You are waiting in a long line at Starbucks for your daily latte. A man and woman argue about what they want to order, someone asks if they can sit at a table, a stack of Jenga blocks falls to the floor - nothing out of the ordinary.
You are now about halfway through the line. You see the same person ask to sit at the same table. Your rub your eyes and think to yourself how much you need that latte.
But then those same Jenga blocks fall on the floor, and that same couple has the same argument about what to order. You resort to pretending it didn't happen.
But as you approach the counter, the same series of events happens for a third time. Now you are sure you are going out of your mind. In fact, you still have your sanity and you have not entered the Twilight zone. You are witnessing a mission carried out by "agents of stealth comedy" from Emerald City Improv, a "street-improv group" that's been turning heads and making smiles for a year and a half.
Street improv first officially started in New York City about a decade ago, when Charlie Todd and some of his friends began executing public pranks "to create chaos and joy in public places." The group, named Improv Everywhere, has now completed 100 missions, and their videos have millions of hits on YouTube.
A small group, inspired by Improv Everywhere, began making half-hearted attempts to bring street improv to Seattle a few years ago. But it wasn't until recent Roosevelt High School graduate Luke Greenway took over leadership of the group that Emerald City Improv came into its own.
Publicizing their events using Facebook and a mailing list, they have had as many as 300 to 500 "agents" (participants) turn out for events and have garnered media attention and sponsorship for events from organizations like Bumbershoot and Adidas.
The group, which puts on at least one event every month, distinguishes itself from politically slanted guerilla improv groups and from flash mobs, or large groups of people that show up in a public place to do something like pillow fight and then disappear as quickly as they appeared. Some Emerald City Improv events do resemble flash mobs, like the "freeze" they performed at the Seattle Center in which dozens of people froze in place at a prearranged time for five minutes and then continued on as if nothing had happened.
But many of their events have only a few people and are much more complex, like the mission inspired by the "Star Trek" concept.
The event that drew the largest turnout and the most media coverage was the No Pants Light Rail Ride. Hundreds of people showed up to ride the Link light rail from Downtown Seattle through Southeast Seattle in their underwear, carrying on as if nothing was out of the ordinary. Several local news channels covered the mission, and the story was even picked up by CNN.
Another time, Adidas sponsored them to play 30-second soccer matches in the middle of the intersection of First Avenue and Pike Street, in front of the Pike Place Market - when the light turned green for pedestrians walking in all directions - to promote the Major League Soccer championship.
Other missions include a human train through Downtown Seattle, a spontaneous Richard Simmons workout in the middle of Bumbershoot and a fake Joe Jonas sighting at Northgate Mall, for which agents dressed up as security guards, paparazzi, hormonal fans and Joe Jonas. The event drew huge crowds and fooled many, including the Northgate Mall security guards.
The main rule for agents is to stay in character at all times, even after the mission is accomplished. If someone asks what is going on, the agent must pretend as if nothing extraordinary is happening, sometimes requiring lots of creativity. They consider themselves improv actors.
"Our audience is the public - the people who happen to be in the street at the time," Greenway explained. "It's all about making people smile."
None of their pranks are malicious or humiliating, he said; they are simply having fun and providing viewers with a good story to tell.
The reactions to their events reflect that they are achieving their goal. They have received almost all positive feedback, and random witnesses will even thank them for putting on such fun, creative events and bringing positive energy to the city, Greenway said.
They have had no trouble with authorities thus far, except for a few confused Northgate Mall security guards and a few complaints for public indecency on the light-rail trains, he added.
"Our events remind people that every day is different," co-organizer and recent University of Washington graduate Kelsey Wildstone explained. "Every day is an opportunity to do something fun, to live."
Greenway echoed, "We want to break this routine of life [and] break the focus people have getting from point A to point B."
Participants have a great time, as well. After Sophia Truzzi heard about Emerald City Improv through a friend, she decided to participate in the human train. She said she loved the idea of "getting together to do something random" and seeing people's faces, some of which were confused and others "really happy and delighted." She has done every event since then, she said.
The missions are not exclusive: They are open to anyone who wants to participate. Some people will just try it once, and others will go to every event. More and more people are becoming regulars, though: "I feel like we've started a community," Greenway said.
The next opportunity to join Emerald City Improv is its next mission on July 31, which the organizers hope will be their biggest event yet. Sponsored by Bumbershoot for the second consecutive year, this event will be part of the lead-up to the music festival's 40th anniversary.
The event is called an MP3 experiment. Emerald City Improv and Bumbershoot have worked together to create an MP3 file that they will put on the Internet for anyone to download for free. The plan is for people to download the file on their MP3 player and gather at the Fisher Pavilion at the Seattle Center. At the prearranged time, everyone will play the MP3 file at the same time, which will give its listeners instructions to do fun and silly things - some interactive with participants and bystanders. (For more information on this and other Emerald City Improv events, visit www.EmeraldCityImprov.org.)
Greenway is starting college next year on the East Coast and Wildstone has started working full time, so the future of the group is uncertain. Wildstone and Greenway will continue organizing events for as long as they can, but they hope others will step up in leadership positions to keep the group going strong.
Whatever happens, the group has already succeeded in making thousands of people smile. As Greenway said, "If we can make just one person's day, then the event is a success."[[In-content Ad]]