Featuring: Wimpy, Todd, Rainswept, Winckler, Dippold, Barrison, Shelky, Jesster, Leonard, Montague, Calhoun, Tyne, Adner, az3456, Lathan, Marhekifson, Olsen, DeJong
DV Cams: Agent Winckler, Agent az3456
Digital Photgraphy: Agent Dippold
Mission Inspired by: Ross White
Nearly two years ago Agent White pitched the idea “Meet Anton Chekov” to Improv Everywhere. The plan was to set up a card table in Washington Square Park with a large sign that read “Meet Anton Chekov” and have someone sit behind it claiming to be said Russian playwright. A few months ago, we finally found someone who we thought could pull off the Chekov impersonation.
The timing of this mission is mere coincidence. It wasn’t until after the date had been set and everything organized that we realized Anton Chekov died in 1904, exactly 100 years ago. It also wasn’t until after the fact that we realized Chekov did his own bit of undercover performances in his day, making him an especially appropriate choice.
While researching my role, I came across the following information from the introduction of The Image of Chekhov, by Robert Payne, pages xi-xii:
(Title refers to the portrait of Chekhov painted by Joseph Braz that hangs in the Moscow Art Theater. Chekhov hated the picture, which made him look severe and judgmental saying, “It smells of horseradish.”)
Payne says, “The severe, accusing doctor of the Braz portrait vanishes in the actor, the mimic, the clown, who would amuse himself by going to a hotel with a friend, pretending to be a valet, and proclaiming in a loud voice all the secret vices of his master, until the whole hotel was in an uproar. He adored buffoonery. He liked putting on disguises. He would throw a Bokhara robe round his shoulders and wrap a turban round his head and pretend to be some visiting emir from the mysterious lands of the east. On a train journey he was in his element. If he was traveling with his mother he would pretend she was a countess and himself a very unimportant servant in her employ, and would watch the behavior of the other passengers toward the bewildered countess with the wide-eyed wonder and delight. He had the trick of making a walk in the country an adventure in high drama. Everything excited him.”
Agent Todd preps Agent Wimpy and hidden camera expert
Agent Winckler moments before the mission
Agent White’s selection of Anton Chekov was absolutely perfect. His plays are taught in nearly every high school and college English or Drama Department, making him very well known. He died long enough ago for his apperance in New York City 2004 to be an obvious joke to most, yet it was likely that many New Yorkers wouldn’t catch on.
Barnes and Noble, Union Square
I decided to take Agent White’s “Meet Anton Chekov” pitch one step further, and stage a reading by Chekov, pretending to be a part of the Barnes and Noble “Meet the Writers” series. After staking out several downtown Barnes and Noble locations, I chose Union Square as our target. The “Meet the Writers” area on the fourth floor was the perfect setting. It features a large stage with podium in front of a seating area with around 150 seats. Customers tend to sit in the area and read quietly when there is no presentation happening; we would have a captive audience.
Agent Todd introduces Chekov
We had 11 undercover agents who were pre-planted in the seating area mixed in with around 40 actual Barnes and Noble customers. Agents Winckler and az3456 positioned themselves to covertly film the event, and Agent Dippold prepared to take digital photos. When everyone was in place, I quickly taped up one copy of our poster to the sign at the enterance of the area and another copy on the podium. I took the stage and gave a very brief introduction for Chekov. Led by the planted agents, the entire secton clapped as Chekov took the stage. Agent Wimpy spoke in a booming, charismatic Russian accent.
Chekov with “cowboy hat” given to him by President Bush
In preparation for the mission I selected a very short story, Chekov’s “The Threat”. I like it because reading time in English is under two minutes and I wanted to finish the first reading before we could be evicted from the store. I modernized the story by changing a nobleman and his horse to a gentleman and his car.
