Random Acts of Culture™ on the railroad

Arts / Article

By Erik Lambertsen, Knight Foundation

I stepped down the staircase to the third track and opened the heavy glass door to Market East Station’s platform. I examined the weary faces of those about to join me for another long commute. Some contemplated daily responsibilities of making dinner and taking care of their families. Others smoldered with work-related stresses that had seeped into their evening.

I boarded the train, fought back the balky sliding door, slumped down into a seat and continued my observations. I realized each rider was isolated from all the others, sharing a car, a commute, yet still disconnected. We jolted into gear and began to roll. As the familiar green-white paint scheme of Suburban Station wound its way past my window, we slowed to a stop. The process repeated. Additional grumpy, tired faces filled the car. Then it hit me. I thought of the Knight Foundation’s ongoing Random Act of Culture® campaign and it clicked. What better way to shock and uplift people than to expose them to fine art in a place they’d expect it the least?

The idea began as “RAC Train,” written on a scrap of my notebook paper and through collaboration between SEPTA, The Opera Company of Philadelphia and Knight Foundation; it became a reality on September 21st, 2011. Four singers, performing four times a day, over 5 days allowed us to fan out over all commuter rail lines and reach the maximum audience. The singers entered trains and secured aisle seats. We had to position ourselves correctly among the throng of commuters, which proved to be extremely challenging.

Using a portable radio, we played loud bass rhythms followed by the twanging sound of a banjo. As people craned their necks looking backwards to find the source of the disturbance, Habanera blared and the vocalists sprang from their seats, one after another. We exited past smiling faces and outstretched cell phone cameras. We crossed to the other side of the platform and boarded a train heading the opposite direction to do it all over again.

Of course, not everyone was initially receptive to the performances. During our final run, two Philadelphia Police officers boarded our train car. As the radio trumpeted its intermittent sound effects through the car, the officers approached and ordered Michael Bolton of The Opera Co. to deactivate it. Almost simultaneously, the singers stood and began performing. The officers were speechless as their intimidating demeanor fizzled into sheepish self-realization. As we exited each train you could see how the arts had connected passengers. Cars which were once isolated and mundane now teemed with smiling faces, each discussing their shared “Random Act of Culture” experience. “SEPTA has never done anything like this before,” explained Brian Bromanite, SEPTA Station Manager and aide to our RAC troupe. “Nobody is really sure what to expect.”

Sometimes, there’s no better way to experience culture.

Click here to see the Philadelphia Inquirer’s video of a Random Act of Culture® on the SEPTA.