Globe and Mail: Megawheels – Mamma Mia! Tanya’s shifting gears!

Specialized driving school gives actress the method for performance in trafficThe Glove and Mail Logo


Nicole Robert can’t say that finally learning to drive a manual-shift car this spring has helped her to play Tanya in the hit musical Mamma Mia! But it sure makes it easier to be herself in the real-life world of Toronto traffic, and she says she owes it all to Carlos Tomas and his Shifters driving school.

On stage, since moving from Vancouver about 18 months ago, the actress/singer’s role has been that of a glamorous, self-confident, older woman. But away from the Royal Alexandra Theatre, Robert suffered a form of vehicular stage fright behind the wheel of her husband’s five-speed Saturn Vue and in a car belonging to one of the mainstream driving schools.

“One day last year, my husband got me to do the driving on the way to work,” says Robert, who is originally from Quebec and uses the French pronunciation of her surname. “Well, I stalled at a downtown intersection and I couldn’t get stated again because I panicked. I flipped; I lost it. I just had to get out of the car. He had to replace me with all this traffic backed up behind us. It was awful.”

By December, Robert had given up. “I wasn’t going to learn from my husband. I certainly wasn’t going to learn in the winter. I’d spent about $500 on lessons and I was probably getting worse – no confidence whatsoever.”

But she decided to give it another shot this spring after one of her coworkers told her about Shifters, a school dedicated solely to the art of the stick shift.

“What a difference! By the third lesson I was really learning,” Robert says. “Carlos [Tomas] was born to teach. For him, I think that it’s not just about shifting gears, it’s about life. He’s philosophical, he’s into yoga, that kind of stuff. Whatever it is, it works.”

Tomas admits Robert was a tough case. “She’d had a bad experience,” he says, “but that’s common for a lot of people who come to us, especially women who’ve tried to learn from husbands or boyfriends. Young people who try to learn on their parents’ cars can feel similar pressure.

“Yeah, we go through a few clutches, power trains, tires, but the teacher has to be able to stay calm if the student is going to learn. And I try to learn about each student – what they do and how they think. It helps me tailor my approach. It’s really important when you’re teaching to build on things the student already knows.”
In Robert’s case, she didn’t even get to drive Tomas’s Mazda 626 in her first Shifters lesson.

“At the other place it might as well have been a friend or relative saying, ‘Drive!’ then yelling at you when you make a mistake. Carlos started by explaining the concept, not just what you should do but why you do it. He uses, uh, the thing [a power-train model]…if you’re at all visual, it really helps.”

Carla Arnold went to Shifters because she just had to have a Mini Cooper when the popular retro car was launched two years ago.

“I got one of the first 500 in Canada and they only came with the standard,” she says. “I ordered it in April, signed up for the lessons, and by the time the car was delivered in May, I was completely ready to go. We did lots of repetition so it all became second nature. We also did things like go to [Toronto’s] High Park area so I could get comfortable starting on hills.

[Tomas] is so good at explaining things and he doesn’t freak out. I’d signed up for the package of three lessons [$259], but I felt I needed a bit more, so I went with the five [$419],” says Arnold, 35, who runs the ticketing operations for Can Stage. “It was worth every penny.”

The value of learning to drive a standard properly is impossible to calculate. It can save lives as well gasoline and maintenance costs, according to Tomas, who has been a driving instructor for 27 years. The avid sailor, a native of Portugal whose family came to Toronto when he was 10, didn’t settle on the standard-shift niche until 1987, the year he launched Shifters. He has taught driving instructor for George Brown College, Young Drivers of Canada and the Ontario Safety league, as well as courses in skid control and emergency maneuvering.

He has had one long-time co-instructor, Marcel Oostendorp, but thinks he will expand the business soon. “I don’t have any real, direct competition in Toronto, and I’m not sure if there are any companies like this in other cities,” Tomas says. “ Our students come from all over Ontario. We’ve even had people from as far away as Nova Scotia, California, Edmonton and New York city.”

Slightly more than 60 per cent of Shifters students are women. Over all, most are in the 25-to- 40 age range, but he has taught some retired people who have bought their first sports car or who plan to travel in Europe, where many of the rentals are stick shift.

Robert, who will turn 50 in November, likes her new mobility, but says she still has a way to go before she is completely comfortable with the manual shift.

“I’ve still only driven once with my husband in the car …let’s just say I’m rehearsing alone. But c’mon, I didn’t learn to drive at all until I was in my 30’s, and it was hard at that age,” she says.

I’m a late bloomer. I’m shifting the gears, I’m playing a babe [in Mamma Mia], a silly babe, but a babe. Until now I’ve always been a character actor. Now, I get to dance with young guys who are after me. Life’s pretty good.”