CMU students ready to take musical theater to Port Authority bus stops
February 23, 2009 5:00 AM
Adam Atkinson, 25, a CMU alumnus, performs the Bus Stop Opera to passengers Friday at the Amtrak station.
By Moriah Balingit Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Every day, thousands of commuters cram onto Port Authority buses, united only by a common destination. They stand and sit shoulder to shoulder, with little communication, and even a slight smile or a misplaced stare can create uneasiness.
So on Friday night, commuters and travellers were a little startled when a troupe of inconspicuously dressed Carnegie Mellon University students spontaneously broke into song at public transit stations with the accompaniment of a three-piece band, performing as people commonly seen on the bus -- the bizarre cat lady, the self-involved hot girl.
It's called the Bus Stop Opera, a short musical written by Carnegie Mellon students with characters and story lines drawn from the students' interactions with people on buses, meant to be performed at transit stops. Friday was the third outdoor dress rehearsal, and the musical will officially debut in April.
Piloted by Carnegie Mellon art student Dawn Weleski, the project aims to celebrate the comings and goings of all commuters, no matter how mundane, and to explore the potential of interactions on the bus.
The story lines and characters presented are not necessarily unusual, but as Ms. Weleski shows, they are far from uninteresting.
Among the characters, there's Phyllis, the talkative and quirky lady who's got a story for anyone within earshot, played by Ashley Burroughs. She goes everywhere on the bus, even to "take my cat up there to get shaved in Dormont." She relays the story of a man she saw on the news as the suspect in a bank robbery boarding the bus.
"He was the one!" she sang, in a startlingly high vibrato that leaves audience members wide-eyed. "He robbed the PNC Bank dahntahn."
Then there's Sergi, played by Sergi Robles, a dorky romantic who's been eyeing Britney, a pretty but narcissistic college student.
"I just love my hair today! Everyone is looking my way," sang Kaleigh Cronin, who played the part of Britney.
Finally there's Joey, played by Will Brill, a teenager donning an oversized puffy jacket and headphones, who wants nothing more than to get from "A to B" without anyone bothering him.
Ms. Weleski's project draws people from many disciplines, from linguistics to psychology, and from all three departments in the School of Art, which helped her earn a $2,000 interdisciplinary grant, the first to be given out by the school.
Professor John Carson, the head of the school who chose Ms. Weleski for the grant, said the project embodied the school's unique emphasis on art that's outside the box and engages the community.
"It fits in with our philosophy at Carnegie Mellon ... we're invested in a kind of artistic work that does engage audiences, outside of just a regular art audience ... to make contemporary art more relevant for regular people," he said.
The project can be a logistical nightmare to execute. It takes about 20 people to put the show on, a staff that includes directors, stage managers, a librettist (lyricist) and composers, in addition to the dozen or so performers, all working under the direction of Ms. Weleski.
Maggie Bridges, who serves as a stage manager and director, said she joined the project because she wanted the challenge of the unconventional performance, where the audience was unpredictable and the performance's schedule depended on the punctuality of Port Authority buses.
"Usually, when you're working on a project, you have a really clear vision of what's going to happen," she said. "This has to be so flexible."
On Friday, the performer slated to play Britney got sick, so Ms. Cronin was recruited just a half-hour before the performance began. Getting to the back door of the Greyhound station, where some cast members entered for the third performance, meant a heart-pumping race across an unlit part of Liberty Avenue, where motorists flew by. The weather, with temperatures dipping into the low-20s, meant that the they had to find indoor public transit venues.
And, as Ms. Weleski warned the performers before they headed out, they risked running into trouble with the law, since they had not asked for permission to perform at the Amtrak and Greyhound stations.
"Don't freak out, you're not going to get arrested," she told the performers, who seemed unfazed by the possibility.
Still, many bystanders were thrilled by the unexpected entertainment.
Rick Jones was en route from Philadelphia to his home in Chicago with a layover in the Pittsburgh station. He promptly took off his headphones when the band drummed up.
"When they first came in, I thought they were going to ride the train, until, of course, they started unpacking their instruments," he said.
Mr. Jones said some of the scenes, particularly the one between Britney and Sergi, fit to a T scenes he had witnessed on the train ride over. Two young men followed a pretty girl to the dining car, where they tried, unsuccessfully, to flirt with her.
"[Sergi's] acting like what these two were acting like," he said.
The lovers' scene also rang true for Eugene Nakouye, who lives in Paris but was visiting the United States and was heading to Maryland from the Pittsburgh Greyhound station. It's common to see lovers on the subway, he said.
As it turns out, Joey, the apathetic, standoffish teenager, also has a Parisian counterpart.
"The guy that didn't want to interact with other people; even in Paris we have guys like that," he said.