I wanted some introductory remarks that would segue from my coming to NYC to the story about a theft. A number of foreign co-workers have told me that their homelands it is common belief that America is populated with cowboys and gangsters. So I planned an opening monologue as follows (I will spare you the dialect):
“Hello, my friends. I am so happy to be here with you in New York City. I arrived in this country only last Sunday and your dynamic, young president welcomed me to America by inviting me to the White House and presenting me a gift. In Russia we have a custom of exchanging gifts. If someone gives you a gift you should have something to give them. I had no suspicion that the president of the United States would give me a gift and so I had nothing to give him. When I opened the box and found this cowboy hat [I was wearing a cowboy hat for the mission] I cleverly realized that if I had a new hat I would not need my old fedora, which, as everyone knows is synonymous with Chekov. My trademark hat. I removed my fedora, signed it with my autograph and presented it to the president. He accepted in most graciously. I was feeling very clever. He then turned to his aid and said, `Put this on the shelf next to Putin’s signed hat’. Putin….Putin…Putin is an idiot, a nincompoop. I actually did the same thing that idiot did, and the other nincompoop did it first.
“On Tuesday Charlie [I point to Agent Todd] brought me up to New York. That night my car was stolen. Well, the joke was on the thief, it wasn’t my car. It was Charlie’s car. Ha! The thief did not get Chekov’s car! The joke was on the thief and on Charlie. Ha!
“In Russia unsophisticated idiots and nincompoops think that America is full of cowboys and gangsters. I know better because I am an educated man. I have been in United States less than a week and I am given Stetson cowboy hat and encounter gangsters. Again the nincompoops are ahead of me. But what separates me from other nincompoops and idiots? I write stories. So last night I wrote a story about a car thief. You my friends are first to hear this story.”
I then read “The Threat”, reading from text I had translated into a Russian dialect myself:
A gendlemen’z audo vuz zdolen. Duh nexd tay duh volloink announzement appeert een all duh noosbabers: “Unlez duh audo eez returnt to my pozezion I shall pea vorzt to half recourz to duh exdreme meazurz voormerly embloyt pie my vatter een zeemeelor zirgumzdanzez.” Duh tret vuz evective. Duh teav, nut knowink ezagly vut vuz een sdore, but subbozink ee vood fall ficdom to zum exdraorteenary unt vearvul bunishment, pecame banic-sdricken, und ee zeecretly returnt duh audo. Duh gendlemen rejoict een duh zuccezzvul eezue of duh avair, and tolt eez vriendz `ow fairy glat `ee vuz debt `ee voot nut half to vollo een `eez vatter’z futztepz.
“Vut deed your vatter to?” dey azkt `eem.
“You are azkink me vut my vatter deed, eh? Vell, I’ll tell you. `ee vuz z-dayink een hotel ven dey zdole `eez audo. `ee peekt ub `ees bags unt valkt ohm on fut. I svare I vood half head to do duh zame tink, eef duh teav head nut pen zo opligink.”
Chekov reading his story
When Chekov took the stage, the majority of the crowd calmly put aside their books and gave him their full attention. It really seemed as if everyone in the seating area went along with it. One guy, pictured below, even scrambled to get out a note book to take notes on the talk.
Man taking notes
We stepped into the daze of the 4th floor “nap room” at Barnes & Noble and took our places. Agent Todd summoned Chekov to the podium, and our public audience of about 25 people slowly stirred out of its sedation. All patrons in the seating area had been placed under our spell. Confused, half-awake, and dumbfounded, they swallowed the bait whole. Of course, the bubble of our mind-controlling vortex only extended to the edges of the escalator. As customers arrived from other floors, they immediately burst into laughter. It seemed clear to those on the outskirts exactly what was going on. This, however, did not sway those already trapped in Agent Ward’s magic. The Barnes & Noble adventure was a surreal success.
Customers crowd around our poster in the back of the section
Chekov reads to the crowd
I rode down the escalator with the guy pictured below (Nike sweatshirt) who turned around to tell me that “Some people just have too much time on their hands.”
I was taking pictures in the back and overheard one of the employees say to the manager, “Well, we can’t INTERRUPT him.”
The first security guard arrives
Barnes and Noble Union Square store manager Tom, laughing
More customers view our poster
The man pictured below with his head rolled back was sound asleep when I first took the stage. He woke up when the audience clapped for Chekov, seemed interested in the event, and then fell back asleep a minute or two later.
After I finished my first short story, the crowed applauded. I then told the following anecdote:
“Under Communists in Russia I could not talk to my friends like I am talking to you, my friends. KGB was everywhere. If you went to restaurant to eat and talk the waiter was probably KGB. If you went to library to talk, then librarian went, “Shhhhh…” [holding two fingers in front of my lips]. And, if librarian did not say to shush, she [I cupped my hand around my ear as if to hear a whisper] was listening because she was KGB. The only safe place to walk and talk was the one place nobody was listening or watching…the graveyard.”
