Taking Play Seriously
“The play-concept is of a higher order than seriousness. For seriousness seeks to exclude play, whereas play can very well include seriousness.” — Johan Huizinga
I became the Director of the long-form improvisation company in my town — Only the Human — with great reluctance. The reasons I said “yes” to this particular offer will forever remain unknown to me. I inherited a company with no assets and $1,500 in liabilities. The community was deeply fragmented and the business was unsustainable — we were running free jams in rented rooms and paying a coach to manage a performance ensemble which wasn’t even performing.
In hindsight, it’s often wonderful to say yes to something without much deliberation. At the time, it felt like a steaming pile of pungent irrelevance had dropped in to my life. The company was a distraction from my otherwise very important career in solving very important problems. In 2017, I was helping low-income women in Tanzania access affordable menstrual hygiene products. In 2018, I had committed myself to helping full-grown adults pretend to be dinosaurs.
Don’t get me wrong: I like improvisation. I like it the way I like Snickers icecream, Adventure Time and online trading card games. I enjoy improvisation as a pleasurable respite from very serious things. When interviewed about improv on Max’s Island, I argued that improvisation wasn’t fundamentally any different from any other avocation. I implored the podcast audience to play soccer, knit jerseys or make their own soduku puzzles. Improvisation was just another way to get in to the flow state and while away the hours.
These big questions were mostly put aside in the first year as I tried to pull the company out of a nosedive. I booked a few backroom gigs for the performance ensemble, paid off our (my) debt, and tried to mediate people’s various inter- and intrapersonal crises as best I could.
As things settled and we got in to a rhythm of teaching and community building, my old criticisms re-emerged from the spaces between the walls. I became quietly preoccupied with trying to reconcile my lofty career ideals with the mundane, silly work I was doing running Only the Human.
This preoccupation led me to do all sorts of mental gymnastics. Indeed, the last blog post I wrote was emblematic of a felt need to reconnect modern improvised comedy with the noble lineages of Theatre of the Oppressed and Bernie Sahlins’ efforts to shape The Second City. I began to read in to deliberative democracy, LARPing and Scandanavian Jeepform. All of this felt like a fool’s attempt to draw meaning from chaos, like a madman trying to make sense out of newspaper clippings.
I wanted to reconcile improvisation with my politics — otherwise, what the hell was I doing here?
This preoccupation may have been a bias, but it may also have been an aperture. There wasn’t a moment where everything clicked in to place all at once, but there was an opening to notice improvisation differently. The idea that improvisation may matter didn’t come to me all at once as a cogent, propositional argument. It came as a series of flashes of awareness; each flash a fragment of a composite image I am still putting together.
Firstly, I began to notice that very few students thought of improvisation as a benign intermission in daily life — like Snickers or trading card games. People joined in to learn how to relate to others, overcome anxiety, and become more mindful. The reasons were as varied as the students. Many did join just to be silly, but silliness matters more to people than I had realised. For some, silliness was a reconnection to childhood or a chance to have positive experiences in an otherwise challenging life.
I began to better notice the impacts improvisation was having on me too. During a drop-in jam, I was side-stage and closely watching two performers in the middle of an engaging scene. Suddenly, a thought flapped its wings and landed on my shoulder: ‘You (Aden) never listen quite like when you’re improvising.’ It was true. Only improvisation had really succeeded in getting me to listen to other people non-judgmentally.
One of the largest lessons was the most recent. I re-watched myself on It’s Academic, a low-budget quiz show for kids that ran in the early oughts. At the thirteen-minute mark, I get a question wrong and my little chipmunk face immediately contorted in to deep self-hatred. I could hear my inner monologue across the decades — ‘You fuckin’ idiot.’ I recognised that boy and that behaviour as me, but also knew that I had moved beyond it. I can’t say for sure this was due to improvisation, but I do know a key aspect of our teaching is relaxing the self-critical part of our mind.
These examples are just the tip of the iceberg.
I’ve noticed the ease with which our teaching produces new friendships and connections. I’ve noticed the consistent tendency of our classes to attract people with deep social and community concern. I’ve noticed the willingness of people to spontaneously start their own projects adjacent to the company. I’ve seen how improvisation can help unstick people from patterns of behaviour that have dogged them for years — which is basically the only thing therapy does.
At some point, all of this became enough. Enough that I could feel comfortable seriously investing my time in to this company and community. No single thing won me over, but the whole picture did — the forest, not the trees.
I am still learning the strange, circuitous ways that improvisation improves people’s lives. Our stories about creativity and connection don’t do justice to the variety of transformative experiences that participation in the art, and the community around it, can engender. My hope is that the current moment that improvisation is going through worldwide is an opportunity for a fresh look at the artform and a more nuanced conversation about its impacts.
The question is not whether or not improvisation matters, but rather about how it matters to different people in the different contexts in which they encounter it. Improvisation demands to be taken seriously.