From tiny bar to circus tent, Psychedelic Friendship Bingo continues to grow
Psychedelic Friendship Bingo mixes vaudeville, improv comedy, and mustard, with a classic party game for an unusual night.
Eight hundred people have gathered just after sunset on Alameda Island. A trail of lights lead the way from the giant, pitch-black parking lot to a circus tent perched near the water. A woman sells tickets to the people crowding the entrance to the tent.
All these people are gathering for Psychedelic Friendship Bingo.
Hillary Lannon brought her friends to play what she describes as, “a legit bingo game, but with cabaret, scripted comedy but also with improv kind of around the bingo.”
Lannon frequents other bingo games around San Francisco, where she lives. But Psychedelic Friendship Bingo is far different.
This is not normal
It has all the foundations of a traditional bingo game. In order to play, everyone buys a bingo card and the host draws numbers randomly out of a bingo cage. Players mark the numbers if they appear on their cards using little bottles of paint with a sponge on the end, called daubers.
Psychedelic Friendship Bingo mixes in embellishments. There is a dance troupe, the Darling Daubers, who perform in clouds of glitter. Big carnival letters spell out B-I-N-G-O over the stage. Each round five performers sit underneath the letters and spin bingo cages. Their role is to draw the numbers and hand them off to the bingo hosts, long-time friends Micha Devlin and Leighton Kelly.
Devlin and Kelly have been a part of Psychedelic Friendship Bingo since its inception about eight years ago. It began as a smaller, simpler game in a bar in the Mission district.
Kelly says initially, “ It didn’t have any of this glitz and glam.”
“It was just a bingo game that got weird,” Devlin chimes in.
The weirder elements were added mainly to make each other laugh. The Psychedelic Friendship Bingo mantra is a good example: Friendship like the setting sun, sheds kindly light on everyone.
Devlin says the mantra comes from a cross-stitch found in the the basement of the bar. Now, during performances, Devlin and Kelly lead the audience in a recitation before each of the three rounds.
Over time, people worked in other additions. The messiest is a unique punishment for bingo players who call out a false win: getting smeared with mustard or mayonnaise.
One of the people charged with this task, a performer calling himself Dr. Turner, says it ultimately helps keep the often rowdy game on track.
"Sometimes we'll have multiples of different materials and we'll think, 'what can we do with this?'" — Jessy Brown
“It might just be an honest mistake where someone thinks they won,” he says, “but that just means they weren’t paying attention. So we used to have a big bucket of mustard, we still have it, we paint it right across their shirt or their face just so people don’t walk all over us."
Born in a prop shop
All these antics grew out of years of playing bingo with each other. The Psychedelic Friendship Bingo crew left the bar behind and settled into a warehouse that contained a prop-making company, One Hat One Hand, that one of them co-owned.
Some of the performers (such as Dr. Turner) work at One Hat One Hand. They use left-over materials from work for clients to build sets for Bingo.
“Sometimes we’ll have multiples of different materials and we’ll think, ‘what can we do with this?’,” says Jessy Brown, one of the show’s creators. Without bingo, she notes, “that stuff just ends up in the landfill.”
Erin Johnson used to build sets at One Hat One Hand, which is how he first got involved with Psychedelic Friendship Bingo. In the show, he performs as a carnival barker. He roams through the crowd with a megaphone, cracking jokes, and repeating the bingo numbers as they are called so everyone can hear them. When someone thinks they have a win, he leads them onstage.
Johnson describes the Psychedelic Friendship Bingo group as inclusive.
“A lot of us aren’t really performers, we just are friends and we’re just helping everyone to bring their gifts to the show,” he says,
Attendee Hilary Lannon and her friends play all three rounds of bingo, but none of them win. “You know you always think you come close playing bingo but it’s not really true. That’s kinda the whole thing,” she says.
Mostly she just plays for the excitement, and to watch the spectacle. Her friend Erin Johnson says that’s mostly what this bingo game is about. For those who play the game and those who put on the show, Psychedelic Friendship Bingo remains grounded in the friendships of those that created it.