Stranger Circumstances


It was a cold Saturday night, and we crossed our fingers that the ominous clouds would not dump down on our street performance. It was the opening night of Crawl Space Gallery’s show “Stranger Circumstances” and marked the last exhibit the five year old gallery would produce. It was just October and weather in Seattle can be a bit unpredictable.

The premise was that we would set up 30 folding chairs in an alleyway. It was a dark and unlit area, set back from the street and strategically perched above Olive Street. Below the seating our stage was set- street lamps illuminating a busy pedestrian corridor- a Starbucks Coffee across the street, a bus stop, a convenience store… It was our theater stage- expansive and dirty, with strangers and unsuspecting pedestrians crossing in front of our seated audience.

We were concerned about the rain for two reasons.  A patchwork of extension cords ran through Half-Priced Books parking lot, across the alley and into our tangle of amps and receivers. Not all of the people walking across our “stage” would be random. We had a dozen or so actors of our own playing with loose scripts and suspicious experiments in social interaction. And they wore wireless microphones, broadcasting the conversations and sounds from the street below. It was a very strange night. There was little documentation. But I will try and relay some of the highlights, as strange circumstances abound that night.

ACT I – Help I need someone.

Steven Miller is handcuffed to a telephone pole. He is wearing a microphone. His task is to interact with pedestrians and convince them to go to the gallery, a block away, and retrieve a hacksaw. He wants to be cut free and the saw is the only way that was going to happen. We thought. As it turns out, one of the first people he talks to has a handcuff key on his key chain. Steven is released with the handcuffs in tact.

Heather Elsa is across the street. She has a violin with no strings on it. She pretends to play. A concealed boom boxprovides the soundtrack. A passerby could reasonable assume that she is a busker, and her violin case welcomes donations. But every time someone tips, or loiters in her presence, she stops the act with the music playing on. Our audience is uncertain if she is an actor or just a random, unaffiliatedperformer.

ACT II – Brother Can You Spare a Dime?

A silver van pulls up, stage left, and drops off a large leather couch with a free sign on it. Arne Pihl walks by and claims the couch for his own. The trouble is, he can’t carry it by himself. He asks strangers to help him carry it down the street. It is heavy, but one by one, people help.

Jed Dunkerley has his bright orange knit cap and an old box with 50 pounds of change in it. He is wired with a mic and asks people where the nearest coinstar is. The box is heavy and not well constructed. In front of Starbucks, Jed buckles, his box implodes, and an explosion of change hits the street, rolling in all directions. People help him collect the change. Two Dutch men help and ask Jed if he knows where Cafe Presse is. Jed responds, “If you want a real American experience, you shouldn’t go there- you should go to this Starbucks.”

ACT III – No Strings Attached

Mike Katell and Jed sport similar green parkas and AFWFA shirts. They are carrying clipboards. There goal is to give out free money to people who ask for it. They approach strangers and ask “Would you like some free money?” Almost all people say no thank you and quickly walk away. Those who say yes are given free money, no strings attached.

Igor Peev is a big, intimidating guy. We handcuff him to a telephone poll. Within 10 minutes some kids sign up to retrieve the hacksaw, cut through the chain and set him free. It was unbelievable how easy it was to get a stranger to release a cuffed man from a telephone poll. No big deal at all.

ACT IV – Submarines and Mermaids

This took the cake. Jed stands in front of the bus stop with a note pad. He is trying to remember the words to the Beattle’s song “Yellow Submarine,” asking pedestrians and others at the bus stop if they know the words. When he feels like he has the lyrics right, he walks into the Starbucks and orders a cup of coffee. He is wearing a mic and the audience can hear everything happening in the store. The idea was that Jed would start belting out the song in the middle of the store and encourage other patrons to join in. We had a few plants to help get the ball rolling. What we did not know, was that there was a function happening at Starbucks that night, a function for deaf people. So when Jed starts singing, all of the deaf people start signing and making gestures like he is drunk and/or crazy. The store does not burst out in song.