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Add stage play to car show, and you get Mixed Blood's 'Autonomy'

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The layout for the "Autonomy" performance space.
The layout for the "Autonomy" performance space resembles a board game.
3D set design by Anna Robinson | Courtesy of Mixed Blood Theatre

Mixed Blood Theatre has built its reputation on serving nontraditional audiences. This week, the Minneapolis theater is mounting a show, "Autonomy," that aims to lure a whole new class of patrons: car buffs.

"The car enthusiasts can come and see the show and go, 'My gosh, what a fascinating group of cars to have together,' and then they have to see a play," said Jack Reuler, Mixed Blood's artistic director. "And then the theatergoers come, and they watch this amazing play, and they go, 'Wow — I didn't realize that auto design is the great American art form.'"

Jack Reuler founded Mixed Blood Theater more than 40 years ago.
Artistic director Jack Reuler founded Mixed Blood Theatre more than 40 years ago.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

"Autonomy," as Reuler describes it, is "part going to a play, it's part going to a car show and it's part going to a Disney ride." It takes place not in the Mixed Blood firehouse in Minneapolis but in an exhibition hall of St. Paul RiverCentre. Riding in electric golf carts, audience members will set out in groups of 25, shuttling from one scene to the next.

Taken together, the scenes tell a story that touches on themes of autonomous vehicles, climate change, immigration, the loss of personal freedom and the threat of a mass epidemic. Listening to Reuler talk, it's clear that he worries about the personal impact of self-driving cars for people who would rather do the driving themselves.

"In the not-too-distant future, your car will go from being a commodity that you own to being a service. So, you won't have to pay for a car, gas a car, park a car, insure a car, maintain a car. It will be an app. There will be big fleets that buy millions of these autonomous vehicles, and they'll be programmed all over, and you'll have a subscription for your car," said Reuler. "And those of us that love to drive will be put out to pasture, and they'll have these parks where you can be nostalgic about the internal combustion engine and being able to drive, and you'll feel like you're free even though you won't be."

Actor Harry Waters Jr. appears in "Autonomy."
Actor Harry Waters Jr. appears in "Autonomy."
Photo by Rich Ryan | Courtesy of Mixed Blood Theater

Reuler's evident love of the automobile may be responsible for the collection of 40 classic cars that complement the "Autonomy" set. Some are replicas of famous pop culture vehicles: the "Ghostbusters" ambulance, the DeLorean time machine from the "Back to the Future" films, a Black Beauty like the one Bruce Lee drove in "The Green Hornet," and of course a Batmobile, signed by Adam West and Lee Meriwether. The cars will be grouped thematically in ways that relate to the play's scenes, Reuler said.

This is not the first time the Mixed Blood team has ventured outside its firehouse. Two years ago, it staged "Safe at Home" at CHS Field in St. Paul, using baseball to tell a story about immigration. For that play, instead of riding in golf carts, the  audience had to walk from scene to scene.

Reuler explained that riding, as opposed to walking, is important to the concept he developed after being inspired by two very different cultural events.

"Every year at the fairgrounds on Father's Day weekend, the Minnesota Street Rod Association has a giant car show, and I've always said we in the performing arts could learn a lot from this. There are more people that see cars in that weekend than go to the Walker Art Center in a year," said Reuler.

"And then I went to a Baptist church in Corpus Christi, Texas. In December, they have a drive-through Life of Jesus. You travel like three quarters of a mile and see hundreds of so-called actors. Those two things: I want to do drive-through theater and I want to take advantage of what about cars as an art form excites people, and I want to try and marry those things."

Live human actors perform alongside classic cars and video segments.
Live human actors perform alongside classic cars and video segments in "Autonomy."
Photo by Rich Ryan | Courtesy of Mixed Blood Theatre

Reuler said he thinks another director could stage "Autonomy" in a conventional theater "with seats" and still have a good play on a smaller budget. But that production would be unlike this one, to say the least.

"Autonomy" performs four days only, Thursday through Sunday, at the St. Paul RiverCentre.