Red-and-White-Striped Manhunt
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Red-and-White-Striped Manhunt

Photo by Jahat from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.
Improv In Toronto is launching an event for every child with an escapism fantasy who dreamed of crawling into their Where’s Waldo books and getting lost in the crowd.
Inspired by Martin Hanford’s series of literary sensations, a real live Great Waldo Search will take place at the Eaton Centre on Saturday, November 8, at 2:00 p.m. Improv In Toronto specializes in manufacturing mass “Happenings,” and it is a local offshoot of Improv Everywhere, the visionaries of YouTube fame who had the chutzpah to freeze two hundred commuters in place for five minutes at Grand Central Station. As Improv in Toronto coordinator and high school student Cole Banning explains: “It’s about bringing out the child in everyone and having some fun.”

Despite the group’s name, this is not improv as it has come to be known in the comedy world. The events range in structure and planning, from a loosely arranged protest for dinosaur rights outside the ROM (set for next weekend) to the meticulously scripted and choreographed surprise musical Improv Everywhere attacked a mall with earlier this year. In all cases, it’s the audience, not the performers, who are unprepared for the show. Let’s call them Unsuspectators. But unlike shows like Punk’d, where targets are attacked with mean-spirited pranks intended to embarrass, this is guerrilla theatre at its most benevolent. While Improv Everywhere does film their exploits, the fun never comes at anyone’s expense. “It’s all about changing people’s day,” says Cole, explaining the philosophy behind the stunts. “Hitting them with something they’re not expecting and bringing a smile to their face.”
Photo by David Topping.
With almost 900 confirmed guests on Facebook already, The Great Waldo Search will operate with a slightly different format. Not only will the event’s audience be showing up expecting to participate in the show, they will be gunning for a mystery grand prize. Improv Everywhere is even soliciting volunteers to don the traditional black-rimmed glasses and striped “witness protection” attire and stand in as “fake Waldos” for the day, distributing clues that will lead searchers to the bona fide entity (the group is also recruiting Wendys, Odlaws, and men of the senior citizen set willing to play Waldo’s inexplicable magician buddy, Wizard Whitebeard).
But even though this time around both the participants and the audience will be in on the joke, there is one party who will certainly be surprised by the event. “I e-mailed the Eaton Centre about it, but they didn’t really respond,” Cole admits gleefully. “So we’re just going to do it anyway. It’ll add to the chaos of it.” After all, do you think Waldo bothered to get permission before entering every Incan temple or sixteenth-century Renaissance fair?
For those who want to get involved with Improv In Toronto and pitch their own ideas for “missions,” just go to their website and you’ll instantly be welcomed into the scheming. As far as Cole is concerned, these stunts are only the tip of the iceberg. Even after the dinosaurs have been saved and Waldo has been found, there is still much work to be done: next up, fifteen “agents” dressed identically will enter a coffee shop one at a time, recite the same script, and purchase the exact same thing. Hard to know exactly how the proprietors and customers will react to something this bewildering—and that’s exactly what Cole is in it for: “You go in there and all these people have no idea what’s going on. It’s the fun of breaking out of normal life.”