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SANTA FE (AP) – Punctuated by the hiss of air brakes, a city bus jostles to a stop. The stage is set. The curtains are already open.
A woman stands halfway down the bus aisle, her hands grasping the neck of a cello is not your average Santa Fe Trails rider. A belt around her waist is secured to one of the vertical bus railings; as she gently plucks the strings of her instrument, with the bus swaying unsteadily, her pizzicato sound doesn’t stop.
When a violinist gets on the bus, followed by singer Madi Soto, it’s clear this won’t be an average bus ride, either.
A local artists collective called Littleglobe is preparing a mobile “bus opera” performance, scheduled to premiere for the general public on Santa Fe Trails next fall.
This weekend, writers, composers, musicians and actors performed a short test-run of the bus opera called “Crosstown ‥5” for friends and family. Sunday’s ride was the first time the group rehearsed on an actual moving bus, although for months they have been working out the project in a stationary bus, explained Valerie Martinez, one of the production’s artistic directors.
A story unfolds as the bus winds through Santa Fe neighborhoods, past the barely wet riverbed near the city’s historic center, through the humble west side and across to the tony east side. As characters on the bus wailed plaintive songs or delivered thoughtful spoken word, costumed participants along the route offered silent contributions to the performance.
A brilliant feathered bluebird drew a crowd by dancing on a tree along East Alameda. Black-winged angels and men in historic costumes reached for the bus as it drove by.
“What an interesting way to pull the community into the project,” said preview bus rider Erica Gionfriddo, who said at first she wasn’t sure whether she was supposed to look out the bus windows at the characters on the street. “People behind the bus driving in their cars just see this giant bird costume ... and we are all drawing on our own experiences with these places in town as we go through them.”
Martinez, who served as the city’s poet laureate for two years beginning in 2008 and is a playwright and teacher, shares artistic direction of the project with Acushla Bastible; Chris Jonas and Molly Sturges collaborate as composers.
Their production still being written and subjected to a community engagement process won’t ever be the same twice.
“Sometimes we stop at a light for a few minutes, and sometimes the light is green. It’s different every single time we make the run,” Martinez said.
Those challenges are part of what makes the work so animated, said Bastible, whose credits include pieces for the Santa Fe Opera and her own company, Angel Exit Theater.
“It’s a moving set, and we are moving through the set,” she said. “It’s the most beautiful set you could have, but it’s also the most unpredictable set you could have.”
Although the preview was in a chartered bus marked “Special,” next fall’s performances will be very public, Martinez said.
“Next year we will be on the line. It will be on the Crosstown, No. 5. A person will get on and pay their fare, and the opera will just be there. We didn’t want it to be a tourist/visitor bus. We wanted it to be for everyone,” she said.
Martinez said officials might add an extra bus on the regular route or make other changes to accommodate passengers next fall.
“It’s logistically very challenging, but we are committed to that,” she told riders after the performance.
Creating a performance piece on the bus is a way to express “some of our sadness over the fact that Santa Fe has become segregated,” Martinez said. “I envision the bus as a thread that kind of pulls us all together.”
City Transit Director Jon Bulthuis said art on buses isn’t a new concept; city buses have been vehicles for murals, photography and printed poetry, and “Art in Public Places” money has been used to improve bus stops at several locations around the city. Live performance, however, isn’t common.
“It’s interesting and unique, and it’s something that hasn’t been done here. It’s really in very few places that anyone has attempted to do something like this,” he said. “There will be activities taking place on the bus, but people will be able to use the buses as they always have. ... This is kind of a bonus for the community and for people who do use the bus, and hopefully it isn’t something that gets in the way of them using the bus for transportation.”
Although he expected some resistance from drivers who might object to the project, Bulthuis said his meetings with Littleglobe and bus staff have gotten positive results.
“For the most part, people are supportive,” he said.