The Mindful Bard – We Cause Scenes

The Rise of Improv Everywhere

Movie: We Cause Scenes: The Rise of Improv Everywhere

Director: Matt Adams

It’s Never Too Late to Have a Happy Childhood

“Brilliant. There is just something so emotionally overwhelming to me when I watch a group of human beings . . . just being. To see them all spontaneously break out in smiles and laughter, even just for a moment. What a wonderful world we could have with just a little effort from us all.”
– “Theoneisis,” in a comment on Improv Everywhere’s Youtube channel

“Improv Everywhere has inspired millions, created a new form of performance art, and reminded people what It’s like to play.”
– Collider

We Cause Scenes is a documentary about Improv Everywhere (IE), an artistic collective that doesn’t raise funds for aids orphans, doesn’t engage in social protest, doesn’t actively promote peace, and doesn’t protect the rights of marginalised peoples. All that the folks at Improv Everywhere do is have fun by masterminding public pranks and then getting people together to perform them. That’s it.

Try to grasp the social value of this by taking a moment to think back over your life and remember those amazing, unexpected, hilarious moments that lifted you from the slough of despond and brought out the sun when all was grey.

I, for one, remember a dance where the sound system stopped working for a whole hour, so a bunch of us decided to get up and dance anyway, throwing all our energies into dancing to a beat that wasn’t there. There was something about that experience that not only made us all incredibly happy, it magically solidified our bonds as friends and formed one of our sweetest memories.

This is what It’s like for those who witness IE public pranks in person, and to a lesser degree, for those who watch them on Youtube. But what is it about moments like this that suddenly make life seem worthwhile?

A clue can be found in another documentary film, Happy, reviewed here last year; according to the research it quotes, one of the top ten dopamine-producing conditions is something called “optimal experience”?life events so moving, so novel, so out-of-the-box that they can’t help but give you a rush when they’re happening and a smile every time you remember them.

Such experiences are the fruition of intrinsic goals, goals that, in contrast to extrinsic goals like the accumulation of wealth, have actually been proven effective in creating happiness. And harmless, clever pranks are actually one of the top forms of optimal experience.

There’s no question that these IE productions stir up big gobs of joy; “These frozen people make me happy!” comments one Youtube fan in response to the Frozen Grand Central stunt, in which over a hundred agents mixed with the crowd at New York’s Grand Central Station and suddenly froze in their tracks.

It all began in 2001 when the young Charlie Todd (who appears to be a bit of a frustrated film director) came up with the idea of staging public pranks as a kind of communal improv. Since then IE has grown into an extremely popular phenomenon with a YouTube channel that attracts millions of views, but in his very first prank Todd pretended to be pianist Ben Folds. In a recent event Todd again pretended to be Ben Folds at a Folds concert. The crowd was beside itself as the faltering sound system showed Todd to be a fake and the real Ben Folds (who was in on it) showed up to sock him in the gut.

Other staged events have included synchronized swimming in park fountains, repeating a five-minute sequence of events in a Starbucks coffee shop over and over again for an hour, getting an actor to pose as Anton Chekhov and give a reading at a Barnes & Noble, and putting on a wedding reception for the first newlywed couple to emerge from an office of the Justice of the Peace.

But It’s not all happy, and to its credit the film doesn’t shrink from the types of questions that emerged as a direct result of IE’s staged events as well as the objections raised by a disgruntled few. These questions got some heated, on-the-spot dialogue going on issues like “What is art?” “How much joking is appropriate?” and, most notably, this question posed a propos of IE in This American Life: “Can you mess with someone’s sense of reality as a force for good?”

Todd discusses his emotional response to those few people who can’t seem to take his kind of joke. Surprisingly he doesn’t seem to be the type of person who enjoys giving offense, and for him the simple pleasure of putting smiles on a crowd doesn’t make it any easier to know that some think he’s just being annoying, showing a lack of respect for people’s feelings, or wasting people’s time with foolishness. But although these objections have given him pause and were once instrumental in keeping NBC from producing a show about IE that they’d optioned, the naysayers haven’t really slowed him down. This may have something to do with the fact that he can see how much good IE is doing.

This film is a great way of seeing how art (in this case public participatory performance art) gets started, develops, faces challenges, and takes advantage of new technology and modes of communication (in this case Youtube) to thrive and prosper. But even more, it shows that grown-ups getting together to create good clean fun can actually be a force for peace, solidarity, and a weird kind of enlightenment.

We Cause Scenes manifests five of the Mindful Bard’s criteria for films well worth seeing.

– It’s authentic, original, and delightful.
– It poses and admirably responds to questions that have a direct bearing on my view of existence.
– It provides respite from a sick and cruel world, a respite enabling me to renew myself for a return to mindful artistic endeavor.
– It makes me want to be a better artist.
– It makes me appreciate that life is a complex and rare phenomena, making living a unique opportunity.