Guerilla Improv: Papa Don't Preach

May 5, 2006, 7:15 PM

I-A Evangelists:
Agents Meredith, Marks, Connerly, Donnelly, Henry, and Kirk.
Undercover crowd members: Agents Watts, Douglas

Update: Video added half way down, audio of a radio interview by actual street preachers at the bottom

Agent Meredith:

We decided it was time to send up the folks who stand on the street corner in the bar districts and scream and yell at passers-by about why they have lost their salvation. I have no problem with religion itself. I myself am a Christian, but this method of delivery of any sort of message seems to be more alienating than anything else. These groups were ripe for satirizing.

Our target was First Fridays in the Crossroads district in downtown Kansas City. The crossroads district is made up of art galleries and small shops/restaurants; they all stay open from 7-9pm on the first Friday of every month. Most galleries open new showings during First Fridays and there’s lots of food and drink to be had. It’s a great event. There are lots of people on the street. Hmm… Sounds like it’s time for a little guerilla improv.

The Team:

Agents Kirk,Connerly, Meredith, Marks, Donnelly, Henry. Agent Watts was taking the picture.

We met before hand at Agent Connerly’s house. We dressed conservatively and had a few tools of evangelism with us. A prop book, which was not the Bible. We were sending up poor deliverers of evangelism, not any specific religion. We couldn’t find a soap-box, so we made due with a milk crate, provided by Agent Kirk. We also had your standard sandwich board sign with “THE END IS FAR” scrawled across the front. We also had 400 of these tracts (fliers) to hand out:

We set up at 18th and Wyandotte since there lots of people milling around outside cafes as well as lots of walking traffic. At approximately 7:15pm the apathetic evangelism began. Agent Meredith took to our “soap box” first. There was instant recognition from the crowd. Everyone thought it was something they had seen before. Until they started listening:

"I don't actually know what will happen when we die. I do have some personal feelings on the subject, but I will not be sharing them with you."

"I don’t expect you to donate your money or time to me."

"Why are you even paying attention to me? You don't know who I am!"

"Since I don’t actually know anything about you, I do not agree nor do I dis-agree with your choices."

We basically got three types of reactions:
1) People who listened to what we said and found it funny to some degree. Some of these people chuckled and/or thanked us as they kept walking. Some of these people found it hilarious and wanted to participate; making suggestions as to what else we could say and standing around and listening to our tirade for 20 or 30 minutes. Many of these crowd members did end up finding a way to participate by taking extra copies of our flyers to give to friends and shouting out things like, “Preach it brother!” and, “Amen!.” These were obviously our favorite type of crowd member.

2) People who have trained themselves to tune street corner evangelists out completely. These were the people that literally did not hear what we were yelling at the top of our lungs as they passed within 5 feet of us. These people walk down the street with blinders on. I am one of these people sometimes, depending on what kind of hurry I am in. We broke a few of these into category 1 if they happened to see our “THE END IS FAR” sign and they broke their concentration and they noticed something was off.

3) The third group of people also interacted with us, but in an odd way. They did not take any time to listen to what we were actually saying, or read the flyer, or even look at the 3 foot sign that said “THE END IS FAR”. These were knee-jerk reactionaries. They would immediately start yelling back at us about how they don’t care about Christianity or God. We had some guys drive by in an SUV waving a real church of Satan bible out the window saying, “We’ve got a better version.” over and over. I just screamed at them that if that was what they wanted to read, I wouldn’t stop them. I know they didn’t hear me. They were still yelling insulting things about Christianity as they drove off. Interesting. This gave me some perspective on what kind of conviction the people who really do this go through for what they believe. I may not agree with their method of delivery, but I admire their level of conviction.

Anyway, the mission was a blast. We all took our turn on “the box” and I think we all felt good about our performances. We handed out 400 flyers in 2 hours, which was a lot more than we thought we would. We made tons of people laugh, which was the real point; this mission was a success.

