Anna Reynolds - Stand by Your Van

This article is from 2009

Hands-on approach

Stand by Your Van explores the game show where contestants hold onto a vehicle for up to 100 hours. Mark Fisher gets bleary-eyed at the prospect

A lot of people are attached to their cars, but some people can get too attached. In 2005, a Texas car dealership joined in the national craze for ‘Hands on a Hardbody’ competitions, challenging contestants to keep touching a Nissan truck for as long as they could in the hope of winning it. The longer such contests go on – and they can reach 100 hours – the more delirious the participants get, which is most likely why, after lasting 48 hours, competitor Richard Thomas Vega II let go. Had he held on just a few moments longer, it would have been time for one of the statutory five-minute breaks. As it was, he lost.

Whether heartbroken, humiliated or just plain wiped-out, the 24-year-old headed to the nearest Kmart store, threw a dustbin at the window and helped himself to a shotgun. That’s when he committed suicide. As acts of endurance go, such competitions put into perspective even the excesses of the Edinburgh Fringe (as far as we know, nobody has died as a result of a Mark Watson comedy marathon). So it’s something of a relief that Menagerie theatre company has repackaged a ludicrous idea into an altogether more sane format.

Lasting a perfectly manageable 90 minutes, Stand by Your Van condenses the hysteria, will power and drive to succeed into a single interactive play. ‘The obvious theatrical parallel is They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? which is about the 1930s ballroom dancing competition where the last couple standing are the winners,’ says director Paul Bourne, adding that, at the time of his death, Robert Altman had been signed up for a movie treatment of the same idea. ‘This is a big, fun, 12-hander. Each time the actors come back, they are in a different configuration – all the black actors one end, all the white actors the other; all the women one end, all the men the other – so it’s constantly refreshing.’

Featuring a genuine £28,000 pick-up truck and 100 members of the audience sitting on the stage for added excitement, the play takes the form of a real competition. Playwright Anna Reynolds has written several alternative endings, allowing the audience to decide on their favourite competitor and to influence the result. ‘There is a looseness that makes it seem real,’ says Bourne. ‘The audience can shout out and get behind people. But if we’d made the actors stand for 100 hours, Equity would have had me over the coals.’

On the way, Stand by Your Van will capture something of the surreal, if not dangerous, consequences of the competition. The manager of the fateful Texas contest later described the effects of sleep-deprivation on the contestants. He recalled one becoming convinced he was in Oklahoma, another thinking he saw plants on the truck’s bonnet, and a third believing her husband was snogging another woman. ‘After about 30 hours you start to go nuts,’ says Bourne. ‘You see things, you hear voices. We don’t have a suicide in the play, but all the elements are based on what happens when people are sleep-deprived.’

Taking advantage of the competition’s regulation breaks, the play shows us not only a dozen people stuck to a van, but also their inner lives and even a bit of a state-of-the nation commentary. ‘What drives people is a real conviction that they are going to win. We took people who represent archetypally our entire nation; so, we have a character from Wales, Glasgow, the North East and so on, as well as a range of ages and social backgrounds. We use the whole thing as a metaphor for the UK today; the sense of community and altruism versus a sense of individual goals and desires, and how far people will go to win what is essentially a piece of metal.’

By relaying the events live on television monitors, Bourne adds a flavour of more familiar endurance spectacles such as The Apprentice and I’m a Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here! ‘The camera will focus on the hands and faces, so you get a sense of scale and intimacy. It’s Big Brother meets weird America plus Britain today in which we will say and do anything for the prize.’

Stand by Your Van, Pleasance Courtyard, The Pleasance, 0131 556 6550, 8–31 Aug (not 18, 25), 7.40pm, £10. Previews 5–7 Aug, £5.

Stand By Your Van

  • 2 stars

Someone's gonna win a pick-up truck! All competitors have to do is be the last person to keep their hand on the 25,000 vehicle to win it! Easy, right? Wrong. An extraordinary 'live competition' play.