Laissez-Faire | In Love & Free Trade

Tragedy in Transit and for the People

A Tragedy in Three Stations
Photo: Tod Seelie

To New Yorkers, the subway system is intuitive to the everyday commute, like a Benny to his Joon of the city’s urban identity, and now, a theatrical stage that transcends both creative and bureaucratic thresholds.

Drama underground, literally, translates to I.R.T. (Interborough Rapid Transit): A Tragedy in Three Stations on Jan. 29-31 and Feb. 5-7. It is a love story set throughout the subway’s history with eccentric costumes and sets in the vein of Victorian petticoats and gas lanterns.

The play is written and directed by Jeff Stark, writer of New York’s Nonsense List, a weekly newsletter of underground cultural events. Stark was inspired by the idea of public art space – like Mardi Gras in New Orleans or Carnival in Brazil – where everyone can, participate in art, independent of exclusive grants and black box stages.

“I think it’s important for art to meet the people,” Stark said. “I wanted to work in the commons of the subway, and I liked the challenge of creating something linear, that would unfold over time.”

IRT is about August Belmont, Jr. (E. James Ford), a handlebar mustached tycoon who funded the subway in the early 1900s. His daughter, Clara Belmont (Catherine Yeager), falls in love with Thomas Fowler (Tyler Caffall), a carpenter and Union Organizer against the capitalist endeavors surrounding the subway’s construction.

“There’s plenty of guerrilla theatre that I’ve seen but nothing where it’s a full-length play. It’s pretty exciting,” said Yeager, whose character is based on the anarchist, Emma Goldman. “Every single night is going to have a different set of challenges, depending on what the trains do and on how the crowd reacts.”

Passersby took pictures and wore expressions of amazement on their faces, while the audience parted the aisle for commuters and MTA workers on the platforms; a woman from the audience signaled to other members, saying, “Let’s be good citizens”. Despite the premise of the play’s storyline and the DYI nature of the production, Stark maintains that the performance is within the MTA’s guidelines. Robin Lehto (also known as “Robin the ticket girl”) says that the MTA gladly provided “Music Under NY” passes in case the production encountered anyone who mistook the play’s presence.

According to Robbin Gust, an MTA customer service representative, individuals do not need permission to perform in the subway and are protected under the First Amendment, but are subject to certain guidelines by the MTA, none of which prohibit performances.

Crowds for each show were limited to 30. The 180 tickets allotted for all performance dates, which available for $10 via, sold out within 45 minutes.

With elaborate mobile sets and a film aboard the subway cars, timing was everything for the production to run smoothly. The audience hopped on and off trains as an efficient unit led by an outspoken, neo-punk (and real-life) NYC tour guide from Mississippi, named Julie Weiner, who was armed with as much unabashed spunk as encyclopedic knowledge of New York and its epic transit system. Weiner says the production first rehearsed at studios and venues like Rubulad, then moved to the subways for about a month, usually at night to avoid commuters. Without costume, some spectators were puzzled by the performances, for example, during a fight scene on a subway car.

“These two Jamaican guys went up to them and were like, Oh shit, man, you guys are fucking good,” Weiner said. “Are you really fighting for real?”

Weiner is a tour manager for the New York City Water Taxi whose part, unlike the cast’s, was unscripted. She adds that working with Stark was an inspiration because of his sincerity and commitment to his vision of art as a democratic form of culture that belongs to everyone, not just professional artists.

According to audience member, Harry Hunkele, a producer for the public access TV show, “Secrets of New York”, the caliber of the play’s complexity surpassed what he has witnessed in his experience.

“Quite an event isn’t it?” Hunkele said. “The timing, the coordination is amazing. I produce in TV. I know what goes on behind and this is over the top, really amazing what they did – just to get everyone off the train on time.”

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