Photography by Curt Rierson of
[this video was of the second run of the mission in August 2006]

Agent Marks:

The best moments for me were the rare, brief, spontaneous bursts of applause from some of the "audience" members. Talking afterward, we decided the applause was for the unstated message beneath our vapid rhetoric, which was: No one should be telling you what to think, feel, or believe in.

Thanks to the best thing about America, the First Amendment, not one police officer approached us at any time. I think that's a reflection on the fact that almost no one was offended by what we were doing. If there had been complaints, I think the cops would have asked us what we were doing, and maybe asked us to quiet down and not "disturb the peace."

The next day my sister called me to congratulate us on being hilarious Friday night. Which surprised me since she wasn't there. She had heard about it from a mutual friend of ours who saw us at the Crossroads. He had seen me performing on stage-- err, on crate -- and came up to me after we had changed places.

Kevin [laughing]: Hey, man, you guys are hilarious.
Me: I respect your opinion. You have the right to think so.
Kevin: I'm serious, that was great.
Me: Some people will enjoy what we're doing, and some won't. Either way is fine with me.
Kevin: Alright, talk to you later.


Agent Donnelly

After a few years of attending First Friday monthly, it became pretty apparent that the crowd tended to fall into two groups: the young, urban art kids and the older, established suburban adults. Either market would appreciate and understand our improv in action.

Our strategy was to start at some of the grittier, younger, art student type places, hence why we set up shop by a popular coffee shop. Not wanting to just stand around in my "nice" clothes, I spent the time at our first location observing, handing out fliers to onlookers across the street, and eating free pizza at a gallery. I stepped into a kitschy store and saw a young man in a ballerina tutu read our flier with his friends "Oh! KC Improv did this. It was all a joke! That's awesome" others overheard him and scratched their heads and said "Oh, that's what that is?" "Improv? Where?" and went outside to watch. Awesome.

Prior to our relocation, Agents Connerly, Kirk and I stood around in our conservative garb, not even handing out fliers, and people came up to us to ask what was going on. Renaissance Fair people struck up a conversation with Connerly, complete with ye olde slang and British accent. Highly amusing, and I felt normal by comparison. These people were by no means our only attention competitors that evening; down the street was a guy tossing fire, a drum circle with dancers and shirtless men walking on their hands, free food, music, and of course, breakdancers (who seem to follow us around).

As we all proved that night, the power of a loud voice and slight elevation is unbelievable. The second Agent Meredith stood on the crate and began preachin' the whole block halted. No matter what was going on around the corner, people stopped, stared, and listened.

For whatever reason I was strapped into the sandwich board before our transition to our second location and wound up walking the two or three blocks with the sandwich board on. While the rest of the group was able to run across the street during a yellow light, I was stranded on the other side of the street completely out of context. People pointed at me, looked at me strangely, whispered to their friends, etc. more than they normally do when I walk by. In addition to the six of us cult looking improvers marching down the urban streets, one or two civilians followed us to our next location, eager to see what was going to happen next.

Agent Connerly delivered a wonderful sermon that really got a good crowd gathered at our new location. While waiting on deck, I wasn't nervous, but anxious, and slightly weary of a food related projectile to be heaved at me. Once liberated from the sandwich board I climbed the mighty milk crate and belted out:
"Ladies and gentlemen, I've gathered you all here tonight to - well wait.... No I didn't. You all just happened to walk by as I stand here on a crate..."

Once that first sentence was out and I realized people were still interested, the rest was easy. Hecklers and intervening seemed to plague me a bit more than some of the other agents, One or two people stuck other fliers into the book, one woman told me to focus my voice, and another said "I don't care!" right in my ear. Other than that, people pretty much stared at me from afar with the same curiosity that my cat does when I take a shower. Swooping hand gestures and picking individuals out of the crowd seemed to break up the repetition and really seemed to get the attention of passers, who would at least pause briefly.

I gave it a good five or more minutes and bowed out with a "I've been overtaken by a power... not like, a spiritual one or anything, but the physical limitations of my own voice."

And with that, I was just some dressed up girl again. I resumed passing out fliers while Agent Kirk rained down something that was neither fire nor brimstone, but equally as effective. I heard a lot of "this is great" "this is hilarious" and "preach on!" in between the spurts of laughter.

