The Power of Play: When Work Comes to Life
by Jennifer Paros
"It is a happy talent to know how to play."
-- Ralph Waldo Emerson
When we got our cat, Lou, though we stopped and bought supplies on our way home, we forgot to get any toys. One of the first things Lou did was disappear down the hall and return with a mouse-sized porcupine finger puppet he had extracted from a bag full of puppets stored under my son’s bed. It was as though Lou had so clearly known his desire for play, the gods kindly and immediately directed him to what might be of use. Porcupine became, and has remained, his favorite toy to date.
But the thing about Lou and Porcupine is that sometimes Porcupine is “Dead” to Lou and sometimes Porcupine is “Alive.” It doesn’t matter how we might try, moving it swiftly back and forth; if Lou isn’t interested, Porcupine is officially deactivated. The Life of Porcupine is always determined by Lou’s level of Desire for Play. If he really wants to play, the inert, scraggly Porcupine – lying under the loveseat – is compelling and incites stalking, pouncing and lots of haphazard running around. If Lou wants to clean himself up, sleep, or sit loaf-shaped, the piece of fabric and yarn and stuffing (Porcupine), even if dropped on his head, remains just that.
The desire to play stimulates imagination, not just in cats. The more we want to play, the more our imaginations are activated, the more real and alive what we’re creating becomes for everyone, both creator and audience.
In the film Being Elmo, Kevin Clash, puppeteer/creator of the Sesame Street character Elmo, instructs another puppeteer to always have the puppet move in some way, active even in listening, so it remains alive to its audience. The puppeteer must always be playing with the puppet himself in order for it to read as dynamic to others; otherwise, it’s too easy for the audience to see it as dead.
When we write or draw or create anything, our investment and interest shifts inanimate things into the realm of animate. Though we’re often led to believe hard work and skill are what makes a piece come together, the truth is, without our desire to playfully engage with a character or idea - through story or picture – the creation remains inert. It might be technically present in form, but it won’t have life.
"The creation of something new is . . . accomplished . . . by the play instinct acting from inner necessity. The creative mind plays with the objects it loves."
I remember drawing when I was a kid, working so hard on a picture of a face, erasing repeatedly, the paper holding the memory of my “wrong” marks, keeping merciless record of every mistake I made. I hated that picture. I wanted it to be beautiful and it seemed like I just couldn’t make it be that way. And it was true, I was never going to be able to “make it be” beautiful, but through exploring, and playing, I could have allowed beauty to come through.
At the time, I was under the impression the reason I was having such a miserable time was due to my lack of talent and ability, when in fact, it was due to my lack of willingness to play. I was drawing as though I were taking a test. I had gotten very serious and desperate - but beauty is a reflection of connection and love. Play is engaging with life in a loving way. If I’d known the assignment was to love and play, not to wrestle form into shape with my mind, I would have witnessed Life enter the page and that would have registered as beautiful to me.
Any time we get too into our heads, lost in thought, entangled in judgment and criticism, the desire to play is shelved, imagination delayed, the life essence of the project suspended.
When a piece of art or writing comes to life it does so not as a byproduct of technical wizardry; it does so as a byproduct of the artist or writer’s desire to play and the engagement of this life-giving force behind the work. Play is something inherent in us, born through us, stirring, ready and wanting to animate the page in word or form as a celebration of life.
Like Lou, when we’re ready to play, we too will be provided something that will help us get where we’re going. But then it’s up to us to make it come alive – dynamic and beautiful both for ourselves and our audience.