Students passing through Ancel Plaza on Friday, Sept. 9, around noon may have noticed something unusual. A large group of students dressed in colored T-shirts were square dancing, making a human dartboard, and participating in an epic balloon battle.
Passersby familiar with popular YouTube videos such as the “No Pants Subway Ride” and “Frozen Grand Central” might have recognized what was happening—Improv Everywhere had arrived at Columbia. Founded about 10 years ago by aspiring actor Charlie Todd, Improv Everywhere describes itself as a “New York City-based prank collective that causes scenes of chaos and joy in public places.”
As part of his world tour, Charlie Todd brought a version of Improv Everywhere’s successful Mp3 Experiment to Columbia and gave a presentation later that afternoon about the history of the group. The event was sponsored by the CU Arts Initiative.
Specific instructions required participants of the experiment to filter into Ancel Plaza, the elevated space between East Campus and the law school, just before noon. Students were to come dressed in red, yellow, blue, or green T-shirts, bring one deflated balloon, and have the MP3 provided by Improv Everywhere ready to go on their MP3 players or mobile devices.
At exactly 12 p.m., everyone pressed play. Following instructions from a disembodied voice named “Steve,” students participated in a series of activities, including dance parties and thumb wars. The action culminated in a balloon-throwing showdown, a dramatic death scene, and a slow-motion entry into “Mp3 Experiment heaven.”
Improv Everywhere has organized eight previous Mp3 Experiments, sometimes with thousands of participants. The Columbia experiment included “our favorite elements from the first eight that we did,” Todd said. About 80 students participated in the event. While the experiment might have had more of an impact in an area with more foot traffic—such as College Walk—there were enough bemused bystanders to produce some priceless reactions.
A few passersby stopped to watch, several taking pictures of students who were frozen in place or “napping” on the ground. Some Columbia students enjoying the sunshine on Ancel Plaza looked around in surprise as strangers wearing headphones ran up and high-fived them. Others passing between East Campus and the main campus had to weave through a balloon war.
In his presentation, Todd explained that these bystander reactions are what Improv Everywhere is all about. “I got excited about the idea of causing a scene,” he said. “It’s a prank that gives someone a great experience.”
Todd pointed out one woman’s especially memorable reaction that was captured on video during the very first No Pants Subway Ride. At first, the woman looked shocked and terrified, but “when she saw somebody else that was laughing at it, it became funny and safe,” Todd said. The No Pants Subway Ride is now an annual event, attracting over 5,000 New Yorkers at this year’s performance alone.
Todd concluded his presentation by commenting on the major role played by the Internet in the development of Improv Everywhere. He encouraged student artists to put their work online, without worrying about making a profit. “That’s what really started Improv Everywhere,” he said, “Just creating something and sharing it. ... Now we can reach millions of people.”