I then began to read “In the Graveyard”.
Agent Todd introduces the Q&A part of the reading
During Chekov’s second short story I could tell the authorities were beginning to stress out. At this point there were two security guards, the store manager, and a cop talking to each other at the back of the reading area. I wanted to move on to the Q&A portion of the event, so I ended Chekov’s story a bit early. I wanted to make it clear to the authorities that we would be out of their way very soon:
“Ladies and Gentlemen, Mr. Chekov is on a very tight schedule today. We unfortunately have to leave in just a few minutes. We have time for just a few questions from the audience.”
Right when I was just about to start the Q&A and take the first question, Store Manager Tom began walking swiftly to the stage. “Again we have just a few minutes for questions,” I announced. Tom interrupted, announcing, “Very few minutes! In fact, you’re done. Take it down.” I was still in a position of power as I was on a raised stage and in front of the podium. I smiled at Tom and calmly addressed the crowd:
“Ladies and Gentlemen it seems we are in fact all out of time. Thank you for coming out today to hear Mr. Chekov. Please come back for future Meet the Writer programs, which happen at this store several times a week. We would like to thank Barnes and Noble Union Square for having us today. Thank you.”
The crowd clapped as we exited the stage. Tom instructed me to take our sign down, and then walked over to the other sign and handed it to Agent Wimpy very politely. I went up to him and shook his hand, thanking him for having us. He smiled and replied, “You bet. Please come back the next time he writes a new play.”
Agent Wimpy and I rode the escalator down together still in charcter. The woman in the red hat pictured above, listened to us the whole way down.
After Agents Todd and Wimpy had gone down the escalator, I followed slowly, catching several security guards and the store manager, Tom, on tape as they discussed the event. Tom loudly exclaimed, with a big smile, ‘We got Chekov!’ As I passed, one serious female guard said to Tom urgently, ‘There! That guy!’ I went down two floors and traded cameras with Agent az3456, so I could go back and catch more of Tom’s conversation with the shotgun mic. As I was going back up, I saw them going down. Damn! Her eyes widened as she saw me and said something on the order of ‘there he is!’ to Tom. I switched to the down escalator so I could follow them and as I was going down, I saw yet another guard running back up to catch me. I’d given him the slip but Tom had vanished, so I went outside.
When I reached the bottom of the escalator, the manager was standing with a few B&N employees and I heard one of them say, “Well, did he look healthy?! Har har!”
Our sign in the front window
We caused quite a ruckus in B&N, so much so that when I went back to get Chekov’s jacket that was left behind upstairs, I noticed security guards still wondering what happened (I heard “well THAT was interesting”) and on my way out, the man who had interrupted us on the 4th floor was holding a poster we put up, and he was standing in a circle of people, who all seemed to be pretty amused by the whole thing.
I randomly picked up a photography book about interior design of seaside mansions and sat down inconspicuously among the scattered crowd of the Barnes and Noble speaking area.
I played the part of an enthusiastic listener. When “Chekov” (Agent Wimpy) and his literary agent (Agent Todd) were escorted out by a Barnes & Noble employee and a security guard, I decided to stick around and get some audience reaction. It took only a few moments of looking around with a stunned and confused look upon my face before a woman sitting in the row in front of me engaged me in conversation.
She said she was “shocked” and “outraged” at how Barnes & Nobles would kick out an author who was trying to give a reading. She even walked up to a security guard who informed her that “Chekov” was not scheduled to read at the store. Offering my desire for “a souvenir” as reasoning, I excused myself for a moment to pick up one of the Chekov posters just in case the mission was going to be repeated in the Chelsea B&N. At one point she thought out loud that perhaps he wasn’t the real Chekov, but quickly dismissed the thought and returned to being furious with Barnes & Noble about how they treat respected playwrights. The woman asked me if I knew anything about Chekov and when I feigned ignorance she continued to tell me that he was a great playwright with many famous works and that she was currently in rehearsals for another Chekov play, “The Seagull,” and considered herself lucky to happen upon a chance reading by the author. As our conversation neared an end my fellow outraged listener too looked for a souvenir.
