We are born with 100 billion neurons, roughly as many stars as there are in the Milky Way, and no idea what to use them for. Yet we immediately begin preparing ourselves for an unknown future through play. From our earliest interactions with the world around us, we are learning to play and playing to learn. Brian Sutton-Smith, a developmental psychologist famous for his work in play studies, referred to this purpose of play as “adaptive potentiation.”
Sadly at some point in our slog towards adulthood, we leave play behind, labeling it as a childish pursuit. Yet, the businesses where we often spend much of our adult life, expect our morose modern minds to be a fountain of creativity and innovation. How then can we recall our playful past? What are the vital ingredients of childhood play?
In his book, “Play”, Dr. Stuart Brown breaks down the ingredients of early childhood play and it sounds remarkably like how improvisers practice their craft.
Attunement: “... when parent and child make eye contact they initiate a harmonic meeting of the minds.” “Attunement” is that interchange of smiles, sounds and a gentle gaze between parent and child. So much of what improvisers do on stage revolves around the observing, connecting and responding. Watch how improvisers hold each other’s gaze as they build a relationship between their characters. Have you ever seen a dog bowing with its chest on the floor, front paws outstretched and tail wagging? That is their play stance. The gaze of “soft eyes” as Brown calls it, is our play stance. The play stance is the starting point for more complex play, as well as the relationships underpinning an improv scene.
Object Play: “We find pleasure in the physical part of object play, in putting together a puzzle, kicking a through the goal, or simply tossing a paper wad in the wastebasket.” Improvisers will “paint the scene” with imaginary objects to bring context and signal to their scene partners where the scene is taking place. Once brought into existence the objects’ place on stage is respected like an invisible version of a Star Trek holodeck. The players will share the objects like children share toys, as integral to the scene as they are to play.
Body and Movement: “Movement is primal and accompanies all the elements of play … If you don’t understand and appreciate human movement, you won’t understand yourself or play.” When learning improv, we are told to avoid “talking heads” scenes. Fern Gomez of the Major League refers to this as peanut butter improv. A reference to the Hollywood story told about how the horse in the TV show “Mr. Ed” was coaxed to look like he was talking. The only thing moving in such a scene, are the lips of the players. Players moving around the field interacting with the objects establishes the realism underlying a scene.
Imaginative Play: “Imagination is perhaps the most powerful ability. It allows us to create simulated realities that we can explore without giving up access to the real world.” Practicing improv is pretty much an intense exercise routine for your imagination. Each scene is a fresh combination of characters exploring a world as it emerges from connections created in the hive mind of the players.
Social Play: “ Humans are social animals, and play is the gas that drives the engine of social competence.”
Play in children starts with “parallel” play. Two children will sit next to each other playing with toys, aware of each other but not yet playing with each other. The early moments of a scene are similar. Players interact with the “painted scene” but quickly and smoothly transition to playing with and reacting to each other.
Transformative-Integrative and Creative Play: “Because play is all about trying on new behaviors and thoughts, it frees us from established patterns.” A scene starts with players making a choice on who to become based on whatever inspires them about the suggestion from the loyal fans. It is a license to try on a new self. It is an imaginary place for that new self to explore and grow.
Storytelling and Narrative Play: “Storytelling has been identified as the unit of human understanding...Stories are a way of putting disparate pieces of information into a unified context.” Many of the games we play in a match revolve around creating a scene from scratch. A story forms the backbone of a scene on which the muscle of characters and context grow. The scenes are usually small slices of an imagined life journey of the characters. As improvisers, we practice starting and progressing the story of a scene. We sense when the story stalls and strive to invent a path forward.
Improv is like a seriously silly soup of play. As the ingredients combine through the actions of the players, it becomes a comic complex concoction that is the product of the players and their play. Much more than the sum of improv’s parts. When you come to see a show, you may be able to spot the chemistry of these ingredients. Or like me, you can just sit back and laugh.
Guy Winterbotham has been a Minor League Player at ComedySportz® since May 2017.