Causing a Scene (Charlie Todd & Alex Scordelis)

Imagine sitting in a random Starbucks when a couple begins a minor spat, a man spills his coffee on his shirt, and another man wanders through the store blaring “Shiny Happy People” on his boom box. Just a random slice of life, you might think. Now suppose all those events (and more) happen again five minutes later. And again five minutes after that. And five minutes after that. You might wonder if your little part of the cosmos had just fallen into some sort of inescapable loop. You’d at least take notice.

That was the idea behind “The Mobius”, an hour-long seamless loop of drama played out by a New York acting group. Improv Everywhere actors, or “agents” as they prefer to be called, specialize in unscheduled, unusual performances in public places in front of unsuspecting audiences. The Starbucks employees weren’t in on the secret during the Mobius, but the spontaneous show entertained the customers and gave everyone a story tell — even if they never understood what had happened.

Charlie Todd founded Improv Everywhere in 2001, after a successful night pretending to be a musician in a New York night club.  This summer Todd published Causing a Scene, a new book documenting the stories behind fourteen pranks his group has staged in recent years. They range from faking a rooftop U2 concert to orchestrating a sudden 5-minute freeze of 200 people in busy Grand Central Station.

There’s no law-breaking or protests or hidden meanings to any of Todd’s pranks. He merely wants to give people an experience. All the agents stay in character and leave the scene with no explanation. Consider the time he slowly trickled an army of eighty agents into Best Buy wearing royal blue shirts and khaki pants. They didn’t pretend to be store employees — only courteous shoppers who happened to be wearing clothes that resembled the store uniform. Double-takes were the norm that day until all those people “waiting for a friend” filed out again.

The same went for the Anton Chekhov book signing and the Olympic synchronized swimming trial in a city fountain. Improv Everywhere agents just put on public shows when no one realizes it. Usually the pranks leave everyone smiling. Watch “High Five Escalator” — a very simple Improv Everywhere stunt not mentioned in the book — and see the glum “going to work” faces become happy in less than 126 seconds. In at least one case (The Amazing Hypnotist), however, agents left people panicked or angry. Such pranks seem cruel to me — amusing only to the performers — but they are the exception.

The creativity with which Todd and his group approached most events in the book left me chuckling. And wishing I had been there.

p.s. Use the link above as a launch pad for other Improv Everywhere videos.

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