By Ellen Freeman Roth
Boston Globe Correspondent / March 22, 2008
Today's forecast: a feather storm in Copley Square, outside the Louvre in Paris, and on the steps of the Opera House in Sydney as hundreds of people merrily whomp each other with pillows.
It's glasses off and soft pillows on for International Pillow Fight Day, organized in 21 cities by Generation Yers who are inviting friends and strangers to come together today for walloping fun. At Copley, the 2 p.m. communal slumber party game is hosted by the Banditos Misteriosos, Boston's new entry to the urban playground movement.
Banditos Misteriosos and a second group called the Boston Society of Spontaneity are the latest to join the social movement aimed at gathering, surprising, and entertaining people in public spaces. But Banditos and BostonSOS seem to plan their fun more seriously. They claim larger memberships than groups like the boombox-bearing ensemble 123 Party! that created a stir last year by blaring '80s hits while dancing in neon-green jogging suits throughout the city. And they're better organized than the so-called flash mobs that have spontaneously assembled people in public places for purely whimsical reasons.
"Boston is a playground," declares the Banditos website. "Banditos Misteriosos is the city's mysterious playmate."
Yet despite its name, Banditos Misteriosos is not secretive. This group of a dozen 20-something planners - and more than 500 members - aims to bring strangers together with family-friendly activities in public spaces.
"We want people to interact in urban areas in ways they're not used to, doing events that are free, simple, open to the public, and out of the ordinary," said Ethan Feuer, a Banditos Misterioso who is a Brandeis University admissions counselor.
That's what happened Feb. 23 at Faneuil Hall during the Silent Dance Experiment. More than 300 strangers milling around the Sam Adams statue suddenly bopped in synch. Headphone wires swung from their ears as they high-fived, danced the Swim, and played modified freeze tag in unison. Bemused bystanders joined in, posing like "The Thinker" and sharing participants' headphones to hear downloaded music and instructions. Copious giggling and a few group cheers punctuated the joyous scene. The silent dance ended with a costumed Moses leading a conga line into Quincy Market.
The line passed the BosTix booth, where Joe Donlavey, director of ticketing and tourism for ArtsBoston, was working. "My first thought was that this was a guided tour of the Freedom Trail," he recalled. "But when we saw hundreds of people coming through with hands on the shoulders of the person in front of them, one of my staffers said, 'I think it's one of those impromptu meetings done through Facebook.' It was fabulous! They did a couple of shout-outs. That was the best."
The event didn't impede business, Donlavey added. "And as people walked out, a few came by the booth and asked about Blue Man Group tickets."
The Silent Dance Experiment was the first event orchestrated by the Banditos' 12-member planning board. Feuer and two friends initiated Banditos Misteriosos in December by launching a website (misteriosos.org) and its first event, also a pillow fight. The group's name came from characters the founders created in a college comedy sketch.
"A lot of us were camp counselors. We think of Boston as our camp, and we're going to be coming up with fun events," said Bailey Triggs, a coordinator for a branch of the nonprofit Education Development Center, who joined the Banditos planning board.
The Internet is the Banditos' primary channel for publicizing events, though the group also posts flyers. The group wants to attract a broad age group, but that's challenging. "These types of events are going to be aimed more at our demographic, because it's young people who do this type of thing," Feuer said.
Respect for public space is one factor driving the urban playground movement. It's an effort to redefine public space, to free it from "the endless creep of advertising," as the International Pillow Fight Day website, pillowfightday.com, states.
"Public space in urban areas has had predictable and routine uses as a way of maintaining order in a chaotic urban environment," said David Cunningham, an associate professor of sociology at Brandeis University. "The urban playground movement challenges that. The idea of play is a sharp critique of the consumerized space that surrounds us, and strips away the commercialization."
The other upstart group that embraces public space, Boston Society of Spontaneity, sprung up around the same time the Banditos formed. The groups' memberships overlap, though their goals do not. BostonSOS wants to entertain.
"We are more of an interactive guerilla theater-type group," said James Cobalt, who started and runs the nearly 300-member troupe. In what BostonSOS called its Frozen Food mission inside Quincy Market just before Banditos Miseteriosos' Silent Dance Experiment, more than 50 BostonSOS performers abruptly froze in place for several minutes.
BostonSOS is a spinoff of New York City-based Improv Everywhere, whose website declares it "causes scenes of chaos and joy in public places." Improv Everywhere has not only surprised but also occasionally discomfited onlookers or businesses, as when 80 people sporting ersatz employee uniforms wandered around a large retail store.
"I can see why some people find it confusing," Cobalt said, "but I don't think that confusing and harmful are the same thing."
BostonSOS staged its first event in early February, the No Pants subway ride, in which 200 people on the Red Line casually removed their pants while on the train. "A lot of people wore extra layers of underwear for modesty, " Cobalt said. "Very few people were offended."
The Banditos are mum on what's in store after the upcoming pillow fight. "We have to fall back on our name and be a little mysterious," Feuer said with a grin.
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