I wish to speak to you on a subject of the utmost importance. It is topical. It involves our sweet, aching planet — our less sweet, but equally pained, government — the community of Santa Barbara, and (eek!) even Lucidity Festival; it is at once creative, political, philosophical, and personal. It involves each of us, equally, interchangeably, together.
And before you click through to another page, assuming yet another theater kid’s half-baked plea for attention (“Give me a location! Seriously, just give me a location; watch what I can do with the first 10 lines of Macbeth!”), allow me to explain: This is not your average theater. This phenomenon resists definition, slipping through the cracks of propriety, threatening to disrupt everything you think you know about performance. The flash mobs are coming, Santa Barbara, and they just might save us all.
I know what you’re thinking: “Flash mob! That thing where everyone shows up in identical costumes, perfectly coiffed, to perform polished choreography while a crowd of onlookers gawk in simultaneous jealousy and awe! Right?”
Wrong. I know that world; that world was my world, the family of dancers and directors who shellacked me into believing that my life’s ambition could be whittled down to whether my name made the top of the Nutcracker cast list. Don’t get me wrong: I am grateful for the discipline this instilled. However, when it came down to it, my question to the girl in the mirror — perfectly poised, one speck in a sea of bunheads — was never, How am I pushing my artistic boundaries? But rather, Am I wearing the right leotard?
Flash mob, on the other hand, occurs when a group of all shapes, sizes, abilities, and backgrounds comes together for the sole purpose of creating a strange scene in a public space. It raises questions: For example, What happens when the boundary between performer and audience member is blurred? What happens when there is no ideal body type, no expected aesthetic? What happens when the performance space can’t be controlled? Just last week, at Lucidity Festival’s Rising Vibes for the Universe event at the Arlington, I participated in two flash mobs: one Bollywood, one Michael Jackson. For the former, we rehearsed for a few weeks, carefully orchestrating the spontaneity that accompanies flash mob. I’m well aware that “orchestrated spontaneity” is an oxymoron and that we were, in fact, wearing identical costumes; however, not even our hip jingles could save us when the music failed to play at an audible volume. Only our attitudes could do that. As we plowed forward with smiles on our faces, the audience filled in the gaps — clapping hands and stomping feet to create the necessary rhythm, allowing us the opportunity to roll with the punches. That’s the gift of flash mob, after all: unpredictability, and the chance to make the best of what we’re given. Improvisation, connection. Far from alienating others, it calls upon us to carry their weight: all the while trusting that they will do the same when the time comes.
Flash mob, like love, requires a suspension of disbelief. It demands that we trust our instincts to save us when we’re handed something unexpected. For example, if a flash mob is announced mere hours before the performance — giving nothing but the instruction to show up and wear green — guess what? You show up and wear green. If you know the choreography, the skit, or the intention beforehand, excellent: But if not, you’re still wearing green. If an elbow gets thrown in your face, you use it as a prop. You laugh. And best of all, you’re granted permission to apply these lessons to other areas of life: For instance, one can’t help but believe that the current political situation would lighten if a crowd of mismatched dancers entered the White House, singing and dancing to a chorus of “Why Can’t We Be Friends?” Using silly art to make people uncomfortable doesn’t always disrupt unhealthy stalemates. But it certainly doesn’t hurt to try.
When we’re invited to question the boundary between performer and audience member — unsure of who is “in on the secret” — we unlock a whole host of other possibilities. Forget questions of wearing the right leotard; performance is demystified, and separateness itself is revealed as a construct. Suddenly we’re all players and are handed a truth that we — that’s right, Santa Barbara, us especially — are in desperate need of learning: how to stop taking ourselves so damn seriously. It’s happening already, and I know you can smell it. Art projects are oozing outward, the Funk Zone gets cooler by the minute, and on a nationwide level — hell, on a worldwide level — people are beginning to question everything. We’re less and less content with the idea of a heavy velvet curtain obscuring us from what takes place in the wings. We want to see the stage sweepers. We want in on the mess.
Here in Santa Barbara, we don’t usually like messes. We like our days 70 degrees and sunny, our commutes 15 minutes or less, and our performances clean. However, “clean” doesn’t cut it anymore; and flash mobs, in all their nitty-gritty, are inclusive and egalitarian in a world that tends to be neither. Without trying, they simply are: revolutionary.
I recently approached a group of high school students about performing in a flash mob; and by default, they flipped their hair and averted eye contact, behaving as though I’d just asked them to wear a coat of tarantulas. But the seed was planted. Fast-forward two short months, and those same students will be joining us for our “Thriller” flash mob at the Courthouse Sunken Gardens. On October 26, we will all participate in a worldwide effort called Thrill the World, pretending to be zombies in order to raise funds for charity. And you know what? These students, along with hundreds of others from all walks of life, are setting the tone for the type of person they will be: one who expects art to exist everywhere, who lives in the moment, accepts all bodies, and has fun.
As Howard Thurman says, “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and then go do that.” Even if what makes you come alive is, ironically, dressing like a zombie and pretending to be undead, go out and do it: “What the world needs is people who have come alive,” and people who have come alive need more flash mobs. So. The next time you see one, I hereby invite you to partake in the madness: Clap your hands and go there. Love the improvisational art in your community. Join in. Let go. Believe. And who knows … the spirit you save just may be your own.
"Thrill the World" happens at the Courthouse Sunken Gardens on Saturday, October 26, 2 p.m., with a dance party from noon to 3 p.m. See worlddanceforhumanity.org for more.