Actor Donan Whelan climbed behind the wheel of director Allan Hunt's vintage Jaguar XKE and drove it behind the audience for his surprise entrance. It was Aug. 5, 2005, and he was about to perform his final scene in the Kingsmen Shakespeare Company's 1960s-themed staging of The Merry Wives of Windsor at Kingsmen Park in Thousand Oaks, Calif. Whelan was getting married the next day. Beside his female co-star, who was sitting on the armrest of the passenger's seat like a beauty queen, he engaged the clutch and turned the corner. As he guided the car down the lawn past the audience and toward the stage, the crowd cheered. Then the Jaguar slowly began picking up speed.
From the audience, Hunt thought, "Hit the brake! Hit the brake!" The passenger, actor Jane Longenecker, braced herself, grabbing the windshield of the convertible. The sports car smashed into the stage, pushing the stage half a foot back. The actors leapt from the car and walked onstage as if the accident were part of the show. Actor and show producer Lane Davies, who played Ford, improvised his Shakespearean dialogue to jokingly refer to Whelan's character as a NASCAR driver. The cast finished the play without incident, and Hunt stared anxiously at his car.
"I was in such a daze because I couldn't get up and stop the play and go look at the car, which had disappeared from our view," said Hunt. "I didn't know how serious the impact was, but I had a feeling." The cast went backstage after the curtain call, and Hunt approached his Jaguar. The front end had "accordioned." The stage manager pointed out to Hunt that no skid marks lined the grass: Whelan hadn't hit the brake. The actor emerged from backstage distraught and explained he couldn't find the pedal.
"My body doesn't fit well in the car. I'm 6-foot-3. So my knees were up against the steering wheel the whole time," said Whelan. "The pedals were real small. Whenever I had problems with the pedals, I couldn't look down to locate them. I had to go completely on feel, and I kept going back and forth between gas and clutch and couldn't find the brake in the middle."
Hunt had a hard time understanding why after three weeks of performances, Whelan could not locate the pedal. "He did it like clockwork, night after night," said Hunt. "He was very conscientious."
For two weeks after the accident, Whelan couldn't sleep. "Your mind races when you're just laying there, and that was the first thought that came to my head a lot of times, just being back in that car and trying to think about what I could have done differently to stop it," he said. "It was an accident. That's all I can say."
An accident that no one is willing to pay for. Neither Whelan nor Hunt had collision insurance. After Whelan returned from his honeymoon, he told Hunt he did not feel liable for the damages because he was an employee. The nonunion actor, who had performed in the Equity show under a Letter of Agreement, argued that the car was a prop just like any other, and thus the actor should not be liable. To Hunt, it was simple culpability.
"The fact is that there are 800 witnesses," said Hunt, who speculates that between the excitement of Whelan's pending nuptials and having his friends in the audience, the actor may have decided to show off with a speedier entrance. Whelan blames the manual choke on the car for increasing his RPMs.
Davies, one of the founding members of the Kingsmen Shakespeare Company, wrote Whelan an email telling him to take responsibility for the accident. Whelan refused. Four months later, Hunt filed a lawsuit with the county of Ventura against the actor for $21,992.26 in damages.
Insurance consultant Leigh Fortier of Plays411 said that in all likelihood the Jaguar entrance would qualify as a stunt under general insurance guidelines. This means that even if Hunt had purchased collision insurance for the car, his insurance company may have rejected the claim. "The director should have disclosed to his insurance company what he intended to do, so that he could have learned what in fact was required so that insurance would cover that," she said. "Insurance follows the car, so the director that owns the car, as long as [Whelan] used [Hunt's] car with his permission—in other words, he didn't steal the car or take it without permission—all the liability goes to the director." Fortier said that in this regard, the crash is no different than a street collision committed by someone to whom you loaned your car. The liability rests on the owner of the car unless the driver is proven to be negligent in some way, according to Fortier.
Fortier added that the production company, in this case Kingsmen Shakespeare Company, should have purchased insurance to cover the actors performing the stunt, Whelan and Longenecker, and the audience. Kingsmen Shakespeare Company declined to comment for this article. Back Stage could neither confirm nor deny whether the company purchased insurance for the production.
Actors' Equity Association spokesperson Maria Somma said Equity was not informed that a car would be used in the play or that the accident had occurred. The stage manager of the production has no responsibility to report the incident to the union because no worker's compensation claim or injury was involved. When nonunion actors such as Whelan experience an on-set hazard, Equity does not intervene.
Whether Kingsmen will intervene is yet to be seen. Hunt said the theatre company feels "awful" about the accident but that it should not be held responsible for Whelan's crash. "It's been quite some time, and we're all waiting to see what's going to happen next, I guess," said Hunt.
The director and Whelan still can't believe it happened. "It was a shock to everybody, you know," said Whelan. "You don't foresee something like this happening; and yet, you look back, and it was very easy to foresee it happening."