#78 - work and play
Is this dichotomy useful anymore?
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Last week, Swedish choreographer, Alexander Ekman digitally premiered his 2017 production for the Paris Opera Ballet, Play, across Canada. The seasons had changed rather abruptly from bonus climate-crisis summer to 20mm of snow, so I couldn’t think of anything better than getting wrapped up in bed and transporting myself into another world. The show was so spell-bounding that I had to take breaks to contain myself, tell everyone I knew, scream it across platforms, and devour Ekman’s other works.
He is a genius - bringing together a reverence for the gestural form of human emotion, with an abstract visual sensibility that continuously defies the brain’s expectation for symmetry, and is audacious enough to take on and execute creative risks that would generally overwhelm the average person. In Play, thousands of green balls rain down from the ceiling to reform the stage into a ball pit (imagine the takedown and setup for 25 sold-out shows), which aligns in scale with the lake he builds on stage using 5,000 litres of water in his production of the classic work, Swan Lake, to be part of the musical composition, and the sheer amount of hay on stage in his Midsummer’s Night production used to create dream-like sequences. Talk about having no chill.
It feels fitting that Ekman produced a show on Play to highlight how important but often dismissed it is in adult life, given how much it appears to be a central parameter in his work. He is described by Lindsay Winship, a writer for the Guardian as someone ‘seeking to escape a mundane life by submitting completely to his own imaginary world,’ and I suspect it is this surrender that makes him so utterly captivating.
In Play, Ekman draws the popular narrative of the dichotomy between work and play; beginning with sequences filled with unbridled joy captured through improvisation and wonder as packs of bright-eyed dancers cross paths with a slow-moving character in a space suit. In the second half, the movements are more rigid and calculated with dancers wearing professional attire in suits and glasses. The story is a familiar depiction of modern life - work as robotic and lifeless and play as pleasurable and lively - however, the difference in this version of the story is that both forms are artistic and visually pleasing, which is likely closer to the truth.
Over the past 2 years, I’ve been teaching workshops about Play Culture for corporate companies through Simon Sinek’s platform, which means I’ve talked and thought about the dichotomy between work and play a whole lot. The thing about teaching the same workshop over and over is that the patterns of perspective and behaviour become glaringly clear.
The summary would be this: everyone wants to play more, but no one knows how.
Let me clarify - it’s not that adults don’t play, we do, but it is mostly through structured sports, games and sometimes crafts. The kind of play that adults desire in the workplace, but can’t fully define for themselves is surrendering to the play available in every moment. It’s the banter, the spontaneous idea, the ‘what if we tried..’, the improvised song, the unformed and unrelated thought that wants to be blurted out, and the perfect comedic timing. It is the unplanned moments that cut through the mundane, and the expectations our brain has of what a meeting, day, or interaction will bring that facilitate hearty connection. It is knowing that even an excel spreadsheet can be a prompt for play. It is encouraging a lot of tinkering to achieve a breakthrough. It is the reality that if I’m going to spend all this time with you, we better at least try to make it a little bit fun.
We desire these shared moments because they briefly remind us that we are alive and that being alive is also weird and hilarious, mysterious and completely made-up. It is vitality and gratitude in real-time. And it is the universe’s way of saying, ‘honey, you are allowed to not be in control for a minute.’
In the workshop, I try to convey to my audience that play is the most natural part of who we are. We shouldn’t have to ‘plan play’ if we have a playful culture. Instead, if we create the conditions that acknowledge power dynamics, support psychological safety, believe that play is actually productive for our relationships and well-being, and model permission to express and make mistakes without fear of being reprimanded, play happens. It is a long game of change; a leadership game.
The workshop audience usually nods along but then eventually asks me for play ideas. They are drowning in low morale, burnt-out teams, and clients that need ever-more creative ideas. They need to play now. I happily offer them ideas but know that a single play session is not a solution, but merely a fix; not dissimilar to how going to the gym or seeing a therapist once won’t do the trick. At the individual level, we got to change our mindset, and at the collective level, we got to shift our culture.
