Improv Everywhere's MP3 Experiment - San Francisco 2011

I know Charlie Todd, the guy from Improv Everywhere. Oh yeah. We met on the internet.

For ten years, I've been admiring his scenes of orchestrated absurdity play out on the streets and parks of New York City. Finally, on Tuesday, I had a chance to participate.

The SF Improv Festival had hired Improv Everywhere to put on a public event. It was IE's MP3 Experiment event at San Francisco's landmark Union Square park.

Here's how it works: The public is invited, instructed to download an MP3 soundtrack for the event. The MP3 is to be played on each participant's own music player, listened to through their headphones. The 40-minute sound file provides a soundtrack and instructions for the participants, who act together (or seperately) to create a unique scene, not only for the participants, but for anyone who witnesses it unfolding.

For Tuesday's event, I downloaded the file and loaded it onto my phone. I live in Sacramento, which is about 100 miles east of San Francisco, so I snuck out early to make the 6:30 event start time.

I wore a very red shirt and brought a single uninflated balloon.

I consider myself very adept at parking in San Francisco, so I wasn't too worried when I rolled into town with only 20 minutes to get to the square. I found a newly legal spot open on Pine, parked and started walking briskly to Union Square. I took a wrong turn and ended up approaching it from the south.

On the way, I had my eyes peeled for people wearing red, green, yellow or blue shirts, walking briskly. There were only a few.

Only a few until I rounded the corner and Union Square came into view. It was packed.

About 15 - 2100 people milled about in green, yellow, red or blue shirts. Perhaps 100 non-participants were sprinkled in amongst them, wary that something was up, but probably not sure exactly what.

Suddenly I got an emergency text message alerting me that the event had been inexplicably moved to 12:30 p.m.

 

As if on cue, the confident member of a touring foursome spoke,"Excuse me, do you know what is going on?"

Oh my God, this was the moment I'd always known I'd screw up. The part where I act as if nothing odd is happening. I knew I would start laughing and blab the whole damn plan.

"Oh!" I started excitedly, "This is Union Square, One of the top four tourist attractions in all of San Francisco." I continued unneccessarily, "everyone just has to get a photo here."

Her tone implied an eye-roll, "Oh, he's not going to tell us."

With one minute to go, I took a place in about the middle of the crowd, preparing my iphone, watching the clock.
I could hear a small group nearby counting down, "5...4...3...2...1"

 

A low cheer went up as it was time to press "Play". (Purists will say that a low cheer is not supposed to go up)

After a minute of introductory music, the omnipotent voice of "Steve" introduced himself as the leader of the event, and let us know that he would lead us through a series of movements and games, and that we should work together.

 

I won't give you a play-by-play of the whole event, because I don't want to spoil it, but he runs the gamut of everything you'd like to do wordlessly with a group of 2,100 friends.

 

You know, like play tag, pretend to fall asleep, sword fight, make a human pyramid, make a "wave" that radiates the center, freeze motionless for 50 seconds, and dance like a robot... plus 30 other things.

 

 

It was awesome and fun!

Having a common soundtrack is an absolutely amazing and effective way to get people to work and play together. Four minutes in, Steve asked us to hug a fellow participant. People didn't hesitate, they just hugged.

Charlie Todd and Improv Everywhere probably have the most experience of anyone in the world at creating events like this one. They know what's possible, and what is fun. It fascinates me what a random anonymous crowd will and won't do.

 

 

 

Photo courtesy of Charlie Todd, who, by the way, I know.

The result was seamless and clever, with an sweet finale.

After fourty minutes of orchestrated instructions, the MP3 ended with a bit of music, leaving a plaza-full of people filled with joy, a unique experience behind them.

They didn't want it to end.


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