Auto Parts started with a prop. I had a similar experience a few years earlier with a show that was born after receiving an oddly wonderful Christmas gift — a $20 folding table with telescoping legs that I had seen at Walgreens and desperately wanted for some reason. It could be many things, simply by applying some child-like imagination. In the evening of short one-acts that was An Evening with a Folding Table, the thing became a door to a haunted basement, a balcony on a cruise ship, and a small stable in which tiny horses (never seen) were romping to the delight of a mad horse-shrinking scientist.
That experience repeated after I wrote and directed an update of Poe’s “The Oblong Box” that we set inside a Winnebago camper rather than the ship in the original short story. Our budget-minded set included a sawhorse with a steering wheel attached. Months after we were done with the Poe piece, one of the actors in that cast contacted me, explaining that he was in a production in Malibu that could really use the sawhorse steering wheel rig if I still had it.
When it was returned to me, I discovered that my new friends in Malibu had refurbished the prop to the extent that it now had a little dashboard and a secret shelf for small items. I immediately wanted to write a new project just to use this born-again “car” prop.
That led to some thinking about all that happens inside our cars out here in Southern California. But as various ideas came to me, they seemed to require separation from each other.
Could the project be a series of small plays set in or near a car? In working that out, I wondered if there might be a way the stories related to each other, something akin to Raymond Carver’s Short Cuts but on wheels.
But because I’m not Ray Carver, the connections were loose, and that allowed another idea to gain some traction: What if the order of the (now) four component “parts” of the piece were able to be shuffled at every performance, creating no two shows that had the same exact narrative line? At the beginning of each performance, a simple bit of business with a “host” would allow an audience volunteer to pull out ping pong balls shaken in a canister, each bearing the name of one component “part” of the play. That interactive gesture would determine that night’s sequence.
I liked the idea, but then wondered what the point of all that might be. I should figure out why any of that mattered — beyond simply adding a dimension that felt borrowed from Monty Hall’s Let’s Make a Deal — especially if I was fortunate enough to get an opportunity to talk about it in a short essay for LA STAGE Times.
I dwelled on the role that fate, chance, and randomness play in the narratives of our own lives. Theater is filled with stories of plans great and small that are then upended by some shot out of the blue. The component parts of Auto Parts feature characters that are, in different ways, wondering aloud if they are doing the right thing. Letting their stories unfold in a sequence that had been determined by random chance certainly wouldn’t screw things up any more than the decisions and actions they were taking, regretting, or running from.
And then there’s the fun of letting the audience be a part of the story telling. While I’m not necessarily a fan of plays that in some way let the audience “write” the show, I certainly support the deal that exists in all theater which is that the audience somehow never forgets that what they are witnessing is live and exists in a space that can only be entered by means of watching sweating and breathing live actors. And that they as the audience matter because they need to be there witnessing it.
In promising that they will create a one-time-only sequence of events, Auto Parts gives audiences a reason to sit forward and lean in, even if what’s in their heads is “I don’t really believe this thing will work.” In our first run in February at Culver City’s Fanatic Salon, the reactions after the show always included some measure of delight that the entire affair wasn’t a well-intentioned train wreck. Many seemed pleased that the “parts” themselves were engaging and not just stuff to make the gimmick work. Auto Parts lets the audience in from the very first moments of selecting the performance order, and in doing so reminds them that they are a critical and valued component part of the whole exercise of making live theater.
Auto Parts, Fremont Centre Theatre, 1000 Fremont Avenue, South Pasadena. Opens next Friday, Aug 23. Fri 8 pm through Sep 20. Also Sat Aug 24 8 pm and Sun Aug 25 3 pm. Tickets: $15-$20. www.fremontcentretheatre.com. 866-811-4111.
**All Auto Parts production photos by Marissa Hall.
Steve Stajich was a stand-up comic and a singer-songwriter before becoming a writer for television. His series writing credits include Reba (WB), This Just In (ABC), Politically Incorrect (Comedy Central), and Dennis Miller (Tribune). He has been a staff writer for public radio’s A Prairie Home Companion, and his plays have been produced in Los Angeles, Pasadena, Chicago, Denver, Milwaukee and Minneapolis.Print