Dallas — “Play is our brain's favorite way of learning," says author Diane Ackerman.
When was the last time you played? Not had fun, not be entertained, not Facebook quizzes or newspaper puzzles, but engaged in play. Play requires interaction with others and a sense of exploration, to see where the next thing, the next level, lies. Above all, play must take you out of yourself and transcend time.
Comedic improv spans from the rapid-fire of Whose Line Is It Anyway? to the long-form improv where players concoct a one-act play on the spot lasting from 20 minutes to an hour. Some people get to play for a living. You see them on Whose Line, they fill the ranks of The Second City. Performers who improvise on the side like at the Big Sexy Weekend of Improv do it for love of the game and discovery.
“The creation of something new is not accomplished by the intellect but by the play instinct.” ~ psychologist Carl Jung
“Longer is stronger” is the pervading ethos of comedic improv. But seeing the improvisational mime and clowning of Butter! and the games of ComedySportz Dallas at the Big Sexy prompted ponderings on the long-form improv emphasis on making stories versus making believe, and how a lack of play impacts us politically.
Improvising arose from compassion. If it weren’t for the theatrical Viola Spolin doing social work for a while, comedic improv might never have arisen. But Spolin did time in Chicago with Neva Boyd, who worked with inner-city kids and immigrant children using games to impart skills of cooperation and creativity. Spolin honed those into her Theater Games to help actors be focused yet spontaneous and at ease on stage. Her son, Paul Sills, gave them a comedic spin as part of the Compass Players that more or less morphed into The Second City.
“When you have confidence, you can have a lot of fun. And when you have fun, you can do amazing things.” ~ Joe Namath
ComedySportz Dallas is all fun and games, though the games are a far cry from Spolin’s. In their zippy set, a referee, Von Daniel, amiable with the right touch of snarky tough, wrangled competing teams of improvisers, with points awarded more or less legitimately. The fast pace was fun, the energy was high, and the emphasis on play. In a rap battle, teams embodied pairs such as pastor and confessor, police and speeder, and so on, as rapidly assigned by Daniel. A similar SlamLit with Shakespearean rap was also a blast. In the finale, teams enacted ridiculous suggestions from the audience while making a team member who was not present for the suggestions guess. Could you figure out “climbing a hammer-flavored mountain of Jello with Big Bird while wearing a harness made of TP”? They did!
Butter is a clowning duo, quite reminiscent of Pompidou, Matt Lucas’s silent comedy experiment on BBC with Lucas as a daft lord of the manor who plays against his loyal yet baffled butler. Without a word of dialogue, Sandra Ybarra and Luke Wallens interact at a very leisurely pace through mime, facial expressions, and (too sparingly) physical clowning. A classic Mutt & Jeff duo, she is the short heavyset scamp and he the tall slender fussy one. There was a gag involving suspenders, a road trip, being locked in a box, being locked in another box, and much smelling of sweaty body parts. The personalities of Butter were so soft and sincere one was left yearning for the light wickedness of Circus Freaks’ Russ Sharek, with its hints of Charlie Chaplin, or a touch of Ecole Philippe Gaulier style Phil Burgers (aka Dr. Brown) madness. But the Butter joy was clear.
Play energizes us and enlivens us. It eases our burdens. It renews our natural sense of optimism and opens us up to new possibilities. ~ Stuart Brown, MD
Somewhere along the way the rest of us lost the play. It became opinions over play. Yet opinions come and go, while our need for play is eternal. Perhaps that’s the core of society dysfunction, our lost ability to play with each other. We need Tinder for play, an app that finds who’s ready for a game.
We need not be taught how to play. It’s hardwired. Music and theater arise from playing with each other, art and literature from play within the self. It’s simple to allow ourselves to play, to be open to the invitation. Play blooms when agendas fall and in their place arises joy.
Culture arises and unfolds in and as play. ~ Johan Huizinga, Dutch historian