Sunday, April 15, 2012

Improv at the Zoo

Improv Everywhere -- Carousel Horse Race
There is a group in NYC called Improv Everywhere they describe themselves as “a New York City-based prank collective that causes scenes of chaos and joy in public places”. The best way to understand what they do is to just watch them in action. Their "missions" range from the very simple “High Five Escalator”, to the massive “No Pants Subway Ride 2012” (note as you might guess the video features pantless people in their underwear) which had tens of thousands of people in 59 cities and 27 countries participating, to musicals like “Mall Santa Musical” and “I Love Lunch! The Musical” which was featured on the Today Show, to the participatory “Say Something Nice” done in conjunction with the Guggenheim, and hundreds of other missions.

The thing I love about all of these videos is watching the "audience" reactions; they aren’t sure what to make of them, some people just ignore it like it’s not happening, but most of the people are smiling and truly laughing by the end. The key is the unexpected nature of the scene, the reason the high five was fun was because of the setup and because it was out of place. If you were at a play and saw any of the musical numbers they did you probably wouldn’t of been that impressed, but take them out of context and put them in a mall or store and they become something special. Those things just don't happen in the middle of peoples' “real”, so when they do it's a special treat.

What does this have to do with Zoos, Aquariums and Museums (ZAMs)? I’m glad you asked! What if a ZAM staged some scenes like these? How would that change their visitors’ experience? How many people would the visitor tell about the experience? Watching the videos how many people have cameras and phones out to take pictures and videos? If you saw something like that how many people would you tell? Would the visitors be more likely to come back again? If done well not only would the ZAM improve the experience for those who actually see the scene, but would also create some buzz and word of mouth marketing.

The great thing is being unexpected un-advertised events things can start small. They don't even have to be "scenes" just fun and unexpected. The Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History has two fun brightly painted chairs in it's elevator which are some of the most commented items in the museum as they are so unexpected. It could be a little parade of some of the education animals around the grounds. There could be people in character (naturalist, researchers, scientists, keepers, etc.) that are wandering around the Zoo or Aquarium interacting with the visitors in that character. Want to scale it up more, hire some theater majors from a local college to put on and stage different events? If there is an enclosure that is not used part of the day put on a quick musical piece with the “keepers” (in this case actors dressed as keepers) in cleaning the enclosure and then they break out in a musical about everyone’s favorite zoo topic “poop”. At an aquarium what if there are multiple divers in a tank cleaning and or feeding and they do a 30 second synchronized swimming routine in the middle? Recent studies have shown that most people visiting ZAMs are doing so to spend time with the people they are attending with, so get the visitors involved in the “scene” ask some families and groups if they'd like to participate in staging a scene and help create a memorable family experience.

There are of course down sides, besides the time and expense, if you do too many of the improv items or do the same ones too often they will lose their unexpected nature and thereby a lot of the appeal. Or, if somebody comes to the ZAM expecting a “scene” and they don’t see one they could be disappointed. Having a variety of scenes and activities to keep them fresh and unique could minify those drawbacks and as mentioned above not everything even needs to be a "scene".

I’ll leave you with one more Improv Everywhere for your viewing pleasure “Star Wars Subway Ride” for the geek in all of us (or at least in me).

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