Play enables us to rearrange our capacities and our very identities so that they can be used in unforeseen ways. – Stephen Nachmanovitch

I was a member of the Playback Theatre Sydney improvising ensemble, which rehearsed weekly for many years.  I recall that a friend attended a rehearsal and remarked afterwards ‘That was a fun evening of just playing’. The words ‘just playing’ lingered. It minimised our intent and reminded me how people who do not work in a theatre context, especially an improv theatre context, can undervalue what play can offer.

At each weekly rehearsal, we would begin with a ‘warm-up’. We intended to exercise and awaken a playful state of being – which was key to being able to improvise. 

Playfulness is an ability to be responsive in the moment, to hold ideas and ways of being with lightness. It enables us to laugh, be less judgmental, accept and build on others’ ideas (the ‘Yes and’ principle), and meet each other in the receptiveness of our thinking, feeling, and sensing-being. 

During each warm-up, I found the task-driven, serious, and brittle part of my consciousness that was preoccupied with what I should be doing, have done, and am yet to do slowly began to release its grip on me. Physical and emotional tensions eased off, and I was able to make more eye contact with others and feel more open to being seen, laughter came more easily, and I could see and feel who was in the room, I could see the room itself, and acknowledge what I felt. Overall I was more willing and able to be present and relate with the other members of the group.

Today, when facilitating groups I bring this awareness and practice into the mix. We’ve all heard about ice-breakers, so named for a reason – they break the ice of separation. The cracks in the ice start when I invite a group to shift from sitting to standing up in a circle. Usually, I feel some resistance to doing this, and there is often a sluggishness to moving away from the comfort of a chair.

Once the group stands up, stretched out of the seated position, dynamic shifts will occur. There is an immediate change in each other’s body language and presence, as there is a myriad of different styles of embodiment. It’s like the wind whipping up movements in the many trees of a forest – we unconsciously notice the micro-movements in facial muscles which change people’s expressions, especially around the eyes, we feel a sense of energy sparking within the group, and people start to smile at one another, making eye contact, and any tension in their body relaxes, as we start to move towards a readiness to engage with each other.

This process sees us move from a static state of being – sitting, observing, analytical, non-expressive – toward a playful being – embodied, expressive, energetic, all of which helps to engender a sense of being more present.

By standing up and shifting positions, we’ve changed our entire being! And we haven’t even started the play involved in the ice-breaker yet! 

When we do, WOW, all the above shifts are multiplied tenfold. 

As the ice melts it’s as if different people emerge in the room, as they each drop their protective social armour. It allows them to reveal the colourful and infinite ways we can express ourselves in life. We generate more vibrancy and spontaneity with moments of joyful connection.

Playing together shifts the boundaries of being. This in turn allows greater flexibility and diversity in each of us and opens our windows of perception and possibility. Let’s PLAY!

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