This past September I was invited by CEC ArtsLink to travel to Russia and stage an Improv Everywhere mission with local artists in the town of Petrozavodsk. Along with Kendal Henry from CEC, I worked with about 20 Russians through a small arts center in the town. We brainstormed ideas together and executed two missions during my trip.
On the first night I gave a presentation about Improv Everywhere to the group. Some were familiar with our site and others were not. A few in the group were street artists. Others worked in video and other disciplines. Most of the participants were in their early 20s, though a few were older. Only a couple of them spoke English, but we were lucky enough to have a translator with us, Agent Nastya. We spent the second day walking around town and searching for good places to execute a mission. Afterwards we met to brainstorm ideas.
We hatched a plan for the first mission. The group would enter a local furniture store one by one and fall asleep on the beds and couches. If asked, agents would claim not to know each other and insist that they were just tired and fell asleep accidentally. I scoped out the store and noted there were only two employees and lots of hidden corners for agents to sleep out of their view.
Agent Nastya, left, translated my words
The day of the mission we met up in a park near the store. I went over the game plan with everyone and we picked the order the agents would enter. We were all a little nervous. Most of the participants were not performers and were a little shy about doing something out of the ordinary in public. There was safety in numbers though, and most felt confident it would go well. There was definitely concern about the police showing up. Agent Sergey, the art director of the center, decided it would be safest if everyone kept their shoes off of the beds to ensure we couldn’t get in trouble for dirtying the merchandise.
I was in charge of filming the mission. One of the agents had a small miniDV camera and we placed it in an empty hair dryer box and cut a hole in the side. It was the only box we could find that was the right size.
I was nervous about getting busted. Surely an American dude standing around a furniture store with a pink hair dryer box would look pretty shady. I speak absolutely no Russian and wouldn’t be able to communicate with the employees if they started yelling at me.
After we got organized we headed into the store one by one. Agents Nastya and Liev entered first and pretended to be a couple interested in buying a couch. They had a camera with them and snapped photos of potential couches as they asked questions of one of the employees. This made it natural for them to take photos of the sleeping agents later on. I entered after the first couple of sleepers and starting walking around quietly with my box.
Filming Agent Masha
After about 10 minutes all 20 agents were in the store sleeping on the couches and beds. It was a small store, but there were enough separate areas that the ladies working there couldn’t tell how many people were involved. They stumbled upon each sleeper one by one.
They started freaking out pretty quickly. The trouble was, I had absolutely no idea what they were saying. They seemed concerned, but they were also laughing. I had to wait until after the mission to find out exactly how they had reacted.
I film in the background as one woman calls the store’s owners
There were two employees in the store. Their first thought was that all of the sleepers were “junkies” who had stumbled into the store to pass out. “This is not a hotel!” they kept shouting over and over again. “Young people, go away!” I noticed one woman was on the phone but didn’t realize she was speaking to the owner of the store. She was laughing as she talked to him.
The other woman was smiling and laughing as well.
Every now and then they would look at me, and I would just laugh and shrug and indicate that I thought it was strange too. Thankfully they never asked me any questions in Russian. For the most part they ignored me, focusing instead on the sleepers. Somehow I was able to blend in to the background, even with my obvious hidden camera box.
They started going around and waking up the sleepers. They would either bang their hands on the bed or poke the sleeper and shout. I found this funny, because it seemed like they thought our agents were actually asleep and not pretending.
One of the women wakes Agent Renald
They acted very angry towards the sleepers, but kept privately laughing to each other. After about 15 minutes, the police arrived. I found out later that one of the women had pressed an emergency call button, like a bank teller might do during a robbery. I’ve been present at several Improv Everywhere missions in New York where the police have showed up, and while it’s never fun, I’ve never been all that shaken by it. Seeing a Russian policeman in a green army helmet was a different story. I instantly had visions of being taken away to some secret prison for illegally filming. My US citizenship was not going to play in my favor at a time when the rhetoric between our countries was heating up over the Georgia crisis.
Almost all of the sleepers had already been kicked out of the story by the time the police arrived. The women frantically pointed to the two last agents who had just left the store. The police stopped them and questioned them outside.
They let one go immediately when the women couldn’t remember if he had been one of the sleepers or not. The other, Agent Ivan, was questioned for about 10 minutes. The police took down his name and address as they tried to assess the situation. Agent Ivan calmly explained that all he had done was fall asleep on a couch. Eventually they let him go with no charges, unable to determine any crime that had been committed.
The owners arrive
The owners of the store arrived a bit later, but the mission was over at that point. They called a neighboring store to warn them of young hooligans in the area.
Shortly after the mission, I did some brief interviews with the English-speaking agents involved.
I also interviewed Agent Sergey, the art director of the center. He does not speak English, but our translator explained his thoughts to me, “It was a very useful experience for the young artists to find this freedom inside them and to be able to show it. It is important to feel that you are free to come and do what you want in this country where actually freedom was not a very open thing in the past.”
A couple of days later we executed a second mission. We had a Russia tea party on the sidewalk of a busy street. I don’t have video of it, but these photographs tell the story well.
We had two samovars!
Strangers stopped to gawk and take photographs
This woman worked in the building next to us and smiled as she looked out the window
All in all, it was a fabulous experience visiting Russia for the first time and getting to work on projects with the locals. It was amazing how the experience of doing an Improv Everywhere mission felt very much the same as it does in New York, even in a place as culturally different as Petrozavodsk. A huge thank you to CEC ArtsLink and Kendal Henry for inviting me to participate in this exchange.
I took tons of photos during my two-week trip to Russia, which also included time in St. Petersburg and Moscow. If you’re interested in seeing them, they’re online here: Russia Flickr collection