The Austin Chronicle

Theatre in Motion in Overheard on a Train

By Richard Whittaker, April 5, 2024, 5:10pm, All Over Creation

Many plays have two acts, but not many are two legs of a journey. That's just part of what makes new production Overheard on a Train so unique.

The first act takes place from the Downtown stop on the Cap Metro Red Line train up to the Crestview stop; and the second act on the return leg. This means intermission takes place at a most unusual theatre bar: Black Star Co-op.

All of this takes place under the watchful eye of the Conductor, better known as Rebecca Maag, the founder of immersive theatre company Cheerful Secrets. Her productions previously engaged audience members as reporters covering a film premiere in Press Junket, and as mourning Austinites trying to contact the ghosts of the dearly departed in Flood of Spirits. This time, parties of four will board the train as one of two groups familiar to Austinites – a band and a bachelorette party – and perform a table read. Quite literally, since the performer/audience will be sat through the performance working from the script whose details they will discover as they take the roughly 20-mile round trip.

“Not everybody wants to be an actor, but everyone likes to play pretend,” said Maag. For her, the key is that she wants it to be open to everyone, no matter what level of performance experience they have. So the whole idea is to make it as stress-free is possible. The performers will be met by Maag’s conductor (assisted on busy days by a deputy) and given a script with all their lines highlighted. All they have to do is take a seat and read aloud. “There will be minimal stage directions, and you'll be able to do it from the seat.”

The idea for the show came to Maag as a result of a way to stay busy during the pandemic. She called them “teletable reads. ... Friends and I would get on Zoom and do table reads of television scripts.” It started with The West Wing, but they eventually did 40 shows, including Friends and Peaky Blinders, films scripts, and even a virtual run-through of The Importance of Being Earnest. “We really ran the gamut,” Maag said, “and people kept coming back ... they were down to wear costumes, bring props.”

She was driven to move that concept beyond Zoom after a conversation with a friend with an interest in mobility, urban design, and public transportation. That's when Maag realized that she had never taken the Red Line, and the train would create a unique yet familiar environment, even for people who have only seen the train as it passed them by while they're stuck in traffic. “I would love for people to use this show to get on board and learn about the public transportation options available in this city.”

As for the two storylines, Maag said, “I was trying to think of something that felt true to Austin.” She worked with a lot of ideas but these quickly emerged as both instantly recognizable to Austinites (who hasn't seen a flotilla of tiny pink cowboy hats floating down Dirty Sixth) and a way to have “fun and a little hijinks. ... Why are these groups of four people on the train? Why are they here? Where are they going?”

The long-term idea is not to simply mount the show again after its current run, but to add storylines for “more Austin tropes” such as state legislators or startup workers. That's why Maag is planning to host a writers workshop this summer. “The end result is going to be more scripts for this show,” she said, but it could also be a way to create new connections within the city's creative communities. “If people find opportunities to collaborate,” she said, “that would make me happy.”

And she doesn't see Ausin as the only destination for Overheard on a Train. Maag said, “I have some friends in New York and some friends in D.C. that I'm planning to have more serious conversations with. I think it's eminently translatable, and even if these scripts don't transfer, the notion does.”

Overheard on a Train

Saturdays through May 25, 1pm & 3pm
$35 per person, including return rail ticket and complimentary mimosa, IPA, lager, or soda at intermission.

Copyright © 2024 Austin Chronicle Corporation. All rights reserved.