An everyday location. A sudden burst of inappropriate activity. Bemused spectators pointing and capturing the scene on their cellphones. Some of those same bemused spectators turning into performers. You know the drill. And you know it because of Charlie Todd, founder of Improv Everywhere.
The performance art collective’s latest stunt is Mall Santa Musical, a viral hit in which a Kris Kringle-commending broadway number erupts at a mall, seemingly out of nowhere, to the delight of dozens of unsuspecting holiday shoppers. Like every other video from this group, it is short, funny, and breezy. It also represents a massive prodcution effort that took a month’s worth of planning to carry out.
One of the first things you might notice about Improv Everywhere, besides the fact that they’ve placed a spectacle in your path, is that the group’s title is a misnomer. "That’s the name I came up with 10 years ago and I’m stuck with it," says Charlie Todd, the guerilla comedy performance art cooperative’s Svengali. While Todd and his collaborators certainly do have to improvise when dealing with public spaces in an unauthorized way, their events or "missions," such as last week’s Mall Santa Musical, are highly organized, detailed affairs.
The latest in Improv Everywhere’s series of staged musical numbers, Mall Santa takes place in the titular shopping mecca, where the hoodie-wearing male half of a couple suddenly breaks into song. The object of his serenading desire: a journey to the center of Santa’s lap. Pretty soon, more audience plants become involved and a bevy of mall-goers have stopped what they’re doing to take it all in. Little do they know how much preparation went into this seemingly sporadic moment created just for them.
Each organized stunt the group pulls off starts with Charlie Todd, which is only fitting since he’s the one who established the concept back in 2001. The first "event" was a spontaneous prank wherein Todd pretended to be the musician Ben Folds… and convinced an entire bar of it. Since then, Improv Everywhere has gone on to stage performances all over the world, garnering millions of Youtube hits in the process. Despite the expanded scope, however, the genesis of each mission remains the same.
Improv Everywhere doesn’t have meetings. Although the ideas can come from anyone involved—a few have even been crowdsourced from the IE website—Todd ultimately decides what the next project is each time out, before opening it up to conversation. "Whenever I have a new idea I want to pull off," he says. "I turn to the senior members of the group to help me make it better."
The majority of the performers in Improv Everywhere events are actors from the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, whom Todd knows from performing there for 10 years. Mall Santa Musical, for instance, was mostly cast with actors who appeared in previous musicals, based on availability and the role requirements. A casting director friend helped him find the ideal Mall Santa himself, and a little boy who could sing. This latest stunt also gave Todd the chance to work with two friends from The Gregory Brothers, the musical comedy group responsible for Auto-Tune the News. Finding collaborators is only part of the process, however.
Staging an Improv Everywhere event has a lot in common with producing a show at the UCB Theatre. Long before the first bystander notices a mission is underway, Charlie Todd has to scout the location, assemble a crew, think through logistics, coordinate props and costumes, and figure out how to use the space. There is one critical difference, though, when taking the theatrical out of the theatre and into the public space. "It’s tough to block and choreograph a performance without knowing where the audience will be." Todd says. "We’ve done enough of these [missions] to have a sense of how crowds flow and form, but you’ve still got to be prepared for someone to walk directly in the middle of your performance."
Being at the helm of something with so many variables and moving parts is a high-wire act, heavily weighted with forethought. "I’m often running around and tweaking things discreetly, but ultimately it’s still all in the planning," Todd says. "If I’ve done the work in advance to really craft the event the right way, there will be less stress as it’s happening live." Most of the missions are outlined but unscripted—like the improvised TV show, Curb Your Enthusiasm. The musicals, however, are not only written, but also rehearsed. In order to nail down Mall Santa Musical, the team needed one rehearsal in a studio in Manhattan, and then an after-hours dress rehearsal at the mall the evening before the mission. Luckily, they didn’t have to sneak in.
"The majority of our missions are unauthorized," Todd says. "We always get permission for our musicals, though, because of the technical requirements. We need a playback system for the backing track and we need to be able to amplify the voices of the performers with hidden microphones." Most locations these days are glad for the exposure and the chance to help create something interesting. After years of establishing notoriety with authentically illicit performances, Improv Everywhere now fields requests from the retailers who once called the police on them, asking to turn a store into the staging ground for the next mission.
In contrast to elaborate pieces like Mall Santa Musical, other IE projects require zero actors, rehearsal space, or permissions. For last summer’s Say Something Nice, crew members placed a megaphone on top of a podium in New York’s bustling Union Square, and left behind a small plaque that simply read: "Say Something Nice." At first, most of the would-be audience just walks by, and it seems as though there’s a chance nobody will even notice this giant prop on the middle of the public stage. Sure enough, though, eventually people do notice, and then the audience becomes the performance. Unfortunately, things don’t always go so smoothly.
"We did a project in 2008 called The Camera Flash Experiment that did not go as I had hoped," Todd says. The idea was to get 800 people to line across the length of the Brooklyn Bridge and create a wave of camera flashes, like the rising fans at a baseball stadium wave. Todd was first in line, with everyone else set to fire their flash immediately after the person before them, sending a comet-tail of light across the bridge. After about five flashes, though, it just stopped. Todd had to take off running through the rain, screaming ‘Go!’ individually to 800 people. "It was the first time I realized how important it is to design something that’s actually fun for the participants as well as the ‘audience,’" Todd says. "It’s not much fun to stand in the rain and take a photo."
Despite the growth of Improv Everywhere since originating in a West Village bar ten years ago, and despite how much work is required to make each mission a success, the core goal of the project is still just having fun and keeping things fresh. "I don’t care if it’s two people on a zero dollar budget like our King Philip mission or something with thousands of people that costs thousands of dollars," Todd says. "Overall, I just want to try new things that excite me."