Mob experiment unfolds in downtown Syracuse

Participants performed and danced in unison Saturday, beginning in Columbus Circle, as part of the Syracuse MP3 Experiment.

Dozens of people armed with umbrellas and MP3 players following a man in a lobster costume took over Columbus Circle in Syracuse on Saturday as part of a public improvisation theater act.

Participants gathered directly in front of the statue of Christopher Columbus at 4 p.m. to take part in the second annual Syracuse MP3 Experiment. They had been told to download an audio file to listen to at the event, but not before, and to bring an umbrella, though the day was warm and sunny.

Participants raise umbrellas, creating a colorful canopy, at the fountain at Hanover Square in Syracuse on Saturday. They were following instructions from an MP3 audio file as part of the Syracuse MP3 Experiment, hosted by 40 Below, a public arts task force in Syracuse.

First-time participant Corey Morabito, 16, said that he was expecting “mass randomness, a lot of confusion and people just wondering what’s going on.”

The event was put on by 40 Below, an organization created to connect, engage and empower young adults in Central Upstate New York, according to its website.

“It’s a performance art piece in a way,” said Vanessa Rose, 37, co-chair of 40 Below’s public arts task force. “It’s just to get people involved, doing something fun, something different.”

An air horn signaled the beginning of the event, as everyone pressed play on their MP3 players and listened to the instructions. Everyone pointed at the Columbus statue in unison, opened their umbrellas and raised them high, then ran to gather around a man in an apple costume as perplexed spectators watched the scene unfold.

Participants, ranging in age from toddlers to elderly, interacted with non- participants around them, following instructions to tell a stranger they were carrying umbrellas because of bad weather, then giving them a thumbs up.

The group traveled through several blocks, passing by the county courthouse steps and through Hanover Square. The participants drew circles on the pavement with chalk found in a “treasure chest” on a street corner and used their umbrellas to have a pirate sword fight while crossing a street. A couple of young men that helped organize the experiment held up stop signs that read, “pirate battle in progress.”

Multiple costumed characters showed up throughout the experiment as part of the plot, including a lobster, a “bad apple” and a cow. The crowd cheered as the “bad apple” and his female apple fiancee had an impromptu wedding ceremony, and cried when one of the newlyweds was “fatally wounded” by an umbrella stab during the pirate battle.

The experiment relied on the 37-minute long audio file that each participant was advised to download, but not listen to until the start of the experiment. The audio file is narrated by “Gary the Voice” and includes snippets of music, as well as directions to follow.

About 75 people showed up to be part of the experiment this year, about 25 more than last year, Rose said.

Marisa Morabito, 20, went to the event at the urging of her sister and nephew.

“They asked me, ‘Did you bring your umbrella?’ I said, ‘Why, is it supposed to rain?” Morabito said of the umbrella props.

The original MP3 Experiment was created in 2004 by Improv Everywhere, an organization that performs “missions” in public and tapes the outcome.

Past missions have involved acting out a scene from “Star Wars” on a New York subway train and “Ghostbusters” chasing a man with a white sheet over his body around the New York Public Library.

In 2008, Improv Everywhere hosted an MP3 Experiment tour, taking the improv act to Toronto, San Francisco, Chicago and its home base, New York City. Each event included at least 1,000 participants.

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