Performers vie for chance to entertain Metro commuters

On Tuesday, dozens of musicians, dancers, and storytellers competed to perform at DC Metro entrances. A panel of five judges reviewed the talent and will pick 15 winners to entertain crowds at select stations or on the National Mall from June through November. The artists will not be paid and cannot ask for tips, but are still eager to perform. (Zoeann Murphy/The Washington Post)
June 5, 2013

Metro, about to launch a new rail line, has a lot of openings for jobs that pay. And then it has some spots that don’t offer a dime.

Undaunted by the prospect of working for free, dozens of aspiring entertainers turned out for auditions this week at the transit agency’s headquarters, hoping for a chance to sing, dance or otherwise showcase themselves outside Metro stations.

Not only will they see no money from Metro, the chosen performers can’t accept tips, however much they might impress passing commuters.

And before they play a single note, they have to pass a background check and confirm their legal immigration status. Oh, and they will be performing outside, in the heat and humidity that mark summer in Washington.

But a hip-hop dance crew, a 10-year-old guitarist, three preteen sisters and the 60 other aspiring acts knew there was one thing a Metro gig could deliver: an audience from among the hundreds of thousands of daily rail riders.

The singers, dancers, musicians and spoken-word artists auditioned Tuesday night for “MetroPerforms!” The program chooses entertainers to perform at select station entrances.

Metro will notify those who made the cut next week.

The venues aren’t perfect. Commuters tend to be in a hurry, and riders not wearing ear buds end up listening to announcements about delays, elevator outages or weekend track work.

But any audience can be better than no audience.

“There are a lot of people who enter and exit the system,” said Michael McBride, who runs Art in Transit, Metro’s public arts program. “It’s a captive audience almost — they’re moving, but captive.”

MetroPerforms! launched in 2007 and was revived last year after a hiatus. Artists used to receive a stipend that came from local arts councils, but that money dried up. Still, musicians encouraged Metro to bring back the program, McBride said.

John Campbell, a trombone player, practiced “Every Breath You Take” with the other members of his trio while they waited their turn. Campbell said he didn’t know beforehand that the Metro program didn’t pay. “It’s kind of frustrating,” said Campbell, 25, of Northwest Washington. “But I’m still going to try out. Because what I’ve learned over the years is it’s not about the money, it’s about the music.”

Many of those who showed up said they already performed on streets around the District. Campbell said his group was hired to perform at a party after being spotted playing on a street in Adams Morgan.

Even artists with other gigs want to play at Metro stations “just to be seen, be heard,” said cellist Elise Cuffy of Northwest. Cuffy was auditioning with her classical-jazz-funk fusion sextet SynchroniCity, which has performed at Blues Alley and other venues in the area.

“It seemed like they loved us!” she said after the audition.

Performances will occur during lunchtime and the evening commute from June through September. The exact station locations will be determined once the artists are picked next week. Some want to be close to home, while others want high-profile spots, such as Gallery Place and Metro Center.

And after all that, there’s no guarantee that riders will pause outside a station to listen.

“Honestly, I’m not sure if I would stop, because I need to catch my train,” Maggie Sowards of Alexandria said Wednesday outside the McPherson Square station. “I wish them good luck. It takes courage to stand in the heat for that long.”

The hopefuls came with drum kits and guitars, keyboards and a tuba.

Each act was given three minutes to wow a panel of five judges that included McBride and representatives of the D.C. Commission on the Arts and the Kennedy Center. Many performances in the windowless meeting room were interrupted by the same set of questions from the judges: Do you have another song? Will you use a microphone? Can you fill up a full hour?

Robin Smallwood of Southeast, carrying a dictionary and a banana, told the judges she was there “to sing and to inspire.”

Smallwood sang, started a spoken-word selection about the wonders of reading and balanced a dictionary on her head as part of her audition. She said she heard about the event only a few hours earlier, so she didn’t have a chance to pick up her unicycle.

After Nora Kelsall, a 16-year-old from Northwest, played a soothing piece on her harp, the room was still with admiration.

“Can you imagine what your gift will do for someone in the middle of a rough day?” McBride asked her after she finished playing.

Commuters might “appreciate the music,” Kelsall said after her audition. “If they don’t like it, they would keep walking.”

Mark Berman is a reporter on the National staff. He runs Post Nation, a destination for breaking news and developing stories from around the country.
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