On a freezing cold night in January while on the way to a sporting event, work or home, metro riders will have the opportunity to witness a sight that is both amazing and completely bizarre. In the dead of winter, hundreds of St. Louisans will be riding the metro without pants. Bare flesh and vulnerable, exposed upper thighs will quickly jolt onlookers out of monotony. The tradition originated in New York 10 years ago and was first brought to St. Louis in 2010 by STL Improv Anywhere, an improv group founded by Mallory Nezam. Improv Anywhere is also behind a variety of other strange and comedic performances that interrupt unwritten rules of conduct within public spaces and often occur in distinguished settings, such as the Contemporary Art Museum and The Pulitzer.
Video coverage of the No-Pants Metro Ride from 2012 shows Nezam, a tiny young woman wearing a scarf wrapped around her neck, a jacket, boots, and a pair of small orange panties, legs exposed in the frigid January cold, as she spoke firmly and clearly about the event to a baffled interviewer. This is partially the reaction she expected, and one of the hundreds of ways people can respond to any Improv Anywhere intervention in public space. “You think, ‘What’s going on? Is this planned? Am I losing my mind? Should I take my pants off?’” says Nezam. “‘What the hell was that weird thing?’ That’s enough for me– for someone to be like, ‘There’s something beyond my regular schedule and my regular routine,’ or, ‘Wow, my city is weird and crazy– my heart rate got up for a few seconds. That was exciting and freaky.’”
This morning, Nezam makes espresso in the Tower Grove East home she shares with two of her best friends, Olivia and Emanuel, who are also active members of Improv Anywhere. They compost their coffee grinds and leave paint brushes, books, sheets of poetry, empty wine bottles, mugs, props and an accumulation of notes they haphazardly write to each other on bits of paper all around the house, attached to the nearest wall, door, or appliance. Notes range from “Water in the tub,” which Nezam found above the kitchen sink today, or, “I have the best roommates,” located right outside the sliding wooden doors next to a wooden set of stairs. “Water in the tub? I don’t know what that means. Maybe there’s water in the tub– and we put a sign here about it. I have no idea,” says Nezam, laughing.
Taped to the wall of her bedroom are several weathered pieces of notebook paper; some are poems she wrote with her ex-boyfriend. They folded the paper back and forth, line by line, so neither of them could see what the other had written. The tundra bore its barren innards in the dryest of seasons, she wrote, and he responded, Which leads me south, makes me think north and wish west. It’s perfectly ambiguous, like a secret language or an encrypted message. One of them wrote 1/20/’12, Date night with Curt and Mal in hasty scrawl on the top right corner. Something for only them to know.
“Am I a curator? Am I an artist? Am I an organizer? Am I an event planner? What am I?” Nezam asks herself. She has encountered others activating public space to create warmth and energy throughout her travels all over the world, ranging from New York City to El Salvador in Central America to Spain. “People are buried under so many layers of things: responsibilities, sadness, weird cultural shit. I think what we’re trying to do with improv is to connect people, to help them peel those layers back, and to let go and feel joy, even for just a moment. That’s definitely where improv comes from. Peeling away the layers of crap. To me, it’s like soot that starts to accumulate. Anything that starts to pile up and you don’t even realize it’s piling up– you can’t get down to feeling liberated.”
“What do you like with your coffee?” she asks, offering a mug. “Do you want no milk? Do you want a lot of milk? Do you want foam? Just let me know how you like your milk. We have to figure that out pretty soon because of the steam.” While tending to several different coffee-making contraptions, Nezam discusses Thanksgiving plans with Emanuel, who is on his way to the farmer’s market, and talks about her family. She and her three younger siblings grew up in home of mixed cultures: their father is from India, and their mother is of Irish descent. “My dad took the initiative to leave India on his own when he was 18 to come here for school without knowing anyone, not really knowing the language, not really having any money– just wanting to go to get an education,” she explains, proud, and pauses. “Just all the struggle and strength that comes with that.”
Her father hasn’t always understood her inclination towards the arts. “I think my dad can be a little on the edge of his seat about how are we going to make a living,” she says, referring to one of her younger brothers, Alex, who is a filmmaker. Nezam starred in his thesis project at Webster University. “But he does understand that we’re going to do it regardless.” Her other brother, Josh, is here today, after having spent over two years in Korea. “He just surprised our family and came back a month early, so he’s staying with me,” she says. Last year when he was gone, the siblings saved up enough money to buy their mother a round-trip plane ticket so she could visit him.
When Nezam was 9 her parents divorced, rupturing the family she knew, and beginning a series of moves and uprootings. “Any divorce is painful,” she says, treading carefully. “Josh, do you remember the fake school we had in the woods at Rockwood? I would take the wagon around as a school bus and pick people up,” she remembers, laughing. “I remember sweeping the dirt floor,” he says. “I don’t know, you just kind of gave us roles and told us what to do.” “Best days of your life!” Nezam quips back. “I may or may not have choreographed some Backstreet Boys dances he was in too…” Nezam says, as an aside.
