play. What fun discoveries have developed out of rehearsals?
Braxton Rae (Director): We started rehearsing over Zoom, but getting in the room with everyone felt so amazing! I really missed being able to be physically and energetically in the room with this wonderful cast. They helped to bring the script to life and, working together, we all found moments of weight and also comedy to hold on to… We wanted to create a fun spectrum of characters based in reality versus characters based in cartoons. One thing we discovered was that using comic timing, pratfalls, gags and over the top moments, along with a mix of music, lights and media really came together to bring cartoons to life in a new and exciting way.
Shabnam Rasul (Daph): Some of the most fun findings, at least for me, came out of our table work with the gang. In the beginning stages of the rehearsal process, we discussed in great depth the implied romance between “Daph” and “Vel” in the first draft of the script. We wondered what it would mean if we explored and highlighted that part of their relationship more? Josiah, in turn, took our discourse and elevated it in his writing… All in all, there has not come a day where I have not looked forward to going into rehearsals. It is an absolute dream to collaborate with this team.
Karla Bermudez (Vel): There was one run in which Ben (our associate director) gave us a fish prop and we had to say our lines once we had the fish in our hands and pass it to the next actor with no pauses; if not we had to go from the top. The fish really cracked us up, but it gave us all the energy to dovetail and raise the stakes, which led to many discoveries. My favorite moment by far has to be when Sebastian entered as “Mayor Blake” and confidently posed with the Nixon peace hands. The moment was hilarious and it was when I realized the play was really coming together.
Jay Suresh (Rick): The rehearsal process has been very intense, rightfully so. Throughout the process, I have learned to become patient with how a scene can go from one type of blocking to the next. While the words in the script are fixed, the interpretation is fluid. It has been a pleasure working with some of the finest actors I have ever worked with because all of them continue to allow me to develop my character on stage with them while also learning how to become a better actor and person.
William Cotton Hearne (Norville): Never have I had such a predominant role in a show, so for me this entire process has been rooted in discovery and novelty. Every day I’m learning something new; I’m trying something new, and it’s (from a bird’s eye view) a beautiful personal story being written for me. The core drivers of that story are the team. My cast mates are light, they always bring bright energy into the rehearsal space, and we support each other… I have to say though, Braxton is probably who I owe the most to throughout all this. From him randomly approaching me in the street last year and asking if I’d ever considered acting to now, he has been my biggest mentor and a true friend.