Play and/or Performance

from the StreetPlay galleries —

Some of the most fun we have when we play happens when we are alone where no one else can see us. And, for some reason, it’s often even more fun when we’re some place we’re not supposed to be. This is true for all of us, kids, adults, all of us. The reason why it tends to be more fun is that what we can do, unseen, is play, really play. And as soon as somebody happens by, someone who’s not playing, just watching, unless we’re already deep in play, so deep that we don’t notice, the way we play changes into something else. It becomes what you might call a performance. Social beings that we are, we want to include the other people in our play. And if they can’t play, if they don’t join in, if they just want to watch, something changes in the way we play. We get into a different mode, into something you might call “showing off.”

Another word for showing off is performing. And that’s really what happens to our play, it becomes a performance. So we focus less on each other than we do on the people watching us. Sure, we’re still playing, and we’re playing together. But just not in the same way. It becomes like we would play if we were playing a sport, in a stadium. Or if we were playing music, in a theater. Instead of just, you know, playing around, we want to be good, we want to get applause, recognition. We want to play for score. And we want to win.

Our play becomes more purposeful, less playful. We don’t laugh as much or maybe at all, we don’t try out new ways to play whatever we’re playing, if playing is still what we’re doing.

Now, before I go any further into this, I want to make it clear that I’m not implying here. I’m not even hinting that one way is better than another. Not play vs. playfulness. Not play vs. performance. In truth, some performers are remarkably playful even though they are performing, or especially because. Improvisers mostly. Musicians, comedians, who can perform publicly with such confidence and competence that they don’t need script or score, and can even engage the audience in playing along with the sheer playfulness of their performance. But they are nevertheless performing. And the way they play is nevertheless different when nobody can see them, when they play alone.

I certainly played this way as a child. Improvising, in hidden places, with my friends. We played games that didn’t have names, didn’t have rules. Well, maybe a few, but we could change them if we wanted, if it was more fun.

As a young adult, I fell in deep like with theater. It was fun. It was exciting even. But it wasn’t until I was in a class in improvisational theater that I was reminded of the kind of play I experienced as a child, when we were alone together. And that was when I discovered the power of adults at play, Of what we could bring each other, as adults, in play. Not when we were performing. But when we were learning together. The stage to ourselves. The theater empty except for us. Nobody watching except fellow players. It was only a taste. We were after all still performing. And there was the instructor. And we were playing for grades. But the playfulness, the power that we shared, making worlds together, responding to whatever anyone did, listening to each other, building fantasy into something remarkably close to reality, building it together, almost believing it together. It was better, deeper than the way I played as a child. It was transforming. For all of us. Individually. Collectively transforming.

I really, really loved playing like that. So profoundly playful. So playfully profound.

Then I rediscovered games – you know, games like kids play. And I got to teach those games to adults. And then, while teaching those games to adults – not so much so that they could learn the games, but so they could taste and share that experience of play (not performance, play) – it got, from time to time, so much fun, we got so totally playful that it just about almost felt like the whole world had become new again. And lo, it was transforming, transporting, transcendent. And we laughed a lot and we learned a lot and we freed each other. Just like we did in improv class. Just like we did when we were kids and we thought nobody could was watching. We freed each other and became infinite and it was fun.

Since then, I’ve been teaching that kind of play everywhere with anyone who wanted to learn it. I’ve also been trying to find a name for the way we played when we played that way. Play wasn’t enough. Neither was games. The games played weren’t really that relevant, couldn’t really begin to describe the experience we had playing together. And the words play and games really didn’t work, had just too many other meanings. I mean, they’re being used to mean almost the very opposite of what I mean. Playing someone. Getting played. Getting gamed. Meaning broken promises. Broken relationships. Broken faith. When the kind of play I’m talking about is just the opposite of that. Completely.

Lately, I’ve been liking “playful play.” Still play, but playful. Still playful, but play. Not quite infinite, like Carse’s “Infinite Games.” Not necessarily creative, but playful. Not like sports. More like, you know, play.

from A Playful Path

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