After the divorce, she lived in a shelter with her younger brothers, sister, and mother for a few months before moving to Clayton. They crammed into a two-bedroom apartment on Frances Place near the Galleria, so they could all attend the acclaimed Clayton school district. She shared a room with her sister Julia, Josh and Alex shared a room, and her mother slept in the living room. “We’ve split rooms like that for a long time,” says Nezam. “My mom’s a badass … I think my mom taught me to go with the flow a lot, and to find the lightness in life at every turn, whenever you can. And to be strong, and bold.” When Nezam was 15, they moved again to a house in Crestwood, and Nezam switched to another school. After graduating, she attended Occidental College in Los Angeles, and traveled from Europe to Central America. “I feel like I’m always poised for the potential of change, and I find that almost thrilling. I don’t ever feel the need to be like, ‘This is it. This is the thing, and I’m comfortable and I’m settled in this thing.’ It could be in a protective way. Maybe. I don’t know.”
Now settled back in her hometown, by day Nezam is a young professional, working with art clients as a public relations account manager at MSW Marketing. By night, she transforms into the indescribable, formless artist, digging into the world through several of the disciplines it offers her to discover it. “I think there are people who grow up and they don’t have a lot of change. There’s a lot of consistency, dependability and sameness. And that will potentially raise you to think that that’s really how things will be. And I was not raised like that.”
She still remembers the conversation that happened when she was 9, the one where she knew everything would change. But today she leans her head against the wall, looks down, and says, “Yeah … I’d rather not go into that.” Years later in February 2012, Nezam and a group of Improv Anywhere members hosted a Valentine’s Day celebration in downtown Clayton in which they dressed up in strange outfits and handed out Valentine’s day cards to passersby, everyone from kids and mothers to businessmen in suits. Recounting the day on STL TV Live with Emanuel, Nezam discusses the varying reactions of people on the street. Some people passed them by while talking on cell phones, not wanting to be interrupted, but some responded with love and encouragement. One person told her he no longer hated Valentine’s Day. “Nobody should hate Valentine’s Day,” said the interviewer. “Well, a lot of people do. And that was part of the point,” Nezam quickly responded.
One woman was so moved that she opened up about the difficulties she had been experiencing that year, including a divorce and the loss of a job. Hearing the woman’s story touched something in Nezam. Perhaps it was because they were in Clayton, a place where she spent a piece of her formative years. Perhaps it was hearing about the dissolution of a marriage, something legally carved in stone that eroded until it was no longer there.
The woman asked herself, “Does anyone care? Do I have any support?” “She really needed that on that day: to feel loved by people she didn’t know,” says Nezam. “To me, that’s also so important about what we do. The fact that I love you just because you’re a human being, and that is all– is powerful. I don’t think people think about it or feel that. We try to remind people that at least we, as Improv Anywhere, we’re doing this because we love St. Louis, we love St. Louisans. We don’t care who you are, we don’t care what your background is, we don’t need to know anything. We just need to know that you exist. And we’ll celebrate that. We’ll celebrate that we’re all just living in the city together.”
“It is a different city from what it was,” she says of St. Louis. “It seduced me back into being here. It was different and alluring and exciting and evolving in a way that nobody really understood.” She met artists, poets, authors, activists, and young visionaries trying to change the cultural landscape. Once she started her own cause, she began joining up with other like-minded ones. In addition to Improv Anywhere and her day job, Nezam is also working on another project with a fellow St. Louis artist/poet, Henry Goldkamp, whose project “What the Hell is St. Louis Thinking,” has the same spirited approach to the city as Nezam’s.
For the project, Goldkamp has placed typewriters with submission boxes all over the city where anyone can submit a poem, a thought, a comment- anything they like. Goldkamp plans to gather the best submissions and publish them in book form. One day, someone submitted an index card that simply said, “St. Louis got so cool when I left.” “I was like, ‘Damn straight! Put that in the front of your book,’” says Nezam. Together, they started The Poetree Project, an interactive public art project in which participants can submit an original poem or a favorite by someone else, and the poems will then be hung from a grove of trees in Forest Park, dangling from the branches like ripe fruit. People will then be able to pluck any poem they like from the trees, prepare them for another journey with a selection of stamped and branded envelopes, and send them out into the world. Poems can be addressed to someone special, or participants can select a random address from a phone book, for a gift to a stranger.
“Like intertwining roots, we are reminded that we are all connected,” says the description of the project’s Facebook page. “We have a very love/hate relationship that’s very healthy for artists,” she says of working with Goldkamp. “He’s somebody I would never want to spend time with and simultaneously someone I want to spend all of my time with. It’s great. Despite the fact that he’s absolutely insane. He has lost it.” For them, effecting change sometimes comes by way of incendiary movement and action rather than careful planning, embodying the quote on the Improv Anywhere website: “Grazing side by side is not living together.”
A few weeks ago, Nezam and a few of her siblings were at dinner with her father, and she started writing another joint poem together with Alex while they waited for everyone to arrive. “It was just the two of us. We started to write a line and pass it back and forth.” When her father arrived, he was unexpectedly intrigued. “We included my dad when he got there and he was totally into it. He started telling me about some of his favorite Indian poets. And I realized we had never really talked about that before. Naturally, it’s sort of making its way into our relationship.” Curled up on the couch in the living room of her home, Nezam looks out the window while talking animatedly about the project, both hands clamped around a mug of coffee. “There’s a lot of uprooting, and the need to be resilient and strong, because you’re going to do what you’re going to do and it might be hard.” She quickly amends her statement. “It will likely be hard.”