Sommer Austin is not a mechanic, but she’s learned an awful lot about cars recently.
Austin, co-founder of Green Shirt Studio, is currently directing a production of Hellcab for The Agency Theater Collective, which will be running from Nov. 17 through Dec. 17 at the Den Theatre.
The play follows the story of a Chicago cab driver who has a really bad day a couple of days before Christmas, and in order to direct it, Austin had to learn everything she could about what life is like for cab drivers, how cars sound, and most importantly, how to disassemble an actual cab and reassemble it in a theater — which happens to be on the second floor.
“Scenically, it’s a challenge,” Austin says.
Hellcab was originally written in 1992 by Will Kern, and this popular play has been performed by several local theaters over the last 25 years, including the last four years at Profiles Theatre. The play was even made into a low-budget movie starring John Cusack, Gillian Anderson, John C. Reilly, Laurie Metcalf and others in 1997.
After Profiles closed in June of 2016, Kern asked Dexter Bullard of Steppenwolf Theatre which Chicago company should be producing Hellcab, and Bullard recommended The Agency Theater.
At first, Austin, who typically focuses on staging new works or rarely produced Chicago plays, was hesitant about directing a play that was so familiar to audiences. Though she was a fan of the play, she wanted to find a way to make the story fresh and in the zeitgeist.
“I asked if we could have a different cab driver, possibly a woman, and Will [Kern] was down with it,” Austin says. “The play is a period piece set in 1992, but in the wake of all that has happened in the past two years in Chicago and the United States, I think it’s important for this story to be told in a different way, while maintaining the time period in which it was written.”
Kern re-wrote the script to feature a female cab driver, and Austin says having the cab driver played by a woman makes you think about just how vulnerable women are when they are alone in the city. “Putting a female in the role of the cab drivers really changes it,” she says.
Kern requested that the role of the cab driver be played by veteran actor Rusty Schwimmer, a well-known character actor who has appeared in dozens of movies and TV shows including Gray’s Anatomy, Desperate Housewives, Louie, Days of Our Lives and more. And Austin says working with Rusty has been amazing. “It’s very special for me to be working on Will’s script with an actor of Rusty’s caliber, and she also happens to be a friend of Will’s, so the play is quite personal to her.”
Austin’s directing team is also made up of all women and includes two assistant directors, Alex Molnar and Cordie Nelson, as well as a female fight/intimacy director, Jamie Macpherson. “Having a female cab driver for the first time in conjunction with an all-female directing team shines a different light on the text that really makes this play feel like a new work while maintaining the integrity of the text that Chicago audiences know so well,” she says.
Despite the change of the lead character, Kern still wanted the play to still be set in 1992 — back before there were Ubers or Lyfts or cell phones. And Austin says it’s remarkable how many themes from the play are just as true now as they were 25 years ago.
“It tackles segregation in the city, the loneliness of the city, racism… It addresses how we can be so close together yet be so disconnected,” she says. “It’s just interesting to see how relevant it is 25 years later.”
Austin says there has been a lot of serendipity in the production so far. First, Austin was able to get the door that was used in the original production of the play when a company member stumbled across it in a Facebook post. And the cab that Austin will be using on stage is the same one from the 1997 movie.
“A week after I started looking, the cab was on Facebook marketplace,” she says.
And if that wasn’t enough, Austin is currently teaching two students at DePaul University whose parents were both involved in productions of Hellcab, too. Says Austin, “I am really aware of the community in the theatre scene in Chicago, doing this production.”
As a director, Austin says one of the biggest hurdles of producing Hellcab has been choreographing everything that happens in the cab — matching the sounds of acceleration and breaking to the action, timing the stoplights, choreographing the actors’ movements as the car makes turns. “Creating that illusion of motion well is an interesting challenge,” she says.
And because there is no roof or windshield on the cab, there is no rearview mirror, so the actor playing the cab driver can never see her scene partners at all.
Despite the technical challenges, Austin says the rehearsal process so far has been amazing. The cast is made up of 16 actors and six understudies, 15 of which are all current of former Green Shirt Studio students, and her two assistant directors are also current or former students
Austin says as a director, she likes to be as hands off as possible so the actors are free to discover their own characters. “With actors as wonderful as in this cast, I feel like my role is as a director is learning how to get out of their way. I’m not a person who likes to block things and say, ‘You need to be doing this here,’” she says.
At the beginning of the rehearsal process, Austin will tell the actors not to act at all, but just to talk as themselves. And sometimes she’ll ask probing questions of the actors and have them answer them in the first person as their character to get them to better understand their character’s motivations. “I also encourage them for a really long time to just play and not set anything,” she says.
Austin says she’s excited that the cast has really bonded well together and has a great chemistry.
“It’s got a lot of fast-paced, high-energy [scenes], so they’re really having a lot of fun together,” Austin says. “Direction is 90 percent casting, so getting the right people in the room is No. 1 for me.”