The Austin Chronicle

'Circle the Wagons'

Exchange Artists' latest site-specific theatre piece is a ticket to ride in eight cars in one night

By Robert Faires, February 14, 2014, Arts

You know that feeling when you climb into someone else's car, when you take note of all the little details – the graduation tassel hanging from the rearview, the junk food wrappers on the floorboard, the radio presets – and connect them to the person in the driver's seat. It's like you're discovering a previously unseen side of that person. Cars are more than vehicles; they're reflections of us – and great stages for learning about human nature.

So imagine climbing into eight cars, one after the other, listening to and observing their owners for five minutes each. That's the latest experience on offer from the Exchange Artists, those daredevils of site-specific theatre behind The Story Seekers and The Man Who Planted Trees. Circle the Wagons consists of eight playlets, performed in different cars parked in front of the Hyde Park Christian Church on 45th Street. In groups of three, audience members will climb into a vehicle to see a play, then into another and another until they've seen all eight. As they progress from car to car, composer/musician Content Love Knowles will provide music from the bed of a red Chevy truck.

Company Artistic Director Rachel Wiese has been developing the idea for the show since she moved from New York to Texas five years ago. "I grew up in rural Arkansas about 30 minutes from the nearest town, so my car was a lifeline," says Wiese. "But after four years in a city with subways and a bike, I grew to despise the idea of spending time in a tin can, isolated, unable to exercise or read a good book while traveling. Moving to Austin started a strange love/hate reconnection with the personal vehicle. It's so nice to have my own private, weather-free, painless ride. It's so evil to buy gas, get stuck in traffic, and find parking. These thoughts – really, my own tumultuous relationship with cars – became the impetus for Circle the Wagons. Love them, hate them, cars are part of our cultural identity and, for a lot of Americans, a vehicle can play a huge role in personal identity."

The plays in Circle the Wagons were culled from a call for scripts, which Wiese workshopped with actors, then playwright Katherine Craft penned a few additional scripts to "fill out the vision." Says Wiese, "My idea was to showcase as many short plays as we logistically could in one performance to give our audience plots, characters, and styles as diverse as the drivers and cars on our roads and highways."

Local actors often contribute their clothes to a production, but for this several are providing their own cars: a navy Volkswagen Jetta, a white Mazda 6, a silver Toyota Camry, a white Nissan Versa, a white Toyota Matrix, and a black Saturn Ion. Beyond those, Wiese is also borrowing a black Mercedes – "I needed one luxury vehicle and we got really lucky in finding a kind woman who recently purchased a new Mercedes and was willing to let us borrow her used one before she turns it into a charitable donation" – and a minivan in which the actors will make out in the back while the audience watches from the front seat. That may make this about the only instance when if the van is rockin', you should come a-knockin'.

Circle the Wagons runs Feb. 14-March 3, Friday-Monday, 8pm, in the parking lot of Hyde Park Christian Church, 610 E. 45th. For more information, visit

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