After the Barnes and Noble phase of the mission we regrouped at our meeting point and prepared for phase two. Agent Olsen had designed a second poster that read “Book Signing” rather than “Meet the Writers”. I had purchased 50 copies of one of Chekov’s most well-known plays, The Cherry Orchard, for $1.50 each. We set up a table at the south end of Union Square Park and Chekov signed and sold these books for $2 each.
Agent Todd and Wimpy set up shop
In Union Square, we received 4 reactions from our public throughout the day. To my delightful surprise, I found these 4 reactions very evenly split amongst the general population.
1 in 4 people had heard of Anton Chekov, didn’t know he was dead, and truly believed the whole thing. These people usually remained quiet, and were happy to get an autograph from someone they were pretty sure was famous.
1 in 4 people had never heard of Anton Chekov, and truly believed the whole thing. They probably thought The Cherry Orchard had something to do with Bush or 9/11 or Jesus or harvesting cherries.
1 in 4 people had heard of Anton Chekov, knew he was dead, and saw right through the whole thing. Throughout the day, I enjoyed subtly planting myself near newcomers.
A well-educated family came upon our area, burst out laughing, and went on their way. I casually followed behind them. “We should come back next weekend. I hear Tolstoy’s going to be here.” the father said. “And Sir Francis Drake is coming the weekend after that!” chimed in the 11 year old boy.
1 in 4 people had heard of Anton Chekov, but they weren’t sure if he was alive or dead. This demographic was the most entertaining and the most talkative
I was sitting on the steps filming Agent Wimpy’s loud, cheery conversations with book signees from a distance. An onlooker returned to his friends sitting next to me and said, ‘he sounds like a cross between Ronald McDonald and Krusty the Clown.’ (Personally, I would have replaced ‘Ronald McDonald’ with ‘Yosemite Sam’ for a more contrapuntal similitude.)
I over heard the the man pictured above on the right loudly comment to his friend, “I just assumed he was dead!!”
There were three basic categories of civilians in Union Square: those who didn’t know who Chekov was, those who did and believed he was sitting there, and those who knew who he was and knew this was a joke. But one particular old man was an intriguing combination. He knew quite a bit about Chekov, but didn’t seem to have any clue that what was transpiring was a joke. He took a lot of pride in trying to prove to anyone who would listen that Agent Wimpy was a fraud. He told anyone who would listen how Chekov died in 1904, how Chekov was 44 when he passed on, how Chekov would never be that animated, all with this smug smile on his face tat seemed to say “I know you’re a fraud, but I bet all these people believe you, and I’m going to be their hero and show them the light.
A young man summed up the day’s experiment quite well. “They’re always filming some bullshit over here.”
I was suprised at how many people asked me, “What is his book about?” The man pictured above was quite interested in my description of the chopping down of the cherry orchard and it being symbolic for the end feudal Russia.
The woman in the white pictured above was very excited to meet Chekov. She asked me time and again, “Really!? This is really the real Anton Chekov??” I almost felt bad about assuring her it was. Almost.
The lady with the white shirt was the best, when she was waiting in line she couldn’t stop talking to the other fans, at one point I heard her say, “I didn’t think he was still ALIVE!!!!”
A line begins to form
To generate interest, we had several agents get in line at various times and purchase a copy of the play. As expected, this prompted others to get in line as well.
The woman above requested Chekov to make her book out to “The greatest actress alive.” Chekov heartily complied.
The young man in the jean jacket above insisted that Chekov only sign his autograph, rather than making it out to anyone in particular. He proudly announced, “When you die, this is going to be worth lots of money!”
By far the funniest thing that happened was while we were on display in the park. A man and his wife/girlfriend (pictured above) had stopped in front of our display, and the man was staring quite intently at our Chekov. I overheard him saying that he thought Chekov was dead, so I went over to him and struck up a conversation:
Me: “What was that? You said this guy’s dead?”
Man: “I’m sure of it – this guy had plays out in the 1800’s, how could he be alive today? You know what I bet this is? There’s a Barnes & Noble just on the other side of the park, I bet you they’re behind this.”
Me: “Barnes & Noble is pulling pranks?”
