Formed as an outdoor theatre experiment during the first summer of the pandemic, Trenton’s Open Book Theatre Company returns with a third summer of Driveway Theatre attractions.
The shows include Craig Ester’s “Dance with Me,” Meg Berger’s “It’s My Party,” and “Off Book Improv.”
OBTC Artistic Director Krista Schafer Ewbank said Driveway Theatre was born out of necessity in the summer of 2020, when people were being allowed to gather in small outdoor groups.
“People needed a way to gather, to tell and hear stories, to be with their neighbors,” she said. “We still need those things, even as life returns to a more normal routine.”
Ewbank said Driveway Theatre also provides a powerful and meaningful way for people to connect with their community.
“Hosts were inviting their neighbors to their yards, retirement communities were outside laughing together, and churches were welcoming folks to their parking lots for entertainment and fellowship,” she said. “Families were celebrating birthdays and anniversaries with live entertainment.”
Ewbank said Driveway Theatre also provided an opportunity and a voice to local playwrights, some of whom had their work performed professionally for the first time, with Driveway Theatre hosts introducing new audiences to OBTC.
“Our hope is that community organizations will see the value of live entertainment and invite their community,” she said. “Anyone who likes a good story is our target audience.”
Ewbank said part of the joy of Driveway Theatre is seeing people gather in a familiar space for an unfamiliar experience. She said she is also pleased to be able to commission new works by local playwrights.
One of this year’s local playwrights is Craig Ester, whose “Dance with Me” is a sequel to “You Talk White,” which was performed last summer, in which the characters were 12 years old. Now the characters are high school seniors, who are both contemplating their senior prom.
The two have been dancing around their relationship for years, and now must decide whether to go to prom together, taking their relationship in a new direction, or whether to let their differences separate them, as it provides a touching exploration of the role race places in relationships.
Carmel Inez will debut as Bell, with Joe Gaskill returning to the role of Des.
Ester said he fell in love with his characters when he wrote, “ You Talk White,” and he wanted to check back in on them.
“It was surprising how much I missed them, so bringing them back has been like seeing old friends again,” he said.
Ester said one of his challenges was making sure he was being honest about who the characters are and what they need.
“It’s fun to see the characters grow up, but it’s hard to see the pain they have had to go through to mature,” he said.
Ester said that while he drew on his own emotional experiences, the play is more fiction than autobiographical.
He said he also hopes audiences remember what it us like to connect with a first love.
“Regardless of race, class or age, we all know what it is like to get that feeling in the pit of your stomach when it is time to get honest with the people we love,” he said.
Ashley M. Lyle, who directs “Dance with Me,” said coming-of-age and slice-of-life stories are among her favorites.
“In this play, they are learning new things about each other, and learning to accept, respect and celebrate each other’s differences,” she said. “The story is a beautiful tale that anyone can relate to.”
Gaskill said it’s thrilling to revisit a character he played in the past.
“With a new angle on his personality, it provides new challenges, while keeping the spirit of the character,” he said. “It also is exciting to go back to an outdoor setting.”
Gaskill said it is always interesting to adapt to each new place where they perform, whether it is a residential driveway, a church parking lot or a park.
“Keeping that spirit of being on your toes, and making changes to make the play more believable in the environment definitely carries over,” he said. “The general sense of fun I got from the previous show has already carried over here, so I am looking forward to the rest of the process already.”
Gaskill said that while Des has become more withdrawn and jaded, and is still the “weird kid,” he is now in high school.
“This also has to do with his feelings for Bell, and his fear of expressing them,” he said. “I hope the theme of being true to yourself and the person you love resonates with audiences.”
“Our cast is phenomenal, and the story is very funny,” she said. “There is a lot of big, physical humor coming at you in this show.
The premise is simple: When two costumed characters show up to work the same party, they initially see each other as rivals, and engage in one-upmanship in an attempt to wrest control. However, once they find common ground, a friendship is forged.
The cast features actresses Stephanie Van Alstine and Danielle Wright.
Hawkins said the show has a broad appeal.
“It’s a great story of an unexpected friendship, and how people work together,” she said. “I think anyone with a lawn or a driveway who wants to host will enjoy themselves.”
Berger said the show was inspired by the experiences of her hardworking actor friends.
“I was inspired by listening to them talk about working five different jobs so they could act,” she said. “I think it is easy to forget how hard actors work, not only on the show the audience is watching, but what they do to supplement their income.”
Berger said theatre is an important part of the human experience.
“It brings us into worlds we would never know, and makes us laugh and cry, and feel grief and joy,” she said. “We are lucky to be able to experience it, and I wish there was a way for us to do more.
“If I ever win the lottery, I’m going to be a supporter of the arts. I’ll be the rich old lady swanning about in caftans, supporting whole theatre troupes. Maybe I should buy a ticket.”
Berger said she always likes to sneak subtle lessons into her scripts.
“I love it when an audience laughs, but also nods along, like, ‘Wait, other people do that, too?’” she said.
Berger said that even though theatre groups have returned to indoor stages, Driveway Theatre retains a special appeal.
“You’re surrounded by nature and life,” she said. “The actors are right there with you, and it feels even more personal. It’s a magical moment.”
Berger said it also provides an opportunity for people who claim they don’t like theatre to experience it a different way.
“I have active kiddos who saw my shows multiple times, because they could move and wiggle a little easier,” she said. “The shows are family friendly.”
“Off Book Improv” is also audience-flexible, and works well for celebrations, like birthday parties and anniversaries.
Sean Paraventi coordinates the improv group, which includes Michael Lomas, Brandon Monaghan and Kara Markusen.
Paraventi said audiences will have a good time, and may interact as little or as much as they want.
“We really tailor the show for what you want,” he said. “We bring it to you, and we make any situation work.
Those situations include weather challenges and unexpected noise.
“We’ve had helicopter rides taking off and landing, cars beeping and loud generators,” he said. “But improvising challenges are really just opportunities.”
There are several ways to bring a Driveway Theatre show to an outdoor Downriver locale. For a $125 flat fee, the show will be performed at a given location, and donations will be solicited afterward. For $500, the show will be performed without a donation solicitation. For show sites outside the Downriver area, an additional travel surcharge, ranging from $25 to $100, will apply.
For more information, call OBTC at 734-288-7753 or go to OpenBookTC.com.