For three minutes on Wednesday, the University of Montana Oval was filled with a peculiar, purple sight.
There, at four minutes after 1 p.m., during the busiest hour for the liveliest part of campus, dozens of people all wearing the color purple and in the middle of doing something came to a dramatic halt.
Couples froze in midkiss. Students lugging backpacks across the lawn stopped in midstride. Cigarette smoke twirled in ghostlike tendrils around unmoving fingers. Eyes stared into nothing without blinking.
Around them, the rest of campus swirled, craning their collective necks and wondering why.
Passers-by awkwardly navigated the folks seemingly frozen in time, and then were wholly startled when suddenly, at the prompt of some unseen whistle, the human statues dramatically returned to life and the things they were last doing.
Couples continued to kiss, a woman finished her texting, another woman knocked a giant ash off her burning cigarette and the swarm of purple-clad people continued on their way as if they'd never been frozen at all.
"That was awesome," gushed Sarah Kelly when she returned to moving life and explained what just took place.
For those three minutes, UM took part in a national grassroots movement called "Spirit Day," which launched via a Facebook posting to honor the lives of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth who have committed suicide in recent months due to homophobic abuse in their homes, schools and communities.
UM's "three-minute freeze" was conceived by students in a course called "Theatre and Civic Dialogue." Challenged to develop a public project that would make people stop and think about important issues, the class chose to focus a message around the concept of tolerance, explained Ezra LeBank, course instructor.
"The color purple seemed a way to create something larger and something very specific," LeBank said. "We heard about the Facebook invitation, which was really an effective way to organize this day and this event, and we invited people to do their own freeze."
The impressive performance art was all the more dramatic given that LeBank's class numbers only eight students and on Wednesday, more than 100 purple-clad people froze on the Oval.
Surprised and warmed by the unexpected turnout, LeBank could only smile and be proud of his student's ability to spread the word and their ability to incite involvement.
"It's really awesome," LeBank said as the purple crowd dispersed within moments, moving on with their lives. "We truly involved a lot of people in a simple way."
Reporter Betsy Cohen can be reached at 523-5253 or at email@example.com.