By Jennifer Milne
I arrived at the plaza outside the World Financial Center about a half hour early and seated myself on a stone wall, looking west at the Hudson River and the Statue of Liberty. I watched other people arrive with brightly colored T-shirts and seat themselves around the plaza. I glanced at my watch and readied my iPod. I did not want to miss this.
As directed, I turned on my iPod exactly at 4:00 p.m. and began listening to the 36-minute track I had downloaded, “MP3 Experiment Four.” The voice of “Steve,” the track’s omnipotent narrator, echoed in my ears as I was directed to stand up on whatever I was sitting on.
Simultaneously, hundreds of people seated all around the North Cove stood up, too. They were wearing the requisite red, green, blue or yellow T-shirts and following Steve’s instructions through their headphones, like I was. The participants stood on benches and concrete walls, pointing to what they thought was the tallest building, the ugliest cloud and the direction of Nicaragua. I pointed across the Hudson River to New Jersey. I think I might have been wrong.
The sight of more than 800 people engaging in the same motions in complete silence elicited more than a few stares from those not involved. But for Charlie Todd, the founder of Improv Everywhere, it was just another of the group’s successful “missions.” A mission amounts to a public performance of improvisational comedy in New York City. Todd, 28, started the group in 2001, when he fooled a bar full of people into thinking he was famous musician, Ben Folds.
In the beginning, missions were small, but now Todd has an e-mail list of over 5,000 people and he never knows who is going to show up.
“Now I put a little more planning into things,” Todd, who provided the voice of the narrator, said in an interview earlier this year. “I have to plan and organize differently when I know hundreds of people might show up.”
And the planning paid off this time: Improv Everywhere says 826 “agents” what Todd calls the group’s participants showed up Saturday. We skipped around the North Cove plaza, played a giant game of Twister on its multi-colored tiles and followed a German tourist whom Steve claimed was not affiliated with the experiment whatsoever into Rockefeller Park, just to the north.
There, the agents high-fived strangers and pretended to walk invisible dogs. I even stopped to wait while my invisible dog was about to go to the bathroom, until I realized that I would probably get a ticket from the park patrol, so I hurried him along. (I later found out that one agent actually did get a $50 ticket for having his real dog on the lawn.) During our walk from North Cove to Rockefeller Park, we got more than a few stares from people on nearby playgrounds and benches.
We participated in Steve’s photography experiment, taking pictures first of ourselves, then of participants in a red and a blue shirt, and then of no participants in yellow shirts. When instructed to take a picture of as many cameras as possible, the agents all raised their cameras into the air.
After our photography assignments, Steve told us we were going to form a human target. Red shirts made the bullseye, with the group of green shirts that I was part of encircling the red shirts, and finally the blue shirts. Yellow shirts were the “darts” and had to do their best to get to the center of the bullseye, which had formed around two unsuspecting sunbathers in the park. The sunbathers were good sports about it, though.
Then we engaged in a giant game of freeze tag, as Steve told us which color was “it.” And finally, at the end of the 36-minute mission, everyone laid down on the grass, yelled their goodbyes up to Steve in the sky and relaxed for a few minutes, before giving the organizers a loud round of applause.
Improv Everywhere is open to anyone and above all else, Todd wants people with a good sense of humor.
Missions have ranged from small (infiltrating the “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” game show with a barbershop quartet in the audience for the contestant’s lifelines) to large (300 pants-less riders boarded the 6 train in Manhattan for “No Pants 2007”), and from the semi-normal (free snow cones from a pile of dirty snow) to the bizarre (synchronized swimming in Washington Square Park’s fountain).
A mission from February 2004 with a more intellectual slant was called “Anton Chekov.” It involved an agent going into the Union Square Barnes & Noble, pretending he was the author, and reading from Chekov’s “The Cherry Orchard.” Customers actually sat down and listened to Chekov’s reading, and even the store manager humored the group for a while. He told the agent playing Chekov to “Please come back the next time he writes a new play.” After the event, “Chekov” held a book signing in Union Square, revealing that only about half of those who attended the signing realized he was not still alive.
“When I started doing this in 2001, I was 22,” Todd said. “It was just me and my friends from college who I knew up here in New York…. The group of people now who participates is a lot more diverse. No Pants  was the most recent big thing we did…and we had a good, diverse group of people. People ranged from 16 to 50 years old, were all races, and there were just as many girls as guys. It was frustrating the first couple of years to not have that diversity.”
Judging from the size of this Saturday’s mission, it seems the group will only to continue to grow and become more diverse. I was smiling when I walked away from Rockefeller Park and so were many others.