More than 3,500 people mingled — somewhat inconspicuously — in New York City’s Nelson A. Rockefeller Park in July. At exactly 8:30 p.m., they all grabbed their MP3 players and pressed play. What ensued was a series of synchronized activities, including jumping in unison, high-fiving, flashlight lightsaber battles, raving with glow sticks and slow dancing to music only they could hear.
It was a massive dance party, a rave complete with glow sticks. The impromptu chaos, organized by Improv Everywhere, a New York City-based prank collective that uses public spaces as its stage, is called the MP3 Experiment.
Tonight, it’s coming to Columbia. It’s one of many events at City Center Partnership’s fifth Annual Urban Tour on Main Street.
The orchestrator of the MP3 Experiment is Columbia native Charlie Todd, who founded Improv Everywhere in 2001. Todd is also a performer at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in New York, and he’s the author of “Causing a Scene,” a behind-the-scenes book about Improv Everywhere’s pre-planned practical jokes.
Here’s how it works: Participants download an MP3 file, a mix of music and instruction around 45 minutes long. Without listening to the file, they synchronize their watches to the clock from the same website before going to a public location. They press play at the predetermined time. The result? Giggling strangers carrying out ridiculous and coordinated instructions while non-participants stare at the bizarre scene unfolding before them.
Todd said that at it’s core, the organization is about having fun. Do you remember hearing about people riding the subway without pants a few years ago? That was him.
“We’re out to prove that a prank doesn’t have to involve humiliation or embarrassment,” he said. “It can simply be about making someone laugh, smile or stop to notice the world around them.”
While Improv Everywhere carries out a multitude of different “missions,” like the spontaneous Food Court Musical or No Pants Subway Rides, Todd said the MP3 Experiment is a little different than other prank-based projects in that its focus is more on the participants having a good time.
Improv Everywhere does an MP3 Experiment every year in New York, but the collective has also taken it to college campuses and places like Australia, Europe and South Africa. Tonight will be the first time Improv Everywhere has been to Columbia.
“I’m very excited to do (the MP3 Experiment) in my home town,” said Todd, who will be speaking at the Richland Public Library before the experiment.
Pocket Productions, an organization devoted to expanding the arts in Columbia, brought Improv Everywhere to the city as part of Urban Tour because, according to Sherry Warren, the group’s executive director, “it really fits perfectly with the city’s push to get people onto Main Street and get involved in the arts.”
“It’s in line with all kinds of things that are in the city’s best interest,” she continued. “Anybody can be a part of [the MP3 Experiment]. It’s basically an enormous citywide performance piece.”
ArtRageous, a spontaneous art series hosted by Pocket Productions, was originally based directly on Improv Everywhere, Warren said. Columbia’s MP3 Experiment will include the “greatest hits” from past years, with some slight adjustments for the 1500 block of Main Street.
Todd’s parents, Jennifer and Chuck Todd, will be participating in the experiment for the first time.
“I’ve never personally done one of (Charlie’s) MP3’s. I’ve seen several YouTube videos of it,” said Chuck Todd, co-owner of Todd & Moore, the sporting goods store. “I look forward to seeing and being part of a bunch of people doing funny, silly gyrations in total silence.”
Chuck Todd says that his son was constantly subjected to pranks by his parents, and he credits his wife, a “brutal practical joker,” as getting Todd started.
Todd said inspiration also came from USC football games with his family.
“My favorite part was always the wave,” Todd said. “I always loved the thrill of seeing the large crowd working together. One person standing up and cheering isn’t that effective, but when you get 80,000 people doing it, it’s pretty spectacular.
“What I love about the experiment is that strangers work together and you wind up being on this massive team.”
While unsure of the number of anticipated participants for Columbia’s MP3 Experiment, Todd said a nice thing about the event is that it scales really well.
“It will work if 20 people do it and if 20,000 people do it,” he said. “The message is that if we all work together we can create something fun.”
The MP3 Experiment in Columbia
Video by R. Darren Price