I was asked along to deliver a 5-minute provocation to Wonderlab today, and posting the essay here by request.
Hello, I’m Tassos Stevens. I’m a co-director and runner of Coney, an agency making play where it’s all about you, founded on principles of adventure, loveliness and reciprocity, amongst others.
But I am not here to talk about that. Actually I’ve brought along something to read by somebody else. There’s this writer I know called Jimmy Stewart – yep, just like but obviously not the Jimmy Stewart – and there’s a short essay of his that I’ve brought along. It does read a bit like an incomplete manifesto, but if he were here, he wouldn’t apologise for that. He’s at least half-Martian which makes his perspective somewhat alien and his language occasionally rather dense. But that’s probably why I like it.
So this is…
Make Believe by Jimmy Stewart
Play is make believe at the double. I look at something and I first see what it is, or at least what I believe it is, be it Simon Russell Beale, a banana, February 14th. But then I make believe what if that what is were something else: Hamlet, a revolver, the feast of St Valentine. What if. What is. We're playful when we hold two spheres of belief in our brains overlapping. Humans are really good at it. There’s facility especially when it's conventional, meaning we are practiced at it, or if we are in a collection of other human-people simultaneously doing that same juggle of spheres. But it’s most inspirational when we discover it ourselves together.
The distance between these two spheres of what if and what is, it's a dynamic space, sparking like the electrical storm of Van der Graaf. Sometimes so close the spheres are almost touching, sometimes miles apart, but the meaning of play is found across that distance. Still what if is only charged if it is grounded and connected to what is. There’s no chance of transformation otherwise.
Play is a live, fluxing reinvention, ever negotiated, always In Play. You can't make me believe anything unless I want to believe. I don't want to play by your rules, says the stubborn kid who is sometimes the very best of us. And it matters then in this negotiation whose rules, who is telling that stubborn kid what if, and even who is paying them to do so.
But the best play doesn't tell you how to act, play invites you to imagine what if and - if then - what do you want to do about it. It's a principled belief that creates an action-space, where the agent of play is you.
Peter Brook was a theatre director and once asked what it is for an actor to exit pursued by a bear. I see a bear, I feel fear, I run. I see a bear, I run, I feel fear. Two pursuits. Brook argues that they are equivalent, and it only depends on the actor and the director together which suits them best. Too true. But if you want an actor with agency, better to be governed by a principle than ordered into action.
Game arises from play. A ruleset crystallises a set of actions distilled from an experience of play. That crystal can be popped in your pocket to be played with again and again, any time, any place, with anyone entranced by its sparkle. It gets chipped and scratched, then rubbed and polished. It becomes a lens that focuses action in time and space and for one brief encounter let’s us act as if we lived in a simpler world, the kind of world that can be described in a ruleset. But the very best thing about it is that if we want to, we can smash it up and grind it into paste to make believe anew. Even if let alone, its inherent ephemerality will let it pass; like a playful version of the second law of thermodynamics, people stop playing attention and soon the game dissolves into flux. It’s the playful spirit of the game that’s more important than the letter of the rules.
Which is as it should be. Jane McGonigal says reality is broken and let’s fix it with game, a whiff of formalin in the air. Her lens on the world is rather monocular, fundamentalist in the proper sense of the word. It rarely admits failure and dreams of a superhumanity. But I think I can do no better than make play with people, and forcing them into one game they don’t want to play is like trying to choreograph butterflies.
Try to be a theatre director of any scene of people in play and you discover many games tumbling out at once - games of status, of desire, of curiosity, of connection, and of greed, of all the sins and of all the virtues – plus hope – and as an actor here you can’t stop still, moment by moment a different game crackles into life. And in reality, these games are all being played all at once: by different people at different times in different places, interrupting and overlapping. If you look at the crystalline complexity of reality through a monocle, no wonder it looks broken.
Reality is broken. To which the only true playful response is: Yes And. A cascade of Yes Ands, with the odd Yes But, an occasional No Thank You, one step at a time.
Actually it’s where reality breaks that matters. Where one game breaks down and you choose to start playing another. Or simply because someone else asks you to play nicer for them. Augusto Boal was another theatre director who never stopped playing what if with reality, again and again, until it broke and then he asked the audience if they had a better idea and if they wanted to get up and do it.
As a society, as individuals, it’s how we respond to fail more than to epic win that matters. It’s in fail that we find the dimensions of our capacity for resilience: connectedness, the ability to be stretched, our very own agency, powered by accurate reflection of what is with still space to dream what if.
That’s as far as Jimmy got. Slight hyperbole there at the end, sorry about that.
And, by uncanny coincidence, that’s all I’ve got too. Thanks.