If you think about it, riding the bus is a lot like dancing. There's the gentle sweep of the hands to signify that a seat is empty. The delicate pirouette to keep your messenger bag on your shoulder, while gracefully grasping onto the bar above your head. And the synchronized sway of heads when the driver takes a sharp turn. Dancer Jamie Benson noticed this specific type of social choreography during several car-less periods in his eight years in Los Angeles and realized he had to turn it into an actual dance performance. "I was sitting on the 704 from Silver Lake to Santa Monica," he remembers. "The proposal for the show came together in one sitting."
The result is Mass Transit, a 40-minute "bastardized Broadway experience" about the specific physical engagement that public transportation requires. Benson teamed up with costume designer Andrae Gonzalo, a Project Runway alumnus, to create a performance that speaks to the issues of class, race, and space that confront a group of Angelenos every day. "It's about the dynamics between the different personalities," says Benson. "This is a situation with a lot of people in a very small place, some of them are very different from each other, and they're actively trying to avoid each other." In fact, that avoidance is a big part of the show. "What people will do in order not to touch each other!" says Gonzalo. "They twist, the way they move their bodies. That's so Martha Graham!"
Pictured here (from left to right): Malie Fernandez, Paul Outlaw, Soni Benson
Thirteen performers board a "bus" on the stage, which is loosely set to suggest a Metro vehicle, with seats lined up in rows. Costumes are minimal, bichromatic pieces that "cartoonify" certain fashion details, like the hapless tourist who wears cargo shorts with a few too many utility pockets. Vocals are also kept to a minimum, with more focus on movement, which Benson says ranges from contortionism to tango, ballroom, and jazz. At the front of the "bus" is a driver who Benson soon realized would supply the visual and physical cues to his "riders." "The bus driver is conducting, and the bus is an orchestra." he says. "They have to follow him."
All the characters—from a Bible-thumper to an emo teenager to a well-to-do Westsider who "performs as if his Benz is in the shop"—are drawn from the real-life interactions that Benson and Gonzalo have had on L.A. buses. But they were careful not to reinforce the L.A. stereotype that the bus is only for crazies. "We wanted to make it seem like it's a real place, not for the mentally ill," says Benson. In fact, says Gonzalo, he hopes the show will promote the bus as an important part of one's daily routine. "Randomly encountering other people depending on who they are and what kind of day they're having can be something very positive that shifts your perspective in your own life," says Gonzalo. "You can't have that kind of interaction at a stop sign."
Pictured here (from left to right): Unnamed Pedestrian, Jamie Benson
Even though they drive more these days, Benson and Gonzalo are still avid users of the system, and chose to live in their Silver Lake neighborhood specifically so they'd be close to transit. (Gonzalo also notes that they've "both gotten smarter" thanks to the voluminous reading they're doing on the bus.) The duo says that, while Mass Transit is meant to be entertainment, they hope to acknowledge the "invisibility" of L.A.'s public transit and raise its profile. "I think the key is getting people to be proud of their transit system," says Gonzalo. "If we can do anything to make it feel exotic and fun on top of being practical, that would be great." This hopefully won't be their last chance. Fittingly enough, they're hoping to take Mass Transit on the road.
Mass Transit debuts Sunday, March 6, at 8:00 p.m. as part of The Bootleg Dance Festival at the Bootleg Theater in Los Angeles. You should probably take the bus there, and you can plan your trip at Metro.net.
Photos by Emily Marchand; pictured in top photo: Paul Outlaw, Pedestrian, Soni Benson, Jamie Benson