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'New Car' takes a new route to the stage

Claire Canavan
Lauren Lane as Becky and Chris Gibson as Joe Flood star in 'Becky's New Car,' which is now at Zach Theatre.

When Benita Staadecker's husband, Charlie, asked her what she wanted for her 60th birthday, she recalls thinking, "We're healthy. College is paid for. I don't need a new car. I don't need more jewelry," So, she said to her husband, "Surprise me."

The couple had recently attended an event where a friend mentioned that she commissioned a Tuba Concerto from the Seattle Symphony to honor her deceased husband. The conversation inspired Charlie Staadecker, a prominent commercial real estate agent, to approach Seattle's ACT Theatre (where Benita Staadecker served on the board) to gauge their interest in commissioning a play for her birthday present.

ACT's Artistic Director Kurt Beattie agreed to the idea, then came to famously prolific playwright Steven Dietz (a frequent ACT collaborator and now a professor at the University of Texas) with the "play as a gift" premise. Dietz was immediately skeptical.

"My initial impression was that I was going to be given information about someone's life and then have to write a play about them," Dietz said with a smile. "But I was quickly disabused of that notion by the theatre and by Charlie and Benita."

The couple put no restrictions or parameters on the work, except for the suggestion to Beattie that it not be too dark. Charlie Staadecker said that he and Benita wanted to "enjoy the process but get out of the way and let the pros do the work."

They also knew there was a chance that the new play might never be produced. "It would be written, and the theatre was willing to give it a reading," Benita Staadecker explained. "That was as far as the guarantee ever went."

Dietz, who had been itching to try his hand at the challenge of writing an ensemble comedy, which he calls the "gold standard" of playwriting, took this unique opportunity and ran. The result of this unusual process is the playful and spirited "Becky's New Car," which premiered at ACT Theatre in 2008 and is now being produced by Zach Theatre under Dietz's direction.

"Becky's New Car" revolves around Becky, a middle-age married woman (played in the Zach Theatre production by former television star Lauren Lane) who works at a car dealership. Becky doesn't have a particularly bad life, but when she meets a wealthy man who offers her a chance to explore being a different person, she takes it. She is not, as Dietz emphasizes, running away from a terrible life but instead "stepping sideways into another reality."

The inspiration for "Becky's New Car" came from a mash-up of several distinct sources. Dietz knew he wanted to write a strong role for a woman because, he says, there is "a generation of absolutely spectacular fortysomething actresses in the U.S." who few playwrights are writing for. In addition, as he recently turned 50, Dietz found himself considering what it means to be middle-age and to become, in some ways, invisible.

Finally, Dietz says, "I had always been overly smitten with those little stories in the newspaper of the (usually) men who, upon their death, you learn they were leading a double life. You know, some guy dies and three families show up for the funeral."

Out of these divergent influences came what Dietz describes as the notion of "a woman who gets the chance to be a different person for a while. It's a fundamentally comedic premise with hopefully some ache underneath it."

So how did Benita Staadecker like the birthday present from her husband? "I was over the moon," she says of the first time they saw the show. "You want to stand up and scream and shout because now something we had initiated had come to fruition and here were these 300 people enjoying it as much as we did."

Audiences have responded enthusiastically, too. Since its premiere, "Becky's New Car" has been produced at a dozen regional theatres across the country, from Sacramento, Calif., to Cincinnati.

The Staadeckers have traveled to many of the premieres to meet the casts and to advocate for a new philanthropic model in which individuals commission new works of art as gifts. In Seattle, the couple collaborated with ACT Theatre to create a program called New Works for the American Stage, which raises money for new commissions using the gift model.

"It really is more than just writing a check," Benita Staadecker says. "It is understanding the theater, being committed to the arts. When times get tough, the arts are the first to get cut. Yet we need that community, that escape, that emotional refreshment."

Of the individual commissions model, she says, "This is a way to counter the budget cuts. You have people who are committed to the arts who become part of it all. I am not an artist, yet I am part of the arts."

"I think of it as legacy giving," Charlie Staadecker says. "This play will be an imprint of who we were that will remain for a long time after we've passed away. Here's something thousands can enjoy."

When they visit Austin for the Zach Theatre's premiere of "Becky's New Car," the Staadeckers will come bearing gifts for the cast and crew, just as they have for every production. Benita will purchase a new charm to add to her charm bracelet, filled with reminders of all the places the play has taken them.

The Staadeckers, sounding like they still can't quite believe what they've set in motion, revealed that on their trip to Austin they will also meet renowned theatre historian (and retired UT professor) Oscar Brockett. Brockett recently included "Becky's New Car" in the newest edition of his anthology "Plays for the Theatre," a frequently assigned college textbook that also includes work by Shakespeare and Molière.

And as for whether Steven Dietz might ever commission a play as a present for his wife (Allison Gregory, who is also a playwright)? "My wife is such as good playwright — I'd rather she give me a play!" Dietz laughs. "Or, because our lives are so filled with plays, I think she might prefer a dance piece."

'Becky's New Car'

When: 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays through July 11

Where: Zach Theatre, 1510 Toomey Road

Cost: $20-$49

Information: 476-0541, zachtheatre.org