Friday, February 15, 2008

Distractionfest 2008: day 4 or 5 - ubiquitous improv

I have a couple of friends who have been involved with improvisational comedy, and it always looks like a lot of fun, and also a lot of work. (Indeed, my friend James, who was a major impetus for Distractionfest in the first place, served as a part of Impromime, an improvisational troupe who performed improv pantomimes.)

I really like the idea of public drama - and pranks and practical jokes and hoaxes - and I recently discovered Improv Everywhere, a troupe which does long form improv troupe which performs pre-planned 'missions', usually involving socially awkward or uncomfortable situations. (That text comes from their website.) It is somewhat like a more elaborate and well-organised flashmob, although the first 'no pants subway' day pre-dates the first official flashmob by about a year.

They have received some press around the world for their annual 'no pants' day (although I hasten to add for the sake of my British readership that this would be better characterised as 'no trousers day'). It involved hundreds of people in cities such as New York riding the subway whilst wearing no trousers. Safety in numbers, I suppose. It made the news. (Participants did wear underpants, it is worth noting.)

They've done plenty of other fun missions, too, including the following:

1) Frozen Grand Central, in which 207 'agents' all freeze in place at the exact same moment in various parts of Grand Central Station in New York City. The video is great - they always take video to record peoples' reactions. They did this for exactly five minutes, and then all unfroze as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened and went about the rest of their day.

2) They also did a hoax improv U2 concert in Manhattan called 'Even Better Than the Real Thing', complete with adoring fans. (Apparently U2 are known for doing impromptu concerts for free in unusual locations, so there was a patina of credibility to the idea that U2 might be playing, unseen, on a rooftop in midtow Manhattan.) The singing and whatnot was not amazing, but it looked like a fun mission.

3) The Moebius is a mission in which a group played and replayed (acted and reacted) the same five minute script 12 times consecutively in a Starbucks, a scene involving seven agents and seven different components. It is quite elaborate, and fun to read about all that went into setting it up.

4) Best Buy is one of my favourites, and its cleverness is only matched by its simplicity. In this one, 80 agents infiltrate a Best Buy electronics shop in Manhattan, all wearing blue polo shirts and khaki trousers with a belt, in order to match the shop's uniform (minus name tag, of course).

5) There are many others worth a look - who can forget the Slo-Mo Home Depot or the Cellphone Symphony? - but I will close with another personal favourite, the McDonald's Bathroom Attendant. This one is, like Best Buy, sheer genius in its simplicity, and the margin of credibility really sells it and makes it a top drawer practical joke. As the name implies, a couple of agents infiltrated a McDonald's in midtown Manhattan and one of them - who used to be a 'professional' bathroom attendant in an upscale restaurant - sets up a station in the bathroom with all of the accoutrements of a typical bathroom attedant's trade: combs, cologne, other toiletries, even the dish with a few tips. He then proceeds to wait on the customers in typical fashion as they enter, ever the discreet servant, and continues to do so until the manager finds out. A hilarious concept, flawlessly executed.

No video from that one, as you can imagine, but check out the stills and the blog entry.

There are a number of reasons why I really like these kinds of 'pranks'; one of them is that by design no one is ever hurt or humiliated. In that sense it might not even qualify as a true prank. The only ones open to being humiliated are the actors, and they do just fine.

I also really like it because it is a way that opens up quotidien reality for people: here are people going about what seems to be their everyday lives and suddenly they cease obeying the laws that the rest of us effortlessly fall into. They play with conventions and do it in such a good natured way, never menacing, that it 'opens up' the world for others. New possibilities are presented (one of them being that maybe someone doing something outlandishly different isn't a threat). And it provides a pleasurable disorientation as the usual touchstones of life seem slightly off kilter. And of course it is about play, and joy, and in that way is an eminently human and humane sort of practice.

Juvenile? Maybe. But more than that, there is something postively childlike about it as well.

Long may it go on!

Well, that about wraps up Distractionfest 2008. Look for a future Distractionfest next year or the next time James chides me for not keeping him properly entertained, whichever comes first.

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