Personally, my favorite type of on-looker was the win-over. Initially they were skeptics. They would walk by, brow furrowed, refusing to take a flier. Half way down the block, they would stop and listen a bit closer, then come back and stand, arms folded. After a few more minutes, they would actually come up and request a flier. Thirty seconds later, a good hearty laugh would erupt from their once stone faces. I would say half of the flier. I handed out were requests rather than offers. Additionally, I didn't see any of our flier. littering the street as one would expect, but there were a lot of a real estate agents' fliers under foot.

In general, I found that we were appreciated by both demographics equally, however, the older crowd was much more likely to attempt to engage us in conversation, and many of them thanked us repeatedly for what we were doing. The younger folks generally smiled politely and laughed a bit, but by and large did not heckle. I saw fifteen or so people that I knew from school, and it was difficult to explain what I was doing. Really, that was the only time I broke "character".

Frankly, I don't think that things could have gone any better for us. We had a steady stream of people walk by, many others stopped to soak it in. Those who did not catch onto the "joke" were still highly amused just by what we were saying. We brought a fresh breath of free speech in a time of its jeopardy and were able to entertain people while doing so.

Agent Watts:

As the photog to this mission, I began by trying to be as inconspicuous as possible. You know, by happening upon the scene, feigning confusion, and then becoming amused and pulling out my camera to capture the unique moment I had stumbled upon. But eventually, after everyone else (i.e., our public passersby) started pulling out their own cameras, video cameras, and camera phones, I quit worrying about it. In between taking photos, I was left with some down time with which to really observe everything and take notes of what our audience was saying as well as our players’ own improvisations—stuff that our “preachers” might not have noticed since they were busy, well, preachin’.

I was amazed with the response we got. I would say that the majority of people walking by stopped, or at least perked up their ears enough to chuckle. Many, many hung out a while, and many were laughing hard (the hard kind of laughter that makes you bend over and clutch your stomach.) One guy in particular was hanging around for the entire time it seemed. He was wearing a vest and looked a bit like Stephen Colbert. He was very amused. Preachers Connerly and Meredith later deemed him ‘Superfan’.

While our players were truly preaching “nothing,” a lot of our crowd got emotionally or politically riled with our message of nothing—with shouts of “That’s right!” and “Hell yeah!” and “Amen!” I overheard one guy say, “I think they’re making fun of organized religion.” Some, of course, didn’t get it. One woman asked Preacher Wade, “What are you talking about?” with which he replied a vehement “Nothing!” And…the flyers were not being forced upon anyone; people were making the effort to get one! That was cool.

The kicker moment for me came when I walked by this guy, and he was on his cell phone all excited-like and he was saying, “No, you gotta come check this out, these guys are hilarious! 19th and Baltimore!!!” He was also the guy that started clapping passionately at one point. I noticed a few others on their cell phones, as well, and they seemed to be relaying the situation to whomever they were talking to.

Other quotes that I heard were:
   “This is awesome!”,    “That’s just great.” ,    “This is a hoot!” ,
And, my favorite:
   “Is that art?”

One of the great things about these missions is that, while planned out, much of it really becomes improvised. After everyone had had a chance to stand on the infamous milk crate, our players got a little more comfortable and used to what they were saying, and even began to preach without the need of the book. This was especially true of Agent Connerly, after it had gotten dark. Here are some of the things he said, directly quoted (remember, I had a pen):

“I don’t want to know what you will be doing later…with a man…or woman…or both!”
   And, in the same vein:
“I don’t care what you put in or out of your body,” to which a passerby added “Or who!” “Or who, indeed,” replied Agent Connerly.
“I have no moral authority whatsoever! I am just standing on something taller!” A short passerby to whom Agent Connerly had been preaching directly at replied "You'd be taller even if you got off that crate." The taller Agent Connerly proceeded to get off the crate and follow the man proclaiming how he still had no reason to listen to him.

