Peter Brown enters the No. 1 subway train on New York City’s Upper West Side, not far from his apartment. But to Brown, he is in the Capulets’ orchard, looking up at an imaginary balcony. In a trained, strong voice, he calls out these immortal words: “But soft! What light through yonder window breaks? It is the east and Juliet is the sun.”
Troian Bellisario boards the same No. 1 train through a different door and senses the bewilderment of the riders as they eye the lovesick Brown warily. Is he talking to himself? Practicing something? A weirdo?
But then Bellisario crosses to him, stands up on a seat and replies: “O, Romeo, Romeo! Wherefore art thou, Romeo?’ ”
A teenager looks up from her iPhone. “Oh, my God. It’s Juliet!”
And so begins the balcony scene from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, 11 lines timed to last from one subway stop to the next. Brown (who uses the stage name Peter Vack) and Bellisario are BFA acting students at the USC School of Theatre, and this was the second summer break they’ve spent serious time busking on the subway.
On an average day, they bring in $100. One day, they cleared $200. They kept at it for four and a half weeks and performed for thousands of riders.
The New York Post published a feature on them which began, “ ‘O, Romeo, Romeo! Wherefore art thou, Romeo?’ On the No. 1 train, of course.”
One of the appreciative subway riders the Post interviewed turned out to be Tom Crouse, an acting teacher at the Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute, who said that Shakespeare would have loved the performance. “He created for the masses,” Crouse said.
The USC Chronicle reached the actors, appropriately enough, near Verona, Italy, shortly before they returned to campus for their senior year.
“Really, the support people gave us was overwhelming,” Brown said. “It’s unbelievable how many cars break into applause. Sometimes, we had really educated people talking lines back to us or making requests. Do Taming of the Shrew! Do Macbeth!”
Said Brown, “I’ve lived in New York my whole life and I’ve seen mariachi singers and jazz guitarists in the subway, but never Shakespeare. Several people thanked us for adding culture to their day.”
The two got the idea after finishing sophomore theatre classes with Jack Rowe and Brent Blair and realizing just how much classic material they had memorized. They mulled over all the “two handers” from their repertoire, but decided to stick with the balcony scene, over and over.
“People know Romeo and Juliet,” Brown said. “Even if they don’t go to the theatre, you are tapping into some culture they know.”
Added Bellisario, “People said to us, ‘It’s wonderful. It’s like watching people fall in love right in front of you.’ People said we brightened their day.”