Alden Theatre’s new Drive-Thru is a family-friendly mystery

The resourceful company in McLean has created a new model of theater that audiences can safely enjoy by the carload.

With the sold-out success of Small Change, their first Drive-Thru theater experience, the creative folk at the Alden Theatre in McLean have developed a totally new live event. It is the Alden’s second specially commissioned project aimed at making live out-of-doors entertainment available to audiences during these stressful COVID-19 times, when health and safety are paramount. The world premiere show is From the Ash Baxter Files: The Search for the Stolen Spyglass.

Danielle Van Hook

This innovative Drive-Thru is a “stay-in-your-vehicle” production. The inside-your-vehicle experience will follow strict CDC and Virginia Health Department safety and health COVID-19 guidelines. With an abundance of prudent caution, the Alden is requiring the actors (all of whom are paid a stipend) to wear personal protective equipment and stay at least six feet apart. Theater props are not shared, and the audience must remain in their vehicles. As with Small Change, vehicles move slowly through the McLean Community Center parking lot, stopping at about eight different “stations” as the performance takes place.

From the Ash Baxter Files: The Search for the Stolen Spyglass was written by Andrew Scott Zimmer, who also wrote Small Change. Ash Baxter is an interactive mystery suitable for all ages.

Drive-Thru Drama isa new model of theater in a COVID-19 world,” said Danielle Van Hook, the show’s producer and The Alden’s director of youth theater programs. “It employs a social-distancing format that brings people together for live theater from the comfort of their own cars.”

Drive-Thru Drama is immersive in nature, not passive entertainment, indicated Van Hook. The audience can engage with the actors as the actors perform a cohesive story through short scenes as audience members stay in their vehicles and drive a designated route from actor to actor. As audiences drive thru, Van Hook explained, they take part in trying “to solve the puzzle as clues are dropped.”

Why a second Drive-Thru event? “We were thrilled to see so many enjoy our first Drive-Thru Drama performance in July!” said Van Hook.

I had a chat with the playwright to get into the details.

David: What is Ash Baxter about?

Andrew Scott Zimmer

Andrew Scott Zimmer: Somebody has snatched Mr. Dimwizzle’s priceless spyglass! And now Ash Baxter, the super sleuth of Dakota Riddle High School, needs your help to whittle down the suspect list.

The character of Ash Baxter guides the audience, in their cars, from suspect to suspect, attempting to expose the flaws in each suspect’s alibi. Since every car that arrives gets their own personal Ash Baxter (the character walks next to vehicles six feet away), I took care to create a role that could be inhabited by a performer of any gender or ethnicity, and our casting reflects that diversity. We have cast ten Ash Baxters, and each can put their own personal spin on the role.

What did you learn from the first time around with Small Change?

One of my main takeaways was a reaffirmation of what draws people to theater in the first place—human beings telling stories. When we stripped away some of the more technical elements we’ve gotten so used to expecting in our plays (the motorized scenery, the intelligent lighting instruments), we were left with actors and audience. And the people who left our play were at least as moved as I’ve come to expect from the more traditional pieces of theater I’ve done.

Please tell me more.

I was really interested to explore the elements that define Drive-Thru Drama and to really explore how we could turn those elements into the point of the show instead of thinking of them as setbacks.

Small Change was, more or less, the exact same experience for every carload that drove through. When we got audience feedback, we quickly realized different people prefer different experiences. It occurred to me that we could turn the constraint of only performing for, at most, five or six people at a time into the defining feature.

This time around, each audience car can decide for themselves before the show if they want the experience to be interactive, and our cast will adjust the performance. In addition, since our show is built around the premise of a live-action puzzle (like a room escape), the audience can decide among three levels of difficulty—and again, our cast will adjust.

From the Ash Baxter Files: The Search for the Stolen Spyglass will be performed Friday through Sunday over three weekends September 11–13, September 18–20, and September 25–27. Show times are from 4 to 7 p.m. Tickets are $20, $15 for MCC tax district residents. A limited number of timed tickets are available and must be purchased in advance at The Alden is a division of the McLean Community Center (MCC), located at 1234 Ingleside Ave.

The maximum capacity for each evening of performances is 27 cars (three vehicles every 15 minutes), and the ticket cost is per car. Patrons are welcome to fill their cars with members of their households and are asked to wear masks for the protection of actors and staff.


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