For our latest mission, six undercover actors burst into song in a grocery store in Queens. Three minutes and lots of silly choreography later, they returned to their roles as shoppers and stock boys. The mission was filmed with hidden robotic, lipstick, and wearable cameras. Enjoy the video first and then go behind the scenes with our report below.
We had a couple of really excellent hidden camera reaction interviews that got cut from the final video. I put them together in an outtake video:
We’ve been wanting to stage a follow up to our Food Court Musical mission for quite some time. Unfortunately, we’re not able to produce a musical like that without some serious help in the budget department. (Food Court Musical was produced for a TV pilot.) Last month Trident Layers expressed interest in sponsoring an Improv Everywhere event (giving us creative control and using no product placement), and I knew this would be a great opportunity to create a new public musical.
Agent Brown rehearses with Agents Kayne and Rustin
I knew from the start that in order to make a worthy follow up to Food Court Musical, I would have to use the same songwriting team, Scott Brown & Anthony King. Not only are they longtime Improv Everywhere Agents, they’re also the authors of the hit Off-Broadway musical, Gutenberg! The Musical!
. Their songs, both catchy and hilarious, have been stuck in my head for many a sleepless night.
The cast rehearsing
The cast were all actors I knew from the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre. We had to cast people who could really sing well, given the “slow jam” nature of the song. We had a rehearsal at a Manhattan studio where Agent Brown taught them the song, and Agent King worked on the choreography.
Rehearsing in the store
The next night we had a rehearsal in the grocery store itself. The store was part of a small chain called “Best Yet” and was located in Astoria, Queens. We chose it for its enormous size, at least by New York standards.
Our rehearsal was late at night, right before the store closed. There were very few people shopping at that hour, so we wouldn’t get a real sense of how crowded the produce section would be until the actual mission the next day. We worked with the store and got permission, enabling us to set up hidden cameras. We used some incredible robotic cameras that were operated via joystick in the control room in the back.
The control room
We had planned to just use the store’s PA system to play the song. At the dress rehearsal we learned that grocery store speakers sound awful when the volume gets cranked up. The bass turned to fuzz. So we hid some additional speakers under the muffin table to give their system a boost.
In addition to the robotic cameras hidden on high ledges and in security domes, Agent Adams had a couple of camera rigs he could control out on the floor. We put a lipstick camera on the end of a cart and filled it with groceries. He was able to push it around the area while watching what he was filming on a little monitor.
Agent Adams also had a hidden camera in the strap of his bag, getting a great POV shot of anyone he talked to.
His main job was to get reactions from shoppers after the musical ended. He wore a hidden microphone and also wore an earpiece, enabling me to talk to him from the control room and say things like, “Try to get the woman you’re talking to to turn around; we’re only seeing the back of her head.”
Control room monitor
We staged the mission a few times throughout the day to make sure we got the best possible take and camera coverage. The first take started around 1 PM.
The first few moments were always hilarious. As soon as Agent Kayne started in with his “No, no, no’s,” heads began to turn.
When we did Food Court Musical, we had a pretty good idea of where our audience would be– sitting at the tables. This was more unpredictable. We had all of this choreography planned, but we had no idea if people would make way for us. The area got increasingly crowded as the day went on, which made it all the more fun. Often people found themselves right in the middle of the show.
A woman laughs as Agent Johnson passes with his basket
The woman above took her cart right through the center just as the chorus began. It was like she was a part of the choreography.
Agent Scott’s character was pregnant; she was not. We used a fake belly. She had shoppers coming up to her before and after the song asking when she was due, etc.
Agent Fernandez helps a customer find an item from the circular
Agents Brown and Fernandez played the two stock boy characters. This meant they spent most of the day walking around the floor in the store’s uniform. Of course they were constantly being stopped by customers asking for help.
Our musical was staged very close to the front door, so lots of folks would walk in mid-song. It was fun to see their reactions as they entered and were immediately confronted by our ridiculousness. We got so many wonderful reactions from everyone in the store throughout the afternoon. Queens is the most diverse county in the entire world, and it was really wonderful seeing all of the different types of people laugh and smile.
Letting a friend on the phone listen in
This guy was particularly excited (as seen in the video)
There was always a nice crowd near the registers looking over
The musical got even more absurd when Agent Brown carted Agent Fernandez down the aisle. Agent Fernandez delivered his passionate speech into a price gun, and the two starting spinning while the rest of the cast circled them, building up to the finale.
Before the shoppers could finish applauding, our actors were back to normal life. Those playing customers went back to shopping and those playing stock boys got back to work.
Agent Brown prices some fruit
– Many more photos in higher resolution: Agent Sokoler’s Flickr Set
– Our first musical: Food Court Musical
– Our third musical: I Love Lunch! The Musical
– Buy the original cast recording of Gutenberg! The Musical, also by Brown & King.