(Sidenote: After a while, the references to sexual relations and doing what you want began to elicit cheers and whoops. Apparently people want to hear that it’s okay to get it on and with whomever they want…or they’re just dirty minded and whoop and holler about anything related to the subject.) A few other moments of player improvisation that I made note of were with Ashley. She was the first, I believe, to tie in art to the whole thing. And being where we were, in the Crossroads for First Fridays, it worked out pretty perfectly, with her saying something to the effect of, “Who am I to say if that art is beautiful? Is it beautiful? Is it not? I don’t care.” Also, she specifically pointed out someone’s denim shirt (heh heh), as well as her own sandals-with-socks wearing as “equally atrocious…or not!” She also called out to some baby, strapped to her dad’s back, to go ahead and “Eat that cracker!”

All right, so the end. Things got a little crazy. I heard some guy yell out something to Caroline (our last preacher), which I was unable to hear. So I asked some people closer what he had said, and they relayed it to me as: “Your Satan wouldn’t let me into hell!” Whatever that means. Anyways, I think this group saw that I was writing quotes down and so one of they guys I had talked to suddenly got the urge to yell out something of his own…which was: “I want to tell you about my friend Jesus. He’s the only man I’ve ever let come inside of me!” And something else about his friend being hung. Wow.

All righty then! We thought that was a good time to wrap things up. And we had conveniently just passed out the last flyer, making it a total of 400 that we shelled out.

Mission accomplished!! Excellent job, team

Agent Kirk:

4 words: Brown sandals, white socks... Oh yes, I was quite the sight.

I was anxious to be involved in this mission. Not only to I love being offensive, I also love standing on milk crates. When the two are combined, I am obviously on board.

Agents Henry, Marks, and Meredith all did a wonderful job of acting and looking the part of the perfect evangelists. But the Second location we chose was definitely more "hoppin." We had more hecklers, but we also had more of a positive response. Plus, Team One and Team Two joined forces and united in an apethetic evangelist extravaganza. In both places, though, it seemed like anyone who took the time to listen caught on and thought it was a pretty cool idea.

My favorite moment would have to be when some guys pulled up in a truck and started yelling about the Satanic Bible, then proceeded to pull one out. Being from a small town outside of Kansas City, I hadn't actually ever seen the Santanic Bible, so it was quite a treat. What was more of a treat was the amount of spit that came out of the Satan Worshiper's mouth when he talked about his great passion for the book. Agent Meredith's reaction: "Good for you sir, we do not care if you worship Satan. Right on, man!"

I can only hope that our next target will be just as successful. This has been "Rain, Daughter of Summer" over and out.

Agent Connerly:

Inside our 'good book' we had taped a page full of lines we could use as fodder to work off of. This is a trick I learned from my father who is a pastor; he tapes his sermon notes inside his Bible. In fact, much of my style of 'preaching' came from years of watching Dad. Its amazing how intonation and pauses makes such a difference in how you're perceived. The funny part is that the night before going on the mission, Mom pleaded with me to not lampoon Dad too much. Toooooo late.

Like Agent Meredith said, many people would just try to tune us out. I think having the THE END IS FAR sign helped soften many people up to listen to what was going on around them. The mission wouldn't have been nearly as much of a success without all three elements: the preaching, the tracts, and the sign. Its amazing that we handed out 400 tracts. We estimated we'd hand out only 100. But due to typos on the first 200, we reprinted, and ended up handing out all 400 of them anyways.

To Agent Meredith's above three categories of people, I might add a fourth: there were a few people who 'got' the premise and still didn't like it. They are most likely the people we were intending to lampoon. Too bad for them. On a personal level, I was thrilled to see how people generally accepted this mission. 90% of people were laughing, chuckling, smiling, and intently reading our tracts.

Unlike Bush, I can confidn. 90% of people were laughing, chuckling, smiling, and intently reading our tracts.

Unlike Bush, I can confidently say, MISSION ACCOMPLISHED.

Radio Interview: by regarding this mission. Air date 13-Dec-2006. Archived here: wotm_radio.mp3

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