The challenge, as I see it, with continuing to draw and emphasize a dichotomy between work and play is that it creates a false tension between the two, leading to extreme behaviour on both ends. Maybe this extreme behaviour is necessary to truly create something from nothing and to feel something intense and blistering, but extremes by nature always break at some point. Broken bones, broken spirits, broken relationships, broken systems. Feel free to disagree with me.
As adults, work will always take priority because of how connected it is to family, survival, purpose and the functioning of society, which makes sense. We are wired toward productivity because the stakes of being alive are high, and it is incredibly rewarding in itself to get stuff done. Ultimately, we need structure to co-exist and since a large part of play is being in the unknown, it doesn’t always lend to every part of collective life.
However, as long as we see play as unproductive and without purpose, the less it might feature in our day-to-day life, where there is so much potential for it. The funny thing is, even though there is so much research that clearly shows that play is productive for our mental and brain health, keeping us agile, flexible and creative (this podcast by Huberman Lab is great), the programming that play is frivolous and for kids is deep af.
When I randomly started to think about play about 7 years ago through Reset, I could have never imagined how connected it would be to our hard and sometimes traumatic childhood experiences. Partly what makes play so vulnerable as an adult is that it was denied to so many as children; children who had to grow up well before they were supposed to, children who carried the burdens of survival with their parents, and children who understood the shadows of human life far too early. Having to be hyper-vigilant about survival at such a young age creates a real barrier in the body to submit to free play, and the unknowingness of it all. Control is safety, and play is therefore inherently not. It’s why play can be absolutely terrifying, and profoundly healing because it reactivates a time in our life that was impossible to understand and process. It’s allll that inner child stuff. You know that stuff :|
For me, my ‘play story’ is defined as brute force play; doing it as an act of rebellion against feeling overly controlled by my parents, which is why I have a bit of extreme desire for it because I ‘feel’ controlled by the systems at play.
A few weeks ago, Oprah posted a video on IG asking her followers what is fun to them. ‘I’m still trying to figure this out,’ she remarked with genuine curiosity. I found the video rather endearing in that regardless of our status, we are often all asking similar questions. Folks typically resist talking about play, perhaps because talking about play is the least playful thing one can do. It can feel didactic and forced and like sucking the magic out of the mystery. I get it AND I assume we resist talking about play as much as we resist playing.
I suspect that I watched Ekman’s show on repeat because of that part of me that longs for the extreme version of play portrayed across the stage - a full submission to my creativity and imagination, bouncing off walls and falling into fits of laughter on the daily, free of responsibility. But I know (now) that any extreme is not a caring way to live for myself or my loved ones. What I am committed to is a playful life and state of mind - one defined by continuing to lean into the unknown of the next moment(s) and submit to the wonder available in each moment. I say this and talk about this, but it is fairly difficult to practice and perhaps that constant tension is what makes it important.
I usually end my workshops talking about the power of play - because I believe that anything that we project desire, aversion and judgement onto so intensely - holds great power for personal and cultural change.
Let me know what you think - I know I am biased.
Will this be the last edition of this week in tweets or am I an alarmist? How much longer can we take the musk? If this is the end, I am grieving.
I love how you described all of this.
I also notice when I talk about being trauma-informed in work spaces there's so much of "but what do we do" rather than "how can we be".
I am definitely in the boat where I felt like I was denied play as a child. It's a large part I never wanted kids. I thought that once I was all "grown up", I could do whatever I want lolsob. Play is something that comes naturally to me when I'm WITH someone playful, but doing it on my own can bring about a lot of hypervigilance. It has taken a lot of intentionality to sit with those sensations and engage in play in a non-structured day.
I'd like to think I'm more playful than I make myself out to be, and that give me and my Virgo sun a lot of solace :)