(Updated 5:55 p.m.) Medieval pageant wagons inspired the “Drive-Thru Drama” production that kicks off this weekend in McLean.
Danielle Van Hook, The Alden’s director of Youth Theatre Programs, came up with the idea while in the middle of Zoom rehearsals for “Dorothy Meets Alice or the Wizard of Wonderland” in mid-May. The in-person show ended up getting cancelled, but Van Hook wanted to still find a way to bring theater to the community.
“I just started thinking, ‘What would have happened if this pandemic had happened in like the 1980s and we didn’t have this kind of virtual technology?'” she said.
Van Hook said her idea is a twist on the pageant wagons — instead of having the actors playing the scenes along a parade route, the audience goers are the people who move. During the production, the audience drives from stage to stage to watch actors deliver two- to three-minute monologues at fixed locations.
The Alden, which is a part of the McLean Community Center, is debuting the show “Small Change,” which was written and directed by Andrew Scott Zimmer.
“‘Small Change’ follows the travels of a $1 bill as it journeys through time and space, interacting with different people’s lives and leaving its mark on the world,” according to MCC. “Actors will perform one, cohesive story through short monologues at various stations in the center’s parking lot.”
Having the actors stand in parking spaces was the original idea before realizing that there are sections of trees and islands in the parking lot that could get converted into stages, Van Hook said. “Each little stage has its own kind of personality,” she added.
To limit person-to-person contact, the theater requires that audience members buy their tickets in advance. On show nights, audience members will be checked in by their cars’ license plates. Then, they will get an orientation from the front of house manager on what they can expect.
“He gives them a little bit of a rundown of the speed limit and how you know when you move on from the stage that you’re at to the next one,” she said.
In order to reduce the risk of spreading the coronavirus, the actors will wear face shields and stay six feet away from the cars and other people outside.
Personal protective equipment is one of the many considerations Van Hook has had to take into consideration as the producer for the show.
“It’s been really interesting to sort of think about all of the little details and how we adapt it for this new style, and for me personally, it’s been sort of an exercise in like remembering why I like really loved making theater,” she said.
And of course, she’s hoping it doesn’t rain — or worse.
While all of the elements of theater — audience, actors and stage — are there, Van Hook said that the format changes the experience.
“One of the interesting things about this medium — and the same thing with Zoom — is that you can’t necessarily control how the audience is viewing the show,” she said, adding that the positions of people in the car will affect the view and sound.
“We’re recommending that if the audience is on the left side of the car that the right side windows are up, because it helps with the sound,” she said, adding that the actors are projecting their voices. Audience members will be able to follow along with large-print ADA script that they can print out ahead of time or read on their devices.
Even the size of the car and how close or far away from the ground it is will impact the audience.
The “Drive-Thru Drama” is also “much more intimate” than traditional theater, she said. “You kind of get a show that’s just for you.”
There’s also the trippy concept that it’s a communal experience that isn’t in-sync.
“There’s a couple of cars along the route at any given time. The same show is going on at the same time, but it’s at five or six different places in the show at the same exact moment. So there’s different audience members viewing the show from different moments in time, all at the same time,” she said.
A few weeks ago, the theater held auditions via Instagram. Now, dress rehearsals are wrapping up for the production.
The shows will run for two weekends — July 3-5 and July 10-12. While the shows run from 6-8 p.m., the shows are 30-minutes-long and the tickets give audience members time slots for when they can arrive.
“If they have a ticket for 6-6:15 p.m., they don’t have to be there at 6,” she said, adding that they are expecting some delays because they can only admit one car at a time. “Hopefully the longest somebody is waiting to get in is like 15 or so minutes.”
A limited number of tickets for the shows became available online two weeks before the opening.
Going forward, Van Hook hopes that the format can provide The Alden and other theaters more options, both for when the interior spaces are closed and for engaging with audiences differently.
“If you’re comfortable in your car, you can be comfortable in this style of theater, which I think is really cool and could definitely open some doors for people that just are uncomfortable in a theater-type space.”
Van Hook also said the format could work well for high school drama clubs that want to put on shows to fundraise. When the coronavirus risk lessens, she said she would like to see multiple actors on the stages, improv and even audience participation.
“Once we kind of figure out the flow, there’s a lot of ways that we could adapt it and change it each time and really to be surprising.”
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