The Mp3 Experiment Brings Improv to Hamilton

The scene in KJ on Saturday afternoon during the Mp3 Experiment.
The scene in KJ on Saturday afternoon during the Mp3 Experiment.

The Kirner-Johnson Building, typically a space designed for quiet study, was converted into an epic battle arena Saturday afternoon. While no blood was shed, the Hamilton students participating in “The Mp3 Experiment” cast off something much less tangible – their reserve. As the collection of students obeyed the orders of “Steve,” the omnipotent voice on their Mp3 devices, they demonstrated the capacity to let loose and be silly among friends and strangers.

“The Mp3 Experiment” is a public event created by the company Improv Everywhere, which was founded in 2001 by teacher, performer, and recent author Charlie Todd. The Mp3 Experiment is held each year in New York City, as well as on various college campuses and festivals across the country. This past weekend, Hamilton’s Campus Activities Board (CAB) brought the Mp3 Experiment to the Hill. Students, faculty and community members wishing to be part of this exercise downloaded the 45-minute long mp3 file from the Improv Everywhere website, synchronized their watches to an atomic clock, and then joined together in the KJ atrium to press play at the same time.

Lively techno music and instructions from “Steve” followed; the result was a fantastic display of absurd group activities, all of which would seem illogical to an observer. The participants, on the other hand, were kept informed of what they were supposed to do. Throughout the course of the game, participants danced like they were from the 2020s, gave an inanimate object a hug, and created a human dartboard based on the color shirts (red, blue, green, or yellow) that each person was told to wear prior to arriving. Their last task was to engage in a mock battle, using balloons as weapons – “Steve” even encouraged participants to fake a grandiose death.

The event was followed by a lecture in the Chapel at 8:30 p.m., where Todd discussed the origins of Improv Everywhere and elaborated on their website’s claim that “Improv Everywhere causes scenes of chaos and joy in public places.” Not every mission involves an mp3 player – in fact, most are simply improvisational sketches carried out in random locations, where spectators are either amused or totally bewildered by what they see. Some of the more memorable missions involved creating the illusion of a mirror by placing sets of twins opposite each other on a bus, having commuters high-five a man named Rob on their way up an escalator, and having select people inexplicably freeze in place at Grand Central Station.

That last project was posted on YouTube and is nearing 25 million views.

“In the time period we’re living in, we have these tools with us where we can reach an audience of millions for almost no money,” Todd said of the phenomenon. After a failed attempt at a television pilot for NBC, Todd said he is indebted to the Internet for his popularity. He also attributes his success to the moment that the idea for Improv Everywhere was born – when someone mistook him for singer-songwriter Ben Folds in a bar and he went along with it. He said it was a harmless prank that gave everyone involved a positive experience.

Todd described the special quality of “The Mp3 Experiment” in particular. He noted that the activity is all about the participants, and that it brings together people of many diverse backgrounds when the crowd is large.

“A great byproduct of this project is that it really unifies people who normally wouldn’t experience something like that together,” he said.

The concept of public improvisation is a relatively simple one; but Todd emphasizes the importance of taking ideas to the next level.

“I would encourage anybody who has anything creative to go for it, and just be prolific,” Todd said. “Don’t hoard your great ideas. If you have the tools, share them.”

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