In The Institute, a new documentary film produced by Oaklander Jeff Hull, viewers are introduced to the Jejune Institute, a curious San Francisco phenomenon into which 10,000 people agreed to be “inducted” without knowing what they’d signed up for. The film’s press materials ask, “Was it a cult? Was it an elaborate game?” Over the course of the film’s 92-minute running time, the viewer is drawn into a rich and secret world just below the surface of everyday urban life. That world is alternately silly, unsettling and profound.

Twenty minutes and 47 seconds into the film, Jeff Hull reveals the inspiration for his career in the realm of interactive public arts, which The Institute explores. Yes, it’s Children’s Fairyland, Oakland’s storybook theme park.

In 1979, 10-year-old Jeff was a Fairyland “personality,” playing the role of Jack to his sister’s Jill. In the film he explains that being able to spend so much time in a place full of wonder and discovery “set a standard for me in my creative life. I want to be able to follow a yellow brick road or fall down a rabbit hole.” He says he wants to challenge ordinary urban boundaries and introduce more play into the civic realm.

The rabbit hole known as the Jejune Institute—an alternate-reality game created by Jeff—led inductees (many of whom initially responded to provocative flyers posted on telephone poles) to a sleek high-rise office building in San Francisco. There they viewed a video that invited them on a journey involving scavenger hunts, mass protests and a narrative involving a compelling and poignant young lady. The game lasted from 2008 to 2011, but interested people can still be inducted by visiting the website (, where they can experience additional media associated with the Jejune Institute. (“Jejune,” by the way, can mean “dull” or “naïve and unsophisticated.”)

Jeff, who also founded Oaklandish, the community arts group and Oakland-pride apparel brand, says that he’s “a little nervous” about public reaction to the film (his first), which was directed by Spencer McCall. Amazingly, he saw The Institute only after it was completed, “and I didn’t change a single frame.” He acknowledges that viewers will most likely walk out of the film with a lot of questions: What’s factual? What’s fabricated? Did the game ever really happen?

The Village Voice called the film “a must for performance-art students, latent Situationalists, punks, hippies, radicals, cultural studies academics, the unconscionably bored, and any theater person who goes beyond Sam Shepard.” One of my favorite scenes occurs when a voice over a pay phone directs people to dance in the streets—which they do, with gusto. Oh yes, then the Sasquatch—Bigfoot—appears with a transcript.

Jeff’s 6-year-old son Everlee benefits from his dad’s approach to imaginative play, whether it’s building couch forts or making up stories as they bicycle around Lake Merritt. Jeff recalls his dismay when he heard Everlee’s new teacher announce that “kindergarten is not play time anymore.” “I had a really visceral reaction,” he says. “We should be playing more!”

I asked Jeff what adults can do to encourage discovery and curiosity in our own lives—to awaken to the mysteries that exist all around us. He suggested approaching a “known stranger” (someone you see regularly at the bus stop, for example) and getting them to tell their story. Or spend an entire day without speaking. Or pick a random point on a map and navigate there in a fashion that’s new to you. He is a “huge fan” of the anonymous artist who’s painted hundreds of gnomes on wood plaques and attached them to telephone poles around Oakland.

Jeff is already working on his next project, but won’t say too much about it. He does let on that it will be “audacious, and all over the world,” and will start in San Francisco’s Mission District. It will involve urban exploration and community building, and may even generate revenue.

Children’s Fairyland is becoming more involved in the international movement to create more opportunities for imaginative, unstructured play for children. Apparently we knew what we were doing in fostering this “urban playground” movement even back in 1979, when we inspired one very creative kid who is now reminding us that play is good for us—at any age.

The Institute opens October 4 at the New Parkway in Oakland and at the Roxie in San Francisco.

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