Backseat Drivers: How Moving Arts Ignites ‘The Car Plays’

One of the beauties of The Car Plays, this classic Ford is parked atop the parking lot across Grand Avenue from Disney Hall and REDCAT.

It turns out that it’s not that hard to get car-dependent Angelenos to sacrifice their vehicles for a few evenings.

“There’s a lot of enticement, because if we use your car, you’re going to get the best parking spot,” said Steve Lozier, producer of Moving Arts’ “The Car Plays: LA Stories,” a series of one-acts set in vehicles. Those prime parking spots, in a roped-off top level of the parking lot across from Disney Hall and REDCAT, are in demand for anyone who wants to be within walking distance of the RADAR L.A. events that share billing with the Moving Arts production.

An hour before the plays were set to debut Wednesday, Lozier wasn’t directing actors, but traffic. Loading in the set for the show involved moving the 15 cars into a particular order required by the lineup of plays. Doing it right is an art.

Choosing Car by Genre
The setup has to take into consideration the noise volume and the action, said Lozier, as he oversaw the formation of a three-by-five car grid. Audiences can watch a different story from the backseat (and sometimes the front seat) of every car. Lozier separates the cars by play genre for diversity, and so the audience members don’t catch too much of a preview of their next show when they look out the window. “There’s one play where someone gets strangled and shoved into the trunk, so that has to go in the back,” said Lozier, motioning to a red sedan with a popped trunk parked at the end of a row.

Next to that sedan is an 1979 Oldsmobile Cutlass Salon, so pale a shade of blue that it almost appears to be white. It belongs to Julie Briggs, former co-artistic director of Moving Arts and a director of two of the car plays — but not the ones that take place in her vehicle. It’s been a popular choice for Moving Arts’  history of car plays, which the company has been producing since 2006. One of the works that takes place in the Cutlass is about a USC student trying to buy drugs.

“[The student] says, ‘Well that looks like a drug dealer’s car,’ ” said Briggs. She hasn’t had that experience, but she has been approached by strangers who offered to buy her car. She’s not selling. The Cutlass was her grandfather’s retirement gift, passed along to her in 1986. She’s been driving it ever since, and the car plays have become a part of the vehicle’s history.

It’s not always easy to match a play with a vehicle. Cece Tio, another producer for the show, says that certain compromises were made because the cars that some playwrights included in their work couldn’t be found.

“There’s one play called Bunker Hill, and that ideally would have had an old Packard, some kind of noir, ’40s kind of car,” said Tio. “That was not possible this time around, so they made adjustments in the script. The playwright was willing to do that because the message and the story was the same.”  Bunker Hill will take place in a car about as far from a Packard as you can imagine: an SUV.

Car Borrowing
But Moving Arts lucked out with another period piece. The producers weren’t finding anyone who could lend a car from the ’80s for Meghan Gambling’s Prom Time Out. Lozier says they were just about to give up and update the play, when an actress overheard their conversation and volunteered her husband’s 1989 Volvo.

Wednesday’s performance of “The Car Plays” was the first time that all of the plays had been performed together. It was also the first time that the actors were able to test their timing, which needs to be perfect in order to get audience members from car to car. Actress Rebecca Davis, who will usher patrons to the garage, asks them to pick a color-coded card to determine which “street” they’ll travel down. At the end of each nine-minute-thirty-second play, they’ll rotate to the next car.

“If an actor forgets a line or takes too big of a pause it could throw everything off,” said Lozier. “Or if it takes the audience too long to get into the cars.”

Access issues also mean only four-door cars can be used for “The Car Plays,” even though some two-door coupes might have more personality than your average Honda Civic.  (That’s why creator Paul Stein’s car wasn’t being used for a play: his two-door Saturn hatchback was parked on the level below.) Forty-five minutes before the show was about to begin, a volunteer walked from car to car drawing arrows on the pavement under each one, indicating which seats the audience should take.

“It’s like planning the Normandy invasion, this thing. The logistics are incredible,” said Briggs.

The car plays have special significance for L.A., of course. But the local focus of these plays for RADAR is fresh for them.

“Cars in this city can be fantasy,” said Paul Stein, who created the ‘Car Plays’ concept after watching a deaf couple having an argument in sign language in a parked car. Whether the plays are dramatic, comedic or suspenseful, the car plays bring people together for what is more often a solitary experience in Los Angeles.

“We’re part of a festival, but in a sense, we have a little mini-festival,” said Lozier.

One of the final touches before the car plays begins is the placement of props on dashboards and rearview mirrors. One car, hosting a play about a harried mother taking her kids to Disneyland, gets a Tinkerbell air freshener. Another car, featuring a play about a post-wedding hook-up, gets a bouquet. But not every detail of a car’s appearance is important. When asked whether a dent in an SUV’s driver’s-side door was relevant to the play that would soon take place within, Stein demurred. That’s a car story that belongs only to the vehicle’s owner.

“He’s just a bad driver,” Stein said.

The Car Plays: LA Stories. RADAR L.A. Through Saturday, June 19. 213-628-2772. RADAR L.A.

Maura Judkis

Formerly of and soon to join the Washington Post, Maura Judkis once embedded with a troupe of street-performance clowns for a story.

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  1. I loved this piece! Great article and video. I’ve been involved in the Car Plays since it first revved up in 2006…I don’t think I’ve read a piece that describes the car playmaking process in such fine detail. Thank you Maura!

  2. I agree with Trey! Such a great story that gets at the nitty gritty of this theatrical beast. As Julie said, it is like planning the Normandy invasion. And isn’t Julie Briggs ridiculously charming in the video?! Yes, yes she is. I loved hearing about the different cars being used this time around… especially since I’m now out of state and am unable to see them.