For many New Yorkers, the city’s subways are the performance spaces they encounter most often. Everyday, dancers and musicians put on a subterranean revue that uses mass transit as a stage.
In recent years, this moving festival has included “Subway Mania,” an homage to one of professional wrestling’s most popular period: the late 1990s to early 2000. About three times a year, costumed performers take on the snarling, swaggering roles of fan-favorites like Kane, Stone Cold Steve Austin, and the Undertaker and squeeze the rollicking story lines and acrobatic spectacle of wrestling into a single subway car.
On a Sunday evening earlier this year, the cosplay wrestlers gathered at the Lexington Avenue/59th Street station in Manhattan wearing shiny costumes and robes and holding homemade championship belts.
The scene caught the attention of Shyama Venkateswar, 57, who was on her way home to Forest Hills, Queens. Her sons, now young adults, had watched World Wrestling Entertainment shows growing up, she said, so she followed the wrestlers aboard the train and abandoned her trip home.
“Always interested in street art of any kind,” she said. “I think they should thrive and prosper and flourish.”
The show that evening began with two performers dressed like two former W.W.E. stars, Rob Van Dam and the Undertaker, who entered the subway car through the connecting side door at one end. Music blasted from a portable speaker, and spectators, who stood on the benches to clear more floor space, let out a roar.
Subway Mania, the creation of Tim Rivera, 27, a video editor who lives in east Harlem, taped its first matches in 2016. The first video involved two camera operators and featured Mr. Rivera and a friend in wrestling gear, battling in full daylight on a Manhattan-bound M train as passengers watched, confused. But it was a hit on the internet. “My two favorite things: W.W.E. and the N.Y.C. subway,” read one comment.
The W.W.E., the company synonymous with professional wrestling, is one part gladiator arena and one part soap opera mixed with broad comedy and pyrotechnics that first aired matches on television in 1956. In recent years, the company has launched crossover stars such as John Cena, Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson and Dave Bautista. One of the company’s most popular offerings is WrestleMania, a name Mr. Rivera has partially borrowed for Subway Mania. The W.W.E. declined to comment for this article.
As a young child, Mr. Rivera’s family would often have W.W.E. programming on all three televisions at home. When big moments happened, Rivera would call out to his father, a construction worker, and his mother, a pharmacy technician.
The subway, which Mr. Rivera started riding by himself at the age of 10, introduced him to even more quirky experiences and people: He saw singers and rappers, mariachi bands and “showtime” performers. “The subway literally plays a huge part in my life — in my whole life, my childhood,” Mr. Rivera said. “Without the subway, I wouldn’t have never got 90 percent of the experiences I got in life.”
Mr. Rivera started to experiment with filmmaking in high school, going on to earn a degree in film production from Brooklyn College in 2019.
“This is my art,” Mr. Rivera said. “I’m not only wrestling in front of five people, 60 people on the train. This is international.”
While other subway performers might sometimes hold out their hats to passengers for money, Rivera has not monetized his performances. He is instead chasing exposure online to build his filmmaking career.
The skirmishes on Subway Mania are cartoonish and are unlikely to be mistaken for a real fight in a city wary of crime on public transit. The performances are recorded, edited to run around 10 minutes and posted to YouTube and other platforms; as of early October, “Subway Mania” videos have racked up nearly 10 million views, helping Mr. Rivera burnish his resume and his filmmaker credentials.
Mr. Rivera said Subway Mania videos — he has made about 12 shorts that have amassed anywhere from 5,000 to 280,000 views on YouTube — helped him land his current video editing job at an ad agency.
Buskers are permitted to perform in subway cars, so long as they follow the Rules of Conduct, as set out by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the state agency that runs the transit network, according to Renee Price, M.T.A.’s deputy communications director. Musicians and other performers are also permitted to perform in subway stations through the Music Under New York program. The M.T.A. did not respond to a request for comment on Subway Mania.
“It’s like guerrilla filmmaking,” Mr. Rivera said. “We just got to make it happen. One take, that’s it, and make the best out of it.”
Like professional wrestling on TV, Subway Mania is choreographed. Mr. Rivera’s troupe, about five strong and made up of friends, rehearse either the day before a performance or just before taking the stage. It is a labor of love that connects them to their childhoods: They do not get paid, and Mr. Rivera either purchases the costumes himself or asks an artist friend to make them.
During the Sunday evening performance that rerouted Ms. Venkateswar, Mr. Rivera stepped onto the train alongside about 50 people, comprising the cast, camera operators and fans. Four cops followed the group onto the train, prompting Mr. Rivera to instruct everyone to get off and split into three groups; he was fearful the officers would try to break up the performance. His plan worked: They lost the officers and reconvened at the Forest Hills-71st Avenue station, where they boarded a Manhattan-bound R train.
Mr. Rivera, who was dressed like the former W.W.E. Champion Bret Hart, one of his childhood heroes, gave stage directions to the roughly two dozen “fans” he had invited to provide cinematic cheers. They had responded to his call on Instagram for spectator roles.
Mr. Rivera and his friends now have real fans of their own. Along with his fellow performers, Mr. Rivera has performed matches onstage with the rappers A$AP Rocky and Westside Gunn, and his act has been imitated in Japan and covered in a German publication. He’s also spun Subway Mania off into a YouTube interview series of former wrestlers including Mr. Hart, Chris Jericho and Kurt Angle. “He and his family have sat down and watched our Subway Mania videos,” Mr. Rivera said of Mr. Hart. “He was down to earth.”
Following the entrance of the first two fighters, Mr. Rivera entered the train, dressed as Mr. Hart, strutting and waving his hands.
Mr. Rivera tossed his opponent to the smudged train car floor and twisted the man into a “sharpshooter” submission hold.
Mr. Rivera gripped a yellow pole to steady himself as the train rattled through the tunnel, a strand of hair from his black wig dangling across his face as his opponent screamed in fake pain.
Competitors were eliminated by being thrown off the train when the doors opened, and after Mr. Rivera was tossed out, he quickly ran into the adjacent car, where he changed into different gear. He re-entered the match minutes later dressed as Hulk Hogan.
Incoming passengers were faced with two choices: squeeze inside the packed car or find another one. Those who chose “Subway Mania” pulled out their phones to capture the scene.
As the performance ended, and the train pulled into the Times Square-42nd Street station, the car erupted in a chant: “Sub-way Mania! Sub-way Mania!” After saying goodbye to his entourage, Mr. Rivera, still in costume, took a quiet train home back to Harlem. There were no buskers in his car.