Man: “Yeah, probably to promote this new edition or something. I’m going to get to the bottom of this, I’m going over to that Barnes and Noble right now…”
And get to the bottom of it he did. He returned a short time later…
Man: That’s when Anton Chekov died. I went and found a book on him. This guy’s a fake. Just thought I’d give you a head’s up.
Me: Heh, wow, thanks. He sure has a lot of other people fooled.
Man: Well, it’s a good publicity stunt; I’ll give ’em that.
I just love that this guy took time out from his day, and quality time from his significant other to solve the mystery that we brought before him. Funny thing is, if he just looked at the back of the books we were selling, he could have found out the same information.
In Union Square park my favorite customer’s were:
- The lady buying a copy of the book for her 5 year old son. (above)
- The student who apologized for missing my play last summer in Central Park.
- The two guys selling Jesus refrigerator magnets who wanted my endorsement. (below)
A most successful mission!
Throughout the day several people asked me why Chekov was doing his signing in a park. I gave everyone the same justification, “Well, I just represent Mr. Chekov in New York, so I don’t know his financial situation exactly, but between us, I’m pretty sure he is a millionaire. So he’s not doing this for money. He doesn’t make much off of his plays these days, anyway. Mr. Chekov didn’t want to deal with a big corporate chain store like Barnes and Noble. He just wans to meet his fans. What better way than to come right out to the park himself?”
A Russian in New York
After helping to bring and unfold the table I sat with Agent Calhoun on the side steps of Union Square to observe the setup of the signing station as well as the initial gathering of interested parties.
I bid my time, waiting for the line to ebb, and bought my book without inspiring a mass on-rush.
At one point I was standing next to a guy watching the signings in awe. He turned to me and asked if I knew that Chekov was “big” guy in movies. I replied that Chekov was a playwright and showed him my copy of “The Cherry Orchard.” The man replied, “Yeah, he’s big in movies.” Then asked if the books cost five dollars. When I replied that they only cost two dollars he smiled and jumped into line for this once in a lifetime opportunity.
The man pictured above was one of a handful of folks who noticed the first sentence on the back cover of the play which read, “The Cherry Orchard was first produced on Chekov’s last birthday in January 29, 1904. This meant exactly 100 years and one month had passed since his “last birthday”. I informed anyone who brought up this point that it was in fact a “very embarassing typo” made by Dover Publications.
As I sat on the stone steps, a man in his early 30’s (pictured aboe purchasing a copy) turned to me. “It’s pretty amazing. I mean, Anton Chekov, the most important man in Russian literature, right here in Union Square,” he said excitedly. “Yeah, it’s pretty great,” I replied. He then pulled out his cell phone and made a call to a friend. Here’s the one side of the conversation I heard:
“Hey, what’s up!”
“You’ll never believe who’s in Union Square right now”
“Isn’t that weird?”
“I don’t know, I’d say he’s around 65.”
“Yeah, it’s him, he has the beard and everything.”
“Really? That’s funny.”
“Yeah, that’s weird, well I think it was, I don’t know”
“19th Century you think?”
“I don’t know, this is weird.”
“Well, he’s here.”
“No, it’s definitely him, It must have been the 1960’s”
“It only sounds old because it’s Russian”
“I don’t know. This is weird.”
The man I’m talking to in the photo above actually fooled me. He very quietly asked me questions about Chekov’s life and his current living situation. I thought he was completely falling for the bit until he very coyly let me know he was the one doing the fooling:
Man: So where does he live now?
Me: Mr. Chekov recently relocated to Washington DC
Man: I see. And what is he now, 200? 300 years old?
Me: Yes. About that. 200 or 300.
This guy in the red shirt (above) was standing next to me snickering at all of us who were so excited to see Chekov, but he never left, he stood there as long as the IE Agents did and then finally went over to speak with Chekov. I got the feeling that he was pretty sure it wasn’t actually Chekov, but he just had to make see for himself… and buy a book!
We were in the park for just over an hour and sold 26 copies of the book. I almost made my money back. Agent Wimpy was amazingly friendly and warm to each of his fans. He was loved by all, those in on the joke and those who were completely fooled.
Anton Chekov at the IE 5th Anniversary Show two and a half years after this mission: