Confusing and amusing
Organized pranksters take flashmob phenomenon to town
Saturday, Feb 27, 2010 06:00 am
Melissa Bowen Jensen showed up with her two bodyguards keeping her out of harm’s way from the paparazzi and her crazed public. The popular winter event at Edmonton’s Hawrelak Park suddenly had to deal with a few entertainment news crews and a small but growing swarm of fans. A reporter yelled out questions like, “Who are you wearing, MBow?” and “When does your next album drop?” She arrived and departed in a frenzied flurry that lasted about half an hour, just long enough for her to sign several posters, have her picture taken with some fans and otherwise give many others an excited glimpse of someone famous before she was chauffeured away, off to a gala evening at the ballet.
You’ve never heard of her? That’s because Melissa Bowen Jensen is actually far from a celebrity, Saturday’s ruckus notwithstanding. She is just a regular person with a regular job at a children’s clothing store but she happens to be a member of an irregular group of mischief-makers collectively known as Edmonton Improv. According to its mandate, the two-year-old club exists solely to “cause scenes of chaos and joy in public places.” This is the nice way of saying that it perpetrates flashmob activities. Flashmobbing is organized pranksterism that is mostly harmless (and also mostly hilarious) if not entirely confusing and difficult to explain.
According to Jensen herself, it serves to provide a brief mental break in a crazy, mixed-up world.
“I absolutely love and relish in the random and absurd events that happen in life. What's a day without a great story to tell?” She even goes so far as to call the group ‘necessary.’
“We all need levity added to our everyday lives.”
The seemingly spontaneous gatherings began several years ago in New York as a kind of social experiment to make fun of conformity. Using electronic means of communication, one man loosely planned to have a bunch of people show up at a retail store and become very interested in a single rug.
From those modest beginnings came larger experiments like the now famous Grand Central Station freeze that you can still view on YouTube. Over 200 ‘agents’ infiltrated the public gathering spot and collectively all stopped moving at an appointed time, freezing in place for a few minutes. From the video, you can see the looks of pure bewilderment and amusement on the faces of everyone else in the crowd.
Since then there have been pillow fights, silent discos and beach performances. Sometimes the members break out into a fairly well choreographed rendition of Michael Jackson’s Thriller video. The scale has grown too as some events are populated by thousands of participants, especially as they go worldwide. Last month, about 25 local members were involved in the self-explanatory No Pants Subway Ride. The surprisingly modest train ride on Edmonton’s LRT system was only one location out of more than 40 internationally. All told, approximately 5,000 people were in on the gag while the rest of the commuters were left either giggling or not knowing where to look.
Nowadays that pretty much describes the point of all this pointlessness: make a few people laugh, befuddle the rest and then everybody gets to go back to their lives.
The germ of the local group
Kelly Marie Hobbs only got involved with Edmonton Improv a year ago but now she is one of its keenest organizers. The members congregate mostly on the group’s Facebook page to discuss ideas and to help bring their plans to fruition. Usually only one face-to-face meeting is held before each event to firm things up and prepare materials if necessary, thus proving that the name is not entirely accurate. These events only give the appearance of improvisational acting.
The former St. Albert resident has already flashmobbed more than a few times, including a living Where’s Waldo search at last year’s Fringe Festival. She finds the experience both frivolous and thrilling.
“It’s kind of a rush. There’s a moment when you think, ‘Oh God, this isn’t going to work out. This is going to be so embarrassing’ and then it works out and you think, ‘Wow! People actually showed up for this!’ It’s so cool!”
Neither Jensen nor Hobbs normally consider themselves practical jokers by any stretch, or even seasoned actresses, but that doesn’t stop them from participating.
Jensen, whose first adventure was the Pantsless Subway Ride, admitted that she can’t even keep a secret.
“I would have to say that the role I played for this event was contradictory to my regular personality, which made it all the more enticing!” She called it nerve-wracking, especially at the start, but that it got easier. “After the second or third fake interview by our staged reporter, I realized it was more of a game than anything. The girl interviewing me was an absolute hoot and I found myself looking forward to her next question and figuring out what kind of celebrity I was going to be when I answered it.”
Hobbs, a student and high school pastry instructor by day, admits to being gung-ho for these adventures.
“It’s a lot of fun, just going out and doing all of those things that when you sit with your friends, and you say, ‘God! Wouldn’t it be cool if … ?’ and actually making it happen. It’s so much fun. Now it’s ‘Wasn’t it hilarious when … ?’”
Though she has never been on the other side of a flashmob experience, she said, she, like many people, is oblivious when she goes about her daily chores and routines. Flashmobbing forces a reality check on the unsuspecting masses, bringing people back to the present, even if just for a moment.
“It’s about making connections also and just taking people out of their regular everyday lives. We’re not out to offend anybody or get in the way of businesses or really inconvenience anybody. We just want to make people smile. It’s just giving people something to talk about.”
The infamous train ride
There was a lot of publicity last month in the aftermath of the Pantsless Subway Ride but media attention was the least of Hobbs’ worries.
“That was my Everest. I’m not going to lie,” she admitted, casting confusion over her own reasons for doing it. “I’m a sucker for being goofy. I was surprisingly comfortable riding the train with my pants off. I think we actually had more people with their pants off on the train than people with their pants on. I was part of the majority, so that was better.”
There wasn’t an obvious public backlash to the scene, a fact made even more strange considering how few things gain the same kind of media attention as groups of people disrobing in public. This fact made Hobbs initially hesitant but she has learned that there are some side benefits to notoriety, thankfully without complaints.
“It certainly helped boost the size of our group so we can start doing larger events and more people are coming out. I think it’s been more positive than negative.”
She hints that there is much more to come with the strong possibility that not only will the scale and size grow but so will the venues, especially as flashmobbing gains popularity and acceptance. But she wouldn’t say where and when the next event would happen. It’s a secret so you have to pay attention.
To learn more about the group, visit edmontonimprov.blogspot.com or check out their Facebook page.