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Emerson, MBTA Team Up to Keep Commuters in the Know

The doors to the rush hour Green Line trolley opened, and no one—not King Kong, not the giraffe, not the monkeys hanging from the handrails by their tails—made one move to let the passenger on the platform in.                                                     

What’s a T. Rex to do?

The disgruntled dinosaur was forced to push her way through the menagerie, knocking around a cheeky monkey in the process, until she found a seat at the back of the car where she could read her Berkeley Beacon in relative peace.

It’s the hope of the MBTA and Nick Corsano’s Visual and Media Arts class that the T. Rex’s frustration will be the T passenger’s edification. Through a Partnered Studio class offered last fall, Emerson students made a series of public service and informational videos—some quirky, like the animal-themed etiquette spot, others more straightforward—to share with Boston transit riders.

Read more about Emerson's Partnered Studio courses. 

This week, the T has released the first of the Emerson students’ videos, a piece titled MBTA Family, intended to introduce riders to the people whose jobs it is to get them where they need to go. The video will run in stations across the system, as well as online. Later, it will release etiquette shorts and short films explaining technical issues.

“[The campaign] was developed by customers for customers to get everyone to understand that we care about customer experience,” said Todd Johnson, deputy chief operating officer of service performance for the MBTA.


Idea Born

Maryjane Descarpentries, an executive assistant at the MBTA, is also a T rider, and sometimes hears her fellow passengers grumble and wonder aloud about things like schedule delays and trains paused in the station.

She’s also been the recipient of her share of backpacks to the face from oblivious passengers who neglect to take them off once on the train, and one day had an epiphany.

Emerson has a film program, and those students ride the T every day. What if they made a series of videos that explained, say, how signal problems affect ride times, or why it’s important to move farther into a crowded train to let new passengers on? In addition to being available on the T’s website, they could be tweeted out to respond to technical difficulties, or just as an FYI. They could even be played in the stations.  

“[Students] are definitely experiencing the same things, and more importantly, they’re more well-versed than some older folks in social media platforms,” Descarpentries said.

She cold-called VMA Chair Brooke Knight with a proposal—and a sweet offer. If his students could make public service spots for the T, the department would have access to the MBTA’s training facility to film their own projects.

The facility, located at the Broadway station in South Boston, is used by the MBTA to train new employees and by local law enforcement agencies and first responders to conduct emergency training exercises. It’s in an actual former subway tunnel and holds real buses, subway, and trolley cars that do everything except move. It’s a filmmaker’s dream.

“VMA has many opportunities presented to us every week, and a few are really stellar,” Knight said. “This was one we were really excited about because we could see quickly what a great relationship [it would be] with the MBTA.”


Making a Video

The T came to the students with a few requests, said Nick Corsano, VMA production coordinator, who is teaching the Partnered Studio class. They wanted profiles of individual MBTA employees so customers could see who was getting them from point A to B. They wanted an etiquette video that included entertaining skits to get riders to behave. And they wanted informational content to explain what goes on behind the scenes when something goes awry.

“It’s incredibly labor intensive to suss out these issues,” Corsano said. “’Yeah, your train is delayed, but here are the 50 things that are being worked on.’”

Sia Gale, who graduated in December 2017 and was subsequently hired by the MBTA as a video content producer, was in the Partnered Studio class.

She said the MBTA gave them one brief about signal issues that was hundreds of pages long. The students had to sift through the information and boil it down into something that was both digestible and visual.

“It was interesting to compare what we expected them to give us, as people who think visually, versus what they gave us, which was very technical and explained everything from an operational standpoint,” Gale said.

When she wasn’t wading through pages of technical documents, coming up with concepts for how to get people to take their backpacks off on the trains, or setting up lights in dark subway tunnels, Gale was donning a 7-foot-tall T. Rex costume and getting ready for her close up.

On an afternoon in early November, Corsano’s class gathered at the training facility’s Green Line section to film the skit about moving into the cars to let passengers on. It would join other vignettes about not hogging the pole, letting passengers off before boarding, putting backpacks between one’s feet, not smoking on the platform, and not taking up too much space (“manspreading”).

In between each take, the plastic animals had to be rearranged. Students wearing King Kong and Godzilla costumes were moved around for maximum door blockage. Gale’s T. Rex suit had to be periodically re-inflated because every time she sat down on the trolley, some of the air escaped and her enormous head drooped.

Gale said Johnson and Descarpentries from the MBTA were great about communicating with the class and answering their questions quickly. And they were open-minded about the ideas the students came up with—including filling one of their Green Line cars with animals and B-movie monsters.

When the course came up as an offering last semester, Gale said she was really excited to apply and find out what it was all about.

“To have it be a good experience throughout has been really awesome,” she said.  


Going Forward

Johnson, the T’s deputy COO, said the project has been a fantastic collaboration. Part of that is due to the fact that the MBTA wasn’t married to any particular project, so the Emerson students had plenty of room to unleash their creativity.

It was also a dose of real-world client work for the students, many of whom are newly out in the working world or will be very soon.

“It was an opportunity for students to get experience in pitching their ideas, using their imagination, with the customer giving them a baseline of what we were looking for,” Johnson said.

Johnson and Descarpentries said it’s their hope that the partnership will continue into the future, with new students producing fresh content for the MBTA.

When they first came up with the idea, Johnson said, they had no idea that Emerson would build a whole course around it.

“It’s been really interesting to be a part of this, personally,” he said. “It’s been fun. I think we just want to thank Emerson. It’s a great partnership.”

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