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Entertainers Audition to Make Metro a Moving Experience

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By Lena H. Sun
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 13, 2007

There were the 13 members of the girls' step team, dressed head to toe in red; the Irish music fiddlers' group clad in green; the hip-hop-infused belly dancers; the African-style storyteller and his two young drummers; and the woman who played a few bars of "Amazing Grace" on a musical saw (yes, a saw).

But one performance that rocked the house during auditions yesterday for aspiring Metro station performers was a comedy routine by a man in a wheelchair who was sporting really bright coral-colored pants. Gordon Richmond, who has cerebral palsy, used an electronic device to deliver his lines, cracking up the judges for his allotted five minutes.

"How many of you noticed I'm disabled? Raise your hands," he started off. All five judges' hands went up. "It was the pants, right?"

Yesterday was the second and final day of auditions held by Metro and the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities to find performers who will entertain riders at a handful of District subway stations starting in June. About 40 winners will be announced at the end of the month.

Live entertainment is a staple in subway systems in New York, Paris and elsewhere, but this will be a first for Metro. The agency is also organizing auditions with arts councils in Montgomery and Prince George's counties for performances at stations there.

Metro has not picked which District stations will have performers, but officials have promised riders that their paths won't be blocked by some overzealous dance troupe. Performances will be limited to station entrances and will occur once or twice a week during lunchtime and the evening rush. The arts commission will pay D.C.-based artists about $200 per show. They will not be allowed to solicit.

Yesterday's session, and one Thursday night, drew 109 performers to the transit agency's headquarters.

The Upper County Steppers of Gaithersburg audition to perform at D.C. Metro stations. Other hopefuls included a comedian and a cellist.
The Upper County Steppers of Gaithersburg audition to perform at D.C. Metro stations. Other hopefuls included a comedian and a cellist.
In a windowless room normally reserved for pulse-pounding debates on issues such as defective girders and alkali-silica rehabilitation methods, the focus yesterday was on finding artists who could deliver performances for riders "that can change the course of their day," said Michael McBride, chief of Metro's art program and a judge.

"We want people to be moved to stop," added Lisa Richards, of the arts commission.

One after another, the performers faced the judges: McBride; Angie Gates, associate general manager of the Warner Theatre; Jonathan Willen, an arts and events producer; Caroline Holtz, a choral music teacher at Sidwell Friends School; and Michael Woods, human resources chief at Busboys and Poets, a restaurant and lounge in the U Street neighborhood.

A group of violinists from the D.C. Youth Orchestra played selections by Handel and Duke Ellington. A men's a cappella group crooned jazz and gospel numbers, and the Hueman Prophets, a pair of hip-hop theater artists, so impressed the judges Thursday with their beatboxing -- making percussive noises with their mouths -- that McBride asked, "Which one of you swallowed the boombox?"

Carell Kent, left, Lisa Richards and Meghan Kyle get animated during the D.C. World Beat Ensemble's audition. Metro and the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities will pick about 40 winners by the end of the month.
Carell Kent, left, Lisa Richards and Meghan Kyle get animated during the D.C. World Beat Ensemble's audition. Metro and the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities will pick about 40 winners by the end of the month.(Bill O'leary)
Ray Simmons, who was playing chess near Metro's downtown headquarters yesterday, heard music and walked in for a tryout. He borrowed a guitar from another musician, he told the judges.

"Your guitar is matching your shirt," Gates said with a smile.

Simmons looked down, noticing the leopard-print pattern on the guitar. He smiled, too.

In choosing artists, judges considered the auditioners' ability to perform with competing sounds and to sustain a 2 1/2 -hour act. The applicants were judged on five criteria, including skill and presence, and were assigned numerical scores of up to five for each one.

Most performers were cut off before their five minutes had ended with a crisp "thank you." You could tell, though, when the judges liked a performance. It was good if they asked for another piece. Better if they asked how big the repertoire.

A men's a cappella group, Reverb, got approving looks while singing "Pennies From Heaven" and, at the request of the judges, followed with "Angels Watching Over Me." The group won the Washington Area Music Association award as the best a cappella group last year.

Reverb has toured in the United States and abroad but has never played as a street group at subway stops, business manager Steve Langley said. If it is chosen, Langley said he figures the group has about 45 seconds to capture and hold someone's attention. "It's the time of a traffic light," he said. "Either you're going to grab them, or you're not."

On Thursday, cellist Christopher Ratto, 21, had barely played the first 10 bars of the slow and expressive sarabande movement of Bach's Suite 1 for unaccompanied cello when he was interrupted.

"Do you know the whole suite? Can you play the whole suite?" one judge asked.

Looking anxious, he replied: "Not in five minutes." The judges laughed and said that they wanted to know whether he had enough to fill more than two hours. "I can definitely fill up that time slot," he said afterward.

And he's not worried about being ignored. He read about the experience of world-class violinist Joshua Bell, who played at L'Enfant Plaza one weekday morning as part of a Washington Post experiment and attracted little attention.

"He's in a totally different league, and then some," Ratto said. "I hope that for some people, they can hear some kind of cultural expression while they're on their cold, dry, boring Metro ride. If I can make the experience of getting home a little more enjoyable, maybe that will put a smile on their face."

Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.


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