A crowd of college students mingles with each other, sitting on blankets and chewing homemade cookies, while waiting for the actors sitting with them to indicate the performance is starting. They’re outside in the middle of JMU’s Festival lawn with a murmur of anticipation but the relaxed appearance as if they are having a picnic. Suddenly someone at the edge of the group pops up and introduces herself. Using handmade props and with scripts in hand, a group of students perform a play for the viewers. It’s almost like a flash mob – though they aren’t catching the audience entirely off guard.

This scene was one of two performances put on by a group called Queen City Flash this past Friday. It came to JMU’s campus and met with a collection of excited theatre students to write, design and produce a show in four days. It was an admirable and successful feat to say the least.

Shows like this one are more organized than a flash mob, but not quite as formal as the typical theater performance. They might be more appropriately titled “flash performances” or “pop-up performances,” and can range from theater and dance to art galleries.

On the same night as this flash performance, a pop-up gallery in downtown Harrisonburg, across from Court Square, was also opening. This new space, run by JMU assistant art professor Robert Mertens, is called the Modular Project Space. While permanent in location, the MPS is definitely in the vein of a pop-up gallery, as it’s only open for the hours of Harrisonburg’s “First Friday.” Mertens has created the gallery to be a space for alumni, JMU faculty members or graduate students to use. They have access to the space for one month to work on the installation, then the small room opens to an audience.

“It’s that working space for a month and then it’s gone,” said Corinne Diop, a JMU art professor and feature artist for April.

Diop’s art is work that started over this past summer. She put twine, paint, wallpaper and other household supplies in cardboard boxes, then she sealed them up and let them weather outside. She spent time on faculty educational leave, and spent this time “nurturing” these boxes. The results of this experiment were the core of her art shown on Friday.

“The point is the process, Diop said. “The sharing is not totally incidental because it’s based on the First Fridays when a lot of people are out, but it’s more like performance art.”

Both of these shows are different than the traditional professional shows usually associated with the phrase “art gallery” or “theater.” These shows encourage a much different discourse and that’s why the community needs them. What formal art, theater and dance work does in communities is necessary and good, but these pop-up type shows are also needed.

For one, they eliminate money from the element of art. Though supplies must still be paid for, the idea of producing a show purely for yourself and the audience allows both to breathe a sigh of relief in regard to funds.

“I want them to worry about how experimental they’re being more than how much they think they can sell it for at the end of the day,” Mertens said.

Additionally, artists can take risks with their performing and creating because they don’t have the pressure of judgement, sales or critics.

“It’s easier to have a space and be really experimental if it’s not going to be around a long time,” Mertens said.

Mertens said that the MPS is like the “weird cousin” to the rest of the successful and professional galleries downtown.

Mistakes are allowed and even promoted in these shows and because they’re often so random, there’s little pressure from the public eye. If a show doesn’t work or an experiment goes awry, artists can pick themselves up from these experiences, learn and move on without having to take out a second mortgage.  

On the audience’s side, sometimes these flash shows and pop-up galleries allow for a more engaged audience – an audience encouraged to touch or use social media or interact with space and performers.

Because these spaces and performances are so temporary, artists need to take initiative to show their art.

“You can’t wait for someone to do something and jump on their project,” Mertens said. “You’re going to school to be a creative person, which means you create your own environment. You make your own work and you also make your own society.”

Communities need professional and formal galleries and performances like the active and engaged artist scene Harrisonburg has created in its downtown – it’s how artists make a living. However, communities also need galleries like MPS or flash shows like Queen City Flash. If nothing else, they give artists and viewers a break to forget about the money and concentrate on the art and creativity they love.

Rebecca Josephson is a junior English major. Contact Rebecca at josephrc@dukes.jmu.edu.