Ah, the Power of Improv!

In a city of millions, it comes as no surprise that New Yorkers are experts are remaining aloof and non-responsive – we simply turn up the volume on our headphones, burrowing deeper into our paperback, and do our very best to avoid eye contact.

But every once in a while we might stumble on a situation that forces us to sit up and take notice, to unplug and power down. Maybe it’s seeing hundreds of people in the subway who aren’t wearing pants… in January. Or perhaps you wandered into a Best Buy only to find that every single person in the store is wearing the standard staff uniform (khakis and a blue polo). The urge to take stock of your surroundings and to communicate with others involved in the same experience – even if it’s as simple as a shared smile or laugh – is irresistible. And this is precisely Charlie Todd’s goal. As the creator of Improv Everywhere, he started creating wildly funny, zany or offbeat scenarios in public places in New York in 2001. The enterprise has since become a global movement operating under the appropriate tagline “We Cause Scenes.”

Whether it be a silent dance party in a park or a re-enactment of the opening scene from Ghostbusters in the Reading Room of the New York Public Library, Todd and his team of volunteers put unsuspecting people in the improvisational line of fire. In devising these scenes, Improv Everywhere compels bystanders to burst out of their individual bubbles, take in their surroundings and interact with those around them. After all, if a gang of four men in yellow jumpsuits with vacuums strapped to their backs started chasing white-sheet-clad ghosts around while you were studying quietly in the library, even the most jaded New Yorker might be tempted to crack a smile, especially as library security guards stand there apparently dumbfounded.

Charlie Todd and his team of improv “agents” put into action many of the same guiding principles of WOOPAAH. Creativity, spontaneity and the unexpected are powerful tools for enacting change. They can (albeit unwittingly) bring together all kinds of people, breaking down the walls we build to keep others out and make the stimulus overload of our city more bearable. With humor and a wonderfully creative spirit, Todd reminds us that even though we are all different, shared experiences through play that encourage us to look outside of ourselves can help us connect with those around us on a fundamental level. And perhaps sharing a laugh with a stranger is the first step to beginning a dialogue and creating a greater sense of understanding and happiness amongst us all.