Charlie Todd is the founder of Improv Everywhere, producing, directing, performing, and documenting the group's work since 2001. Charlie is the author of Causing a Scene, published by Harper Collins. Based in New York, Improv Everywhere causes scenes of chaos and joy in public places and has executed over 100 missions involving thousands of undercover agents including the legendary Grand Central Freeze and the infamous No Pants Subway Ride. The group's videos have received over 400 million views online.
Odyssey Works: How do you understand immersivity and interactivity? How does it work and what is the point?
Charlie Todd: To me they are just projects that involve the audience in a meaningful way. Something that breaks the typical role of audience members and involves them in a manner outside of passive viewing. It's making the audience part of the experience rather than simply an observer. The point for me, is that bringing in interactivity adds an unknown element. A good interactive performance should be unpredictable. The audience may change the course of what was planned. The performers may need to adapt and approach things differently based on how the audience is responding (or not responding).
OW: Why create experiences?
CT: I think people crave unique experiences. With advances in technology our culture has become so interactive. Everything has been gamified. Simply sitting and watching a film or a play in a crowd of people is still lovely, but being able to *be* the performance is so much more exciting.
OW: What are you trying to do with your work?
CT: Improv Everywhere causes scenes of chaos and joy in public spaces. The goal is to create a unique, positive experience for unsuspecting strangers. As a byproduct of that goal we also give a unique experience to our performers, who are often strangers we've never met who were recruited via our email list.
OW: What is the collaboration between artist and audience as you see it? Where is the artwork itself located?
CT: For Improv Everywhere the interaction between the performers and the audience, whether or not they realize they are an audience, is the artwork. If our performance happened in a vacuum with no one to witness it live, it would lose all meaning.
OW: How does your art practice influence your life?
CT: I suppose it makes me more aware of the potential for the extraordinary. Right now I'm typing this at LAX airport and a 4-year-old boy just started dancing in the center of the terminal. He's just a kid, but it's fun to imagine that maybe he's not. It's possible that everyone around me is an undercover performer and they'll start dancing soon. Rather than being paranoid that everyone is out to get me, I'm excited about the idea that everyone could be out to amaze me. It mostly just comes from me looking for the next idea I might want to do.
OW: Who are your influences? Can you describe an experience in which art changed you?
CT: My influences when I started Improv Everywhere were Andy Kaufman and The Flaming Lips. I read a book about Kaufman that detailed all of the pranks he would stage with his writing partner out in public places like diners and coffee shops. They were a little mean spirited, but I was really taken by the concept: two people entering a space separately and acting like they don't know each other. What a great set up for an infinite number of undercover performances. Early Improv Everywhere projects often followed this model, largely because I usually only had one friend who was willing to do it with me. The Flaming Lips' live performances in the late 90s and early 2000s were also very inspirational. They actively involved the crowd in participatory ways. I went to a show in Prospect Park where they probably had 100 giant balloons flying around the audience. It was so joyful. I went to another at Hammerstein Ballroom where the entire crowd was given laser pointers on the way in. The lead singer held up a giant mirror and we all aimed our lasers at it. It was incredibly cool looking, and so much fun to be an active part of it.