Fifteen brand-new plays will be staged in 15 automobiles parked in Segerstrom Center for the Art’s new Argyros Plaza. The makeshift lot and the intimate performances-for-two-passengers kicks off 2018’s Off Center Festival, which opens Friday. Car hops escort voyeurs, err, audience members, through this bumper-to-bumper setting until they’ve cycled through each comedy or drama. Conceived by Paul Nicolai Stein, this Moving Arts production returns after being the runaway hit of Off Center Fests in 2012 and 2013.
Each OC or world premiere has its own director and two-person cast, so expect 15 distinct versions of what can transpire between the front and back seats. Hopefully not too much road rage or nose-picking—unless all 15 plays take place in parked cars….
Half the titles are vehicle-related: The Magic Car; Start; She Beside Me, Sitting; One Star Driver; Near Miss; and It’s Not About the Car. Among the others is Party Girls by local playwright Tira Palmquist. Was she allowed to specify the ideal auto for her play? “I had suggested a type of car—a ‘very not fancy sedan’—but the director suggested using a small SUV so that the actors would have more room for blocking in the car. It’s funny to think about blocking in a 2-foot-by-4-foot area, but the ability to move even a little bit makes a big difference in this intimate playing area.”
The Irvine-based teaching artist sat in on rehearsals. “It’s always great to be in the room, especially in the early stages of a process,” she says. “I know Chuma Gault, the director, from his work as an actor and director. I’m so pleased to get to know him more; he is amazing. It’s also my first time working with these actors—Tristina Bryant and Julissa Merius. They are completely lovely, and I feel lucky for this opportunity to work with them all.”
About five years ago, Palmquist wrote a couple of scripts on spec hoping to get in The Car Plays. “Though those plays weren’t picked up by Moving Arts, they’ve been performed elsewhere.” In 2016, she was among a cohort of writers chosen for Moving Arts’ new-works initiative called MADLab. Her MADLab-nurtured play Overburden was presented in September of that year, directed by Beth Lopes, whose fierce Shakespeare productions can be seen each summer at UCI’s New Swan.
“Party Girls wasn’t a commission.” says Palmquist. “But, since I was a MADLab playwright, I got an email from [Moving Arts Artistic Director] Darin Anthony, asking if I’d like to write a Car Play script. When an artistic director invites you to write a script, you do it.
“I had just started research for a play that is a commission, and when I got the email and deadline for the Car Play submission, I thought that this was a good way to explore a small nugget of the world I was investigating. I don’t want to say more about that commission or the subject matter as I don’t want to give too much away. Let’s just say that the spark for this piece was looking at the circumstances of young, vulnerable girls in dicey situations.”
Palmquist’s collaboration skills, honed by her experience in just about every on- and offstage theater-making job, are evident in the many ongoing relationships she has with theaters who’ve staged her plays. “I’m heading to Serenbe, Georgia, for two weeks to work with three playwrights who will be coming for the New Territories Playwriting Residency.” She launched the program with Brian Clowdus, Artistic Director of Serenbe Playhouse, after the outdoor theater presented Palmquist’s Ten Mile Lake in 2014. Now in its third year, Palmquist serves as the resident director and dramaturg for New Territories.
Because she’s busy in Georgia, she’ll miss the opening of Party Girls. “I hope that the Car Plays will get extended so that I’ll be able to see the plays when I get back!” Palmquist is in luck, the original run is sold out before it even opens, and more dates are being added as this story gets published. See you in the parking lot.
The Car Plays, Off Center Festival at Segerstrom Center for the Arts, 600 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa, (714) 556-2121; www.scfta.org. Jan. 19 & 26 at 5, 7:30 & 9 p.m.; Jan. 20 & 21, 27 & 28 at 3:30, 5, 7:30 & 9 p.m. Check website for new dates. $25.