The Discipline of Play

I am on a plane, waiting to take off. Abruptly, the lights in the cabin go dim, while the flight attendant walks down the aisle pressing and illuminating call buttons lights on every row. Confused and wondering if we should be alarmed, those of us in the nearby rows glance quizzically at one another.

“Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you…”

An entire plane brimming with people is singing happy birthday to a 9-year-old boy at the front.

In Improv, something (often the first thing) that deviates from the expected patterns of behavior is called the ‘fun thing’ or the ‘game’. As we build the scene, we’re exploring, in search for the potential fun here with which to play.

A scene begins with Alia expressing dismay that her friend Cobie wore stilettos on their hiking trip in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Cobie responds with surprise: the shoe salesman told her these were the best hiking stilettos on the market!

Here we go: what kind of person thinks stilettos are appropriate for hiking? Where else could her gullibility lead? What else would she do?

Maybe the scene capitalizes on the gullibility; maybe they play with her obscure and inappropriate shoe attire for specific activities. The game, or the fun thing, isn’t necessarily set in stone or a single option; it is a collaborative agreement where scene partners engage in playing the game together. The scene builds and thrives when everyone involved can grasp and elaborate on the game in sync with each other. Finding the fun thing is a collaborative effort and an intentional journey that builds from “yes, and” — I’m not over here playing this game while you’re over there playing that game, we’re playing together, and what we create will be spontaneous, understandable, and hopefully, filled with delight and joy.

I once worked as a chaplain at a county hospital, a context is rife with death and grief. The chaplain’s office especially attends to the tragic and heartbreaking spaces. One week at our staff meeting, two senior chaplains entered the office with water guns — a messy, playful battle ensued. Silliness replaced business mentality; we all went back and forth with shots fired for a few minutes, ultimately collapsing in laughter across the room. As we spent so much of our working sitting patiently alongside others in pain; their discipline of play was a much needed survival strategy for our entire office.

Play is often associated with frivolity, though unnecessarily so. The discipline of play, while usually relegated to childhood, is crucial even in adulthood. Our ability to embrace laughter and joy, especially in community, is key to our well-being. Equipping us to find, listen to, and build with the fun thing, the improv stage invites a discipline of play, through which we build community, and therein lighten the weight in each other’s hearts and souls. We prioritize silliness, tease out the absurd from the grounded, and rejoice in ridiculousness. Scene after scene, playfulness leads us into the territory of impossibility, nurturing our imaginations and fueling the creative energy this world and our communities desperately need.

A few call lights and a well-known song transformed an airplane of disconnected individuals into a community of singers and birthday celebrators. Among the playfulness, improv knits us together into a community that is resilient, ingenious, and brimming with life.

May the improv stage spill out in playful abundance upon the other stages of our lives, empowering us to create spaces of playfulness amidst seriousness, joy amidst grief, and hope amidst despair.

Evey McKellar is a Level 4 Improv student, a writer and UMC clergy. She works for a nonprofit, lives in Dallas, and loves Cane Rosso.