Old cars can create headaches, and so can new theatres, especially when floor plans turn out to be inexact. To help fix the first, radio listeners often turn to the Magliozzi Brothers, a.k.a. Click and Clack, on National Public Radio’s Car Talk. And to initiate the Modern Theatre, a 185-seat venue at Suffolk University that was recently renovated from a 1914 movie theatre, the school decided on a musical based on the radio show. Car Talk: The Musical!!! sends up favorite musicals with lyrics that include, “I really need this car. Please, God, I need this car,” and “How do you solve a problem like his Kia?”
Written and directed by SU professor Wesley Savick, this is the story of Rusty Fenders (owner of a terminally ill ’93 Kia), Miata C. LaChassi, and the Wizard of Cahs (that’s “cars” à la Boston), an 8'x6' puppet made entirely of car parts that speaks in the recorded voices of the Magliozzis. The show also features exploding toy cars. “It has a Forbidden Broadway feel,” says Kat Kingsley, president of the Unorthodox Arts Foundation, which created the trick cars. There’s even a (toy) helicopter and a falling chandelier, and it all unravels in a garage that does tricks. “Not to force a concept too much, the beat-up car that is falling apart, but is nonetheless beloved, is the metaphor for Rusty and his messy midlife crisis, so the garage serves as both the repository of discarded dysfunctional car parts and the potential, though with a price, of repair and rebirth,” says scenic designer Richard W. Chambers. This would have been difficult on any timeline, or in any venue, but it didn’t help that the brand new script reached Chambers late—too late to build a model before building would begin. “I had about two weeks before the shop had to have the drawings,” he recalls. As-built drawings had not been developed when the design team began, and Chambers says the architect’s drawings had many discrepancies from the actual building. “It’s also a tight little space on a tiny footprint, without much for wings, with winched line-sets but no fly tower, extreme sightlines due to courtyard seating, and not much depth,” says Chambers. “I try to pay attention to how the set ‘scales’ with the theatre space, and I really had to wing it on this one.”
Lighting designer Steven McIntosh also struggled with the tight space. “Because of the way the theatre is designed, we weren’t able to use human followspot operators,” he says, explaining there is no ceiling access to the catwalk, which means nobody can be up there during a show. The temporary ladder used when hanging lights blocks an exit aisle. “I’m not too fond of trying to track people with moving lights in a live show because you have to anticipate things happening in the moment,” McIntosh adds. Sometimes the cast of 25 took the stage, while at other times, just one or two people were on. The transition from many to just a few and back happened quickly, requiring big moves from isolation to full stage lighting. “Moving from moment to moment and person to person around the stage was one of the biggest challenges,” says McIntosh of the show’s lighting. McIntosh, who is also the theatre’s technical director, says doing the first production in the space created problems all the way around. The space also doubles as a smart classroom, so it required a modification to the sound system to work for sound design. Adds Chambers, “There are some gremlins in the computerized sound system. They’re trying to figure out why the two com channels are still linked even though they shouldn’t be, and the sensor on the door to the fly loft, from where the fog machine needs to be operated, won’t unlock the door, so it needs to be propped open, which the security system doesn’t like.”
David Fichter had designed large Bread & Puppet-style puppets, but he had never before made them from car parts. “It’s not a sculpture,” he notes. “It’s important that puppets be expressive. They have to be able to move and animate, and with something this big, it’s tricky, especially if it’s made from car parts.” In addition, the puppet would speak in two voices, literally from “both sides of its mouth.” And what about the eyes? They needed to be expressive, too, and light up on cue. Each toy car also had to self-destruct in a unique way. One car might go up in smoke, the creative team originally thought, and Kingsley tried peroxide and potassium permanganate, and even nitrogen, which they decided was too dangerous. Because smoke detectors in the space proved sensitive, anything having to do with fire was eliminated. And if wheels popped off during the self-destruct, how would they be kept from falling into the orchestra pit?
Chambers says the team considered setting the play in a theatrical space that would conjure other musicals but finally opted for something that looked like a real garage. “The set is a realistic grungy car garage, and then the show goes Broadway,” says Kingsley. “It looks drab, like somebody’s garage, but then showgirls come out in bright colors in car-shaped dresses. It departs from reality abruptly and becomes a silly romp.” With no time to finish a model—he completed one after the set was half-built—Chambers drafted as quickly as he could. “I started with a ground plan that I worked up over a weekend,” he says. “Wes is one of the few directors that I can give a ground plan to and have him lift it up into three dimensions in his mind. He looked at it while I described what I thought it would look like and decided it would work. So I started drafting.
