DRIVER’S EDUCATION: More from The Car Plays

Actor/Director/Writer/Producer from Moving Arts, Michael Shutt, who has been with The Car Plays since their inception, has been kind enough to let us publish a little first hand article he wrote about his involvement with the project, from soup to nuts. Catch it in its final weekend if you can, LemonHeads.

"One for the Road" by Michael Shutt, directed by Matt Thompson and starring Tom Hall (left) and Kevane La'Marr Coleman

by Michael Shutt

A behind-the-wheel account of the lessons learned during one actor’s ride through The Car Plays, from beginning to end, and back again. And again. And again…….

When I was in Grad School, I had an acting teacher who was famous for shouting “But can you repeat it?” any time an actor would have one of those magical moments in a scene where you stop acting and start telling the truth. “Finding that moment takes talent,” he would say, “but repeating it, takes technique.” And then he would immediately make us do the scene again. I hated having to do the scene again. Little did I know then, that 15 years later, this drill would be building a muscle that I would use to get through one of the most challenging, exciting, and ultimately fulfilling experiences of my acting career.

I have been involved with The Car Plays since its inception in 2006. Over the years, I’ve been a producer, a playwright, a director, a casting director, a publicist, a company manager and, most importantly, an actor. I have to admit, I’m proud of the fact that as of this production, The Car Plays: San Diego, I am officially the only actor who has performed in every single incarnation of The Car Plays.

I knew we were on to something special back in 2006. It was our opening night (if you will). Artistic Director Paul Stein, who conceived of the idea, my Co-Managing Director Lisa Marschall and I were trying this event out as a fundraiser for Moving Arts’ upcoming season. We had secured the parking lot of The Steve Allen Theatre and filled it with 20 cars, 42 actors, 12 playwrights, 10 directors, 5 producers, 10 carhops, and countless crossed fingers.

The Car Plays: Los Angeles at RADAR LA

We had no idea what to expect. We were about to simultaneously perform twenty 10-minute plays inside of cars for two audience members at a time, who would also be sitting in the car with us. And we would be doing this five times an hour for three hours. What were we thinking?

Paul gave the company a pep talk, and all of us actors took our places. My fellow cast member, Liz Harris and I were sitting in the front seat of a black BMW. I was wearing a red Hawaiian shirt, white shorts, and a lei. The Car Play I had directed was in the car directly behind us. I wished them well and let them go. We were all in this together, but that was their show now. I could hear snippets of the speech being given to the audience members over a megaphone “We’ll open and close the doors for you” “Enjoy the show.” “Please don’t touch the actors.” In the rear-view mirror, I could see the audience approaching the cars, my heart started to race. All the actors were looking back and forth to each other from their various cars. “Oh my god, we’re really about to do this.” I could see Paul standing off to the side. I looked out my driver’s side window at him. He looked like a little kid on Christmas morning sitting at the top of the stairs waiting to run down and see what Santa had brought. Suddenly two people got in our car. They were giggling nervously, and I could feel their breath on my neck. I stared straight ahead. We were told the signal to start the show was when the carhops closed the doors. There were so many rules to remember. Paul had moved to the front of the line of cars at this point. His hand was up in the air as a “ready” signal to the carhops, just like Cha-Cha DiGregorio starting the drag race in Grease. His hand went down and the car hops quickly moved down the rows closing all the car doors. Simultaneously, twenty different stories exploded and lit up the parking lot. My heart swelled. It was one of the most palpably exciting moments of my life. Our tag line wasn’t a joke: In every car, a different story. But, I couldn’t think about the other stories. I had to tell my story…. So I pulled up the emergency brake and said my first line “Oh my god! Oh my god!” and started the play. Nine and a half minutes later we had completed our little farce complete with slamming doors and a dead body through the moon roof. We did it. We made it through.

“But can they repeat it?”

Michael Shutt (left) and Sara Wagner in Trey Nichols' PCH, directed by Kim Glann (The Car Plays at Segerstrom Center for the Arts). Credit: Doug Gifford.

We had to perform it again. Immediately. We had thirty seconds to reset before the next audience got in the car. Resetting included getting the dead body out of the car, finding the phone that ends up in the back seat, getting back in the car, buckling our seat-belts, getting two new audience members, taking a deep breath, waiting for the carhops to close the doors, and…repeat. And…repeat. And…repeat. And…repeat. Thank GOD I had that class in Grad School!!!

We performed our play five times in a row with a thirty-second reset between each one. After the fifth performance, my head was spinning. The carhops opened the doors, the audience got out, I turned to Liz and said, “Was that five?” “I think so,” she said.

And then it happened. The moment I’ll never forget.

Something none of us had even considered. Here we were as actors, one by one, emerging from our cars, emotionally and physically spent from performing our shows 5 times in a row, no curtain to hide behind, no backstage to go, just standing in a parking lot surrounded by our first ever audience. And then, they start clapping. Not just clapping, but clapping and cheering…for us, for making it through. For them, for being part of the experience. For the event, for existing in the first place. Some started coming over and shaking our hands, hugging us and congratulating us. I looked up at Paul and I had tears rolling down my face. I mouthed “We did it!.” “I know,” he mouthed back. “Now get back in the car, you have ten more shows to go!!!”

A lot has happened since that first performance. I have seen this project go from a one-night only fundraiser to a sold-out extended run at a Tony Award winning theatre!

We are currently in the middle of our extended run at the La Jolla Playhouse. By the time we finish, I will have performed three hundred and seventy five times in a car as part of this unique event. Thanks to this project, I’ve grown immensely as an actor. With the audience literally breathing down my neck, I have to tell the truth. I don’t have a choice. Fifteen inches is the official bullshit meter. They’ll know if I’m not connected. I also have to make sure my performance is timed right down to the second. The carhops open the doors exactly nine minutes and thirty seconds after they close them. If I slow down at any point they might open the doors before the show ends, or if I speed up too much, we’re left sitting with the audience in dead silence until the car hops let them out. I’ve learned how to pace myself. Performing a show fifteen or twenty times in a night can be draining. I have to be physically and emotionally prepared to give audience number twenty a show as truthful and compelling as show number one. I’ve learned to both trust and support a fellow cast member with my life. I’ve witnessed the magic of thirty actors performing fifteen individual pieces and breathing together as a single ensemble. But most importantly, I’ve learned that I’m ready to go back to my old MFA professor and say “Hey! Remember when you asked if I could repeat it? Hop in and take a look at this!”

Michael Shutt is the former Managing Director of Moving Arts and was one of the original producers of The Car Plays. He has been an actor in The Car Plays since its inception. He has also served as a director, a producer, and playwright for this project.

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Colin Mitchell About the Author: COLIN MITCHELL: Actor/Writer/Director/Producer/Father, award-winning playwright and screenwriter, Broadway veteran, Marvel comics scribe, Van Morrison disciple, Zen-Catholic, a proud U.S. Army Brat conceived in Scotland and born in Frankfurt, Germany, currently living in Los Angeles and doing his best to piss off as many people as possible.

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