Playing in Traffic

The American fascination with the automobile – with the ability to get in the car and drive away to places beyond our daily problems – has been going on for generations. So it should be no surprise that the car, this icon of our culture, has found its way into contemporary drama. This week I’m heading into tech on my second show in two years that prominently features scenes set inside a moving vehicle. And of course all the technical challenges of such a specific and confining location have come along for the ride.

A scene from Durango

Durango, by Julia Cho, ran in the spring of 2008 at Silk Road Theatre Project. The show followed a family – a father and two sons – on an impromptu road trip from Arizona to Durango, Colorado. On the way we had to figure out when we wanted car sound effects, and when they were unecessary. We had to figure out what the physical structure of the car was made of, and just how much we wanted to leave to the audience imagination. We even had to handle what happened when the “car” we had created hits an animal in the road. How exactly do you “play” imaginary road kill in your imaginary car? For the Durango team, the answer to this and other car problems lay in rolling office chairs. The actors learned to roll around the stage together, like synchronized swimmers, holding the formation of driver, passenger, and backseat. In a moment of brilliance, they even learned to “hop” in their chairs, simulating a bump in the road. The lighting designer helped these moments by creating the effect of headlights passing in the opposite lane, and hid clever birdies in the set that lit the faces of the actors in the green glow of the “dashboard.”

A rehearsal shot from How I Learned to Drive

Paula Vogel’s Pulitzer Prize winning How I Learned to Drive, which opens February 12 at Boston University, is this year’s challenge. This memory play jumps back and forth in time following a teenage girl, Lil’ Bit, and her much older Uncle Peck, who forged an unconventional (and perhaps inappropriate) relationship seated in the metaphor of driving lessons. As this was inherently more abstract than Durango we were free from the impulse to create any sort of actual car-like structure, but did have to create a way to effect “driving lessons” that were accessible to the audience. The director and set designer visited the theatre one day and found a circle of chairs left in the middle of the room from a previous class, and as they sat down to discuss the space discovered that they naturally sat exactly opposite each other. Thus a concept was born that involved two chairs facing each other, the upstage understood as the driver and downstage understood as the passenger. Throughout the play the person “driving” the scene would take the driver chair, and the person “riding” would take the passenger seat, and so the power exchange between Lil’ Bit and Uncle Peck unfolded.

Having now seen and worked closely with both of these scenarios I am beginning to understand the allure of writing scenes in the car. It’s confining and intimate. The actors must keep their eyes on the road and hands on the wheel, even when amazing and terrifying secrets are revealed. And when you’re going 60 mph on the highway, there’s no escape, which makes for pretty good theatre.