“Performing is being who we are, and not who we are at the same time”
– Lois Holzman
Approaching the huge marble pillars at Anatolia College, overlooking the Thermaic Gulf and Mount Olympus, I was feeling pretty hesitant about the weekend ahead. I’d come to Thessaloniki in Northern Greece for ‘Play Perform, Learn, Grow’ (PPLG), a conference that aimed to “seek new, and often performatory, ways to address the pain, alienation, and violence of our times”. I’d been introduced to it via Counterplay – a festival and un-conference I went to in 2017 at the beginning of my Leverhulme Scholarship attached to Bristol Old Vic Ferment. Attending Counterplay has fundamentally changed my outlook and practice. It brought together psychologists, architects, educators, game designers, digital entrepreneurs, business coaches and artists. All of us drawn together from a desire to play more and sharing the belief that play could evoke change in the world. Read more about my trip to Counterplay here.
PPLG seemed to take that impetus several steps further through ‘Bridging Communities, Practices and the World’. In a time of growing support for participation and co-creation, PPLG felt like a great opportunity but also pretty well…heavy. Not that it shouldn’t be, given the awful state of the world, but I was worried that this play conference might be awfully SERIOUS.
I’d slept badly, got lost twice and spent the best part of 3 days on my own. All the way there I’d been dreading any participation which is awful of me, but I wasn’t feeling myself.
I joined the ‘tote bag and lanyard’ queue, where a tall Mediterranean man wearing a red nose waved, threw a ball at me and cried ‘Manuel! – now you!’ My shoulders dropped, frown flew away and my inhibitions bounced down the marble staircase… more people joined. Someone called me Gary. ‘It’s full of clowns! I can handle this.’ Chatting to an organiser later, it was remarked that many people may have come feeling confident and a clown game would fling them out of their comfort zone, but that’s the lovely thing about play conferences, you get all sorts.
The trip was the first adventure in my ‘Creative Interventions for Social Impact’ research project, funded by a Developing Your Creative Practice grant from Arts Council England. I’d be delivering a talk and workshop on #oneplaything – chalking interventions in public and digital spaces – a project developed with Dr Lynn Love from Abertay in Dundee.
Something I hadn’t anticipated was how present Drama Therapy would be. Music Therapy too.
The programme was packed. 10 sessions at any given time. 5–7 time slots a day. From the 250 delegates from 37 countries, 185 were presenting or performing. A global representation including artists from Algeria, Uganda, Nepal, Columbia, Australia and Israel.
The first session I attended was ‘Community Poetry In Conflict-affected Areas: Re-weaving The Social Fabric Through Arts’ presented by Angelo Miramonti from ImaginAction. Angelo uses poetry with people affected by conflict in Columbia. Firstly, we played very simple games. A shark and fish game; a 1-2-1 duel. Then to the task. We were to pair with someone we didn’t know. There was some moving around so that languages could work together. One pair wrote in Hebrew, another Spanish. The Nepalese guy joked he’d be the odd one out.
We were to interview the person about someone important to them. We were given a simple structure, then to write a poem for the important person, not the person we were interviewing. Then we were to give it to them to pass on, in whatever way possible. It was profound and emotional for all. It connected people through giving and showing that despite any perceived differences, we are all the same. We are all human with human stories.
Two lines really stuck with me:
Listen with your heart. Make the invisible visible and give it to them beautifully.
The theme of gifting ran through several workshops. Play in Higher Education stood out to me, as we recently ran Play:Disrupt sessions with PGCE students at the University of Chester, instilling play and creativity in the curriculum. Mathilde Knage of University College Absalon told us about the Treehouse Building course she does with Pedagogues, as part of a Playful Learning initiative funded by Lego Foundation. Students are asked to design and build a full-sized treehouse in the forest. They then go to each other’s treehouses and consider ‘who lives here and what gift could I give them?’ They then make, or get that gift and leave it there.
So much of the work at PPLG was about seeing each other as humans. Carrie Lobman, from the East Side Institute, New York – one of the main organisers of the conference – led a workshop about The Powerful Potential of Pointless Play. We used improvisation to encounter deep issues.
“The conversations we’re having as people aren’t working, so we have to find a different way to have conversations”
We used ‘gibberish’ to explore topics like religion, sex and biology and used 15 second pauses to work against reactive responses.
Mathias Poulson (Counterplay) talks about Play as Democracy. At Mufti we use play as a meeting place, where we can connect diverse individuals. The notion of seeing each other as people, who share a common humanity, who all have stories and experience love, loss and laughter no matter what polarised political stance we have found ourselves in is very powerful. I obviously considered the UK position. How we have created these two new sects – Brexiteers and Remainers. No longer open, changeable, but closed, segregated through assumptions about the other.
My #oneplaything workshop was late afternoon Sunday so I decided not to plan it too much in advance. I knew I would be inviting people to think about participation, accessibility and obstacles – self-imposed and external barriers. I’d draw on the considerations we make when developing street theatre and place them in the context of connecting communities and people on an ongoing basis, how public spaces can bring us together and promote activism. After so many deep and heavy looking titles I was unsure how many people might attend ‘I’VE GOT A PIECE OF CHALK IN MY POCKET AND I’M NOT AFRAID TO USE IT’. Thankfully, lightness proved a welcome invitation. We created plasticine puppets to represent obstacles to access, complete with googly eyes and thick moustaches. We physically played with the notion of an invitation. We then of course went out and chalked. I asked people to think about ‘how can we use chalk to invite people to see each other better?’. We drew on the idea that invitations, in this case through chalk doodles, could connect strangers, change perspectives and enhance wellbeing, in a really simple way.
A Romanian clown told me about Mugar Calinescu, a 16-year-old who used chalk to publicly ask anonymous questions under Ceausescu dictatorship. He sadly disappeared under unusual circumstances several years later. I had to consider the freedom I live within to be able to ‘chalk the walk’ but also the political power and possibility even a piece of chalk can bring.
As I walked out to the sounds of an improvised orchestra hooting, farting and laughing, I thought about Performance Activism and something Lois Holzman said in the opening keynote: Rather than trying to create havens in the world, we should try to “create a world in which havens are not necessary”.
This made me think of play in terms of its most universal function, as a powerful, un-ignorable, infectious form of activism.
Malcolm is Creative Director of Mufti Games in Bristol, working to engage people through play. His participation in PPLG was supported by a TB Agent grant and Developing Your Creative Practice fund from Arts Council England. To continue the conversation, or for more info about any of the sessions he attended contact [email protected]