My mother recently wrote a great post in her blog Discovering Santosha, entitled “Go out and play!” She begins by writing, “Plato wrote, “You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.” Playing allows us to take risks, to laugh at ourselves, to fall down, and to get back up. We discover truths about ourselves, as well as others.” She goes on to share a story about being inspired when her yoga instructor began a class by saying, “We’re just going to play this week.” This reminded me of a similar moment in my life.
The summer before my senior year of college, I switched to a new voice teacher. In a vocal performance program, the relationship between student and voice teacher comes above all. My work with my former teacher had stalled, and through a serious of emotional
conversations, it was decided that I would switch into a different studio. When I went to my first lesson, I was nervous about the work and stressed about my voice. I had spent three years of college working and searching for some sort of missing link in my singing. I had a big old voice, but I was constantly receiving the note that something was missing or that there was more I could be doing. It had become an infuriating mystery! At my first lesson with the new teacher, after a bit of conversation about why I was making the switch, he sat down at the piano, turned to me, and simply said, “Let’s play.” With those two words, everything began to click into place.
Like so many other performers, I had become fixated on the idea of work. I cared about my craft and wanted to do a good job, so I buckled down and worked. But, as the old phrase says, “Too much work and no play…” From the moment of that voice lesson, I began what is now a life long journey to find the ease and joy in performance. It’s a lesson that applies not only to performers, but to athletes, politicians, CEOs – anyone who has to get up and speak in front of people. The same brilliant voice teacher who taught me how to play, also assigned a whole class of students to read W. Timothy Gallwey’s phenomenal book The Inner Game of Tennis. In it, Gallwey discuses how “‘Every game is composed of two parts, an outer game and an inner game.’ The former is played against opponents, and is filled with lots of contradictory advice; the latter is played not against, but within the mind of the player, and its principal obstacles are self-doubt and anxiety.”
These ideas are at the foundation of my current work as a director and a vocal coach. It is my job to help my actors and students approach their work with a sense of ease and confidence. Of course, these things don’t happen magically. There must be a foundation of excellent technique. I’ve always believed, however, that the process of discovering one’s voice and building that technique should be interesting and fun. I love the process of theatre or music because that is the time to play. In the old movies, Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland didn’t turn to their friends and say, “Hey kids! Let’s put on a work!” They wanted to put on a Play. Somehow, even in the course of putting on a play, we can forget what is at the root of its name. We get caught up in the stress of memorizing lines, learning blocking, and trying to create relationships with the other characters. We forget that it’s supposed to be fun. We forget that, at its core, we are really just playing Makebelieve.
One of the reasons that I love working with young actors, is that they are still very willing to play. You also usually get a longer rehearsal process, so there is more time to learn and explore. Some of the most insightful, brilliant moments of discovery have occurred when I was just playing with my students. Kids are silly, and strange, and wonderful. They’re eager to play and to soak up information. I do my best to bottle up that energy and enthusiasm when I approach my work with adults. Really, it should all be the same at heart.
We are all born with the ability to play. I think one of the greatest tragedies is that, as we grow older, we forget. I feel fortunate to be able to work in a field where I get paid to play every single day. I am also lucky to have some very wacky friends, among whom play is readily encouraged. Even if you aren’t an actor, there is still room for play in your life. Take a risk. Give up the iron grip on the world, and go play.