“Most of the action takes place in dream sequences that combine musical comedy with Rusty’s anxiety about the state of his car, the ‘93 Kia,” adds Chambers. “So I started with a big garage that can have silly things happen in it: The rolling tool chest on one wall pulls out like a big drawer to reveal Rusty lying in his bed, the stage left wall flips around on a center pivot to reveal Sheila sitting at her desk, and the big garage doors upstage open to reveal the Wizard of Cahs. There are also big exhaust hoses hanging from the girders that spew dry ice fog for the big dream sequence.” To deal with a tight stage right wing, Chambers designed a staircase up and over the sliding bed unit, so actors could cross up and downstage in the wing. “The platform lid hinges up, so Rusty can get into the bed, and then it closes over him,” Chambers explains. “Luckily, we caught most of the architectural discrepancies with a quick sight survey and a few phone calls. The shop caught most of my math ‘whoopsies’ in the drawings and had some good suggestions for materials and techniques.” Production manager Jim Bernhardt and prop master Jonathan Maganzini helped solve problems, too.
McIntosh relied on four moving lights, two ETC Source Fours with Rosco I-Cue intelligent mirrors and DMX Irises, and Martin Professional MAC 700 Profiles to wash the stage. The new space was set up well for installation. “The set was built in such a way that we could work from the ground. For the most part, everything was motorized on stage,” he says. Twelve circuits devoted to the Wizard puppet were hidden discreetly inside the grill and controlled from the board. McIntosh worked with Savick to carve out specific moments when actors would hit marks and carefully timed the spots for these. To create the Wizard puppet, Fichter spent time online, searching and studying photographs of cars until he was able to come up with a suitably anthropomorphic image. Then he headed for one of several junk yards in Somerville, MA. A car front would serve as a face, but much of what he found was too contemporary. “Finally, I looked up on top of a huge rack and found a Camaro from the late ‘70s that looked like a rounded face with a nose.” To Fichter’s delight, much of it was made out of rubber, and by removing some heavy metal parts, it was light enough to work with and move.
Fichter then searched for an old hood for the puppet’s head. Out of thousands, the one he found came from the same Camaro. “It had a lot of character,” he says. By making the mouth opening from flexible foam, the puppet could “talk.” Operators could move it up and down like a regular mouth and move one side up independently, then the other, so that each “voice” came from a different place. In the end, the puppet was somewhat heavy because of the hood but not too heavy—roughly 150lbs, in all. Two-and-a-half feet deep, it stood on a central pivot that allowed three operators who stood on the platform behind it to turn it from side to side. Blinking eyes were originally going to be 12V batteries that look like car lights, but the lighting designer opted for PAR units that looked a lot like the car lights. These were hooked up to a dimmer system and operated from the lighting console, providing the option of changing light levels in the puppet’s eyes to reflect emotions. A small patch over the headlight could move back and forth, so even though the headlight itself didn’t turn, it created the illusion of turning. Interior mouth lights were made from pieces of taillights. Once the foam opened, teeth were lit from behind.
In the end, Kingsley found tricks for each car. She picked toys with large interiors so that she could refit them internally and control them with batteries. “We purchased one that was designed to drive into the wall and fall apart, and I re-painted it to look more like a Honda civic and less like a race-car,” says Kingsley. “For the second car, we unscrewed the wheels and let them fly off as the car drove and rolled across the stage. There was a small wooden lip on the front of the stage next to the orchestra, which mostly kept the wheels from rolling into the pit. For the third car, we ended up using dry ice.” Unorthodox Arts also purchased an old, ‘60s-style remote control VW bus and cut the power to the controllable headlights. “I wired the headlights to a small water pump that sat in a small container of hot water, and when the switch on the remote was flicked, it would pump the hot water into a container of dry ice, creating ‘smoke’ that poured out of the bottom of the car as it rolled along on stage,” says Kingsley. “The effect with the dry ice came out really well. Naturally, I had painted the car to look like an old hippie bus.” Three puppeteers, one for each car, were at the controls. Sometimes, very low-tech solutions were employed. The falling chandelier? Originally rigged into the ceiling, at the end of the show, it was thrown at the ceiling and allowed to fall.
Davi Napoleon hates to drive but loves listening to Car Talk for advice on how to fix her life, whenever it breaks down. A longtime contributor to Live Design, she also writes Theatre Talk, a column for The Faster Times. Her book is Chelsea on the Edge: The Adventures of an American Theatre.