Jacksonville’s 5 & Dime has built a reputation for bringing edgy theater to Duval County, and its new offering upholds the tradition. Paula Vogel’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1997 stage drama How I Learned to Drive addresses child abuse, incest and one woman’s struggle to overcome the experience. Director Daniel Austin spoke with Folio Weekly about the continuing urgency of the story—and the ongoing perils of telling it today, 21 years after its Off-Broadway premiere.
A San Diego native, Austin attended high school in Jacksonville and the University of Florida in Gainesville, then relocated to New York City, where he began his acting career in earnest. He ultimately returned to Northeast Florida with his husband five years ago.
“Lots of acting opportunities were presenting themselves in New York,” says Austin, “but we were too busy paying rent to really take advantage of them. We eventually realized we needed to find a more affordable city, at least for a few years.”
For artistic as well as personal reasons, home beckoned.
“[My husband and I] both had Florida roots,” he explains. “We knew people here. The 5 & Dime had just opened, and it felt like an interesting moment. There were gaps where people needed to come in and help the cultural wave along.”
Austin has been riding that wave ever since. How I Learned to Drive is his first turn as director at the 5 & Dime, but he is the epitome of the well-rounded artist. On the margins of his acting work, Austin has long moonlighted on the institutional side of the industry. In New York, he supplemented his income with marketing work for city theaters. Once back in Jacksonville, he served the Cultural Council of Greater Jacksonville as communications manager. Austin now teaches drama at schools across Duval County through the Cathedral Arts Project. The common thread is communication.
“All the work I’ve done professionally stems from the same skill set,” says Austin. “It’s all about telling a story, connecting with someone and getting them to come along with you. Theater is the same.”
With Drive, Austin takes his audience on a difficult but ultimately empowering journey with Vogel’s protagonist Li’l Bit, an adult who recalls her exploitative relationship with the charming but predatory Uncle Peck during her teenage years. The driver’s seat isn’t just a metaphor for control and maturity; it’s literally the scene of the crime. Uncle Peck’s ongoing abuse of early bloomer Li’l Bit occurs during her driving lessons.
“It’s a tough subject,” says Austin, “but Vogel is such a good writer. She handles it with such care. She has a lot of different ways she’s approached it to make it more palatable to the audience.”
The play’s oneiric narrative skips from one memory to another in non-linear fashion, while Vogel’s Greek Chorus breaks up and recombines to embody various supporting characters as needed. The action often stops and the scenes dissolve when things get too real. The only characters granted dedicated actors are the principals, Li’l Bit and Uncle Peck.
Austin’s pre-production research has been limited to the script itself as well as critical and audience reactions over the years. Vogel’s ability to reel in the audience and subvert expectations without undue trauma has been remarked upon by critics since the play’s premiere at New York’s Vineyard Theater in 1997. Ben Brantley’s original New York Times review, for example, is headlined “A Pedophile Even Mother Could Love.”
“If you have a good script written by a good writer,” says Austin, “you don’t need a whole lot of extra stuff. Paula Vogel has done all the work. If we can just do the script justice, we’re going to have a really good show on our hands.”
For that reason, Austin has chosen to forego trigger warnings.
“I had long discussions with the cast and crew,” the director says. “We talked through all these issues and finally decided to let the work stand on its own. The theater has to be a space where people can experience the full range of emotions and decide for themselves how they feel at the end of the play."