Play, what is play, and how do we define it especially in the context clown.
Play is, first and foremost, an expression of freedom. It is what one wants to do as opposed to what one is obliged to do. The joy of play is the ecstatic feeling of liberty. Play is not always accompanied by smiles and laughter, nor are smiles and laughter always signs of play; but play is always accompanied by a feeling of “Yes, this is what I want to do right now.” Clowns are free agents, not pawns in someone else’s game.
Play is activity in which means are more valued than ends.
Many of our actions are “free” in the sense that we don’t feel that other people are making us
do them, but are not free, or at least are not experienced as free, in another sense. These are
actions that we feel we must do in order to achieve some necessary or much-desired goal, or end.
We scratch an itch to get rid of the itch, flee from a tiger to avoid getting eaten, study an
uninteresting book to get a good grade on a test, work at a boring job to get money. If there
were no itch, tiger, test, or need for money, we would not scratch, flee, study, or do the boring
work. In those cases we are not playing.
To the degree that we engage in an activity purely to achieve some end, or goal, which is separate from the activity, it, that activity is not play. What we value most, when we are not playing, are the results of our actions. The actions are merely means to the ends. When we are not playing, we typically opt for the shortest, least effortful means of achieving our goal. The non-playful, goal-oriented college student, for example, does the least studying in each course that she can in order to get the “A” that she desires, and her studying is focused directly on the goal of doing well on the tests. Any learning not related to that goal is, for her, wasted effort.
In play, however, all this is reversed. Play is activity conducted primarily for its own sake. The playful student enjoys studying the subject and cares less about the test. In play, attention is focused on the means, not the ends, and players do not necessarily look for the easiest routes to achieving the ends. Think of a cat preying on a mouse versus a cat that is playing at preying on a mouse. The former takes the quickest route for killing the mouse. The latter tries various ways of catching the mouse, not all very efficient, and lets the mouse go each time so it can try again. The preying cat enjoys the end; the playing cat enjoys the means. (The mouse, of course, enjoys none of this.)
Play often has goals, but the goals are experienced as an intrinsic part of the game, not as the sole reason for engaging in the game’s actions. Goals in play are subordinate to the means for achieving them. For example, constructive play (the playful building of something) is always directed toward the goal of creating the object that the player has in mind. But notice that the primary objective in such play is the creation of the object, not the having of the object. Children making a sandcastle would not be happy if an adult came along and said, "You can stop all your effort now. I'll make the castle for you." That would spoil their fun. The process, not the product, motivates them. Similarly, children or adults playing a competitive game have the goal of scoring points and winning, but, if they are truly playing, it is the process of scoring and trying to win that motivates them, not the points themselves or the status of having won. If someone would just as soon win by cheating as by following the rules, or get the trophy and praise through some shortcut that bypasses the game process, then that person is not playing.
Play is guided by mental rules.
Play is freely chosen activity, but it is not freeform activity. Play always has structure, and that
structure derives from rules in the player’s mind. This point is really an extension of the point just
made about the importance of means in play. The rules of play are the means. To play is to behave in
accordance with self-chosen rules. The rules are not like rules of physics, nor like biological instincts,
which are automatically followed. Rather, they are mental concepts that often require conscious effort to
keep in mind and follow.
A basic rule of constructive play, for example, is that you must work with the chosen medium in a manner aimed at producing or depicting some specific object or design. You don’t just pile up blocks randomly; you arrange them deliberately in accordance with your mental image of what you are trying to make. Even rough and tumble play (playful fighting and chasing), which may look wild from the outside, is constrained by rules. An always-present rule in play fighting, for example, is that you mimic some of the actions of real fighting, but you don’t really hurt the other person. You don’t hit with all your force (at least not if you are the stronger of the two); you don’t kick, bite, or scratch. Play fighting is much more controlled than real fighting; it is always an exercise in restraint. (Slapstick for example)
Among the most complex forms of play, in terms of rules, is what play researchers call sociodramatic play—the playful acting out of roles or scenes, as when children are playing “house,” or acting out a marriage, or pretending to be superheroes. The fundamental rule here is that you must abide by your and the other players’ shared understanding of the role that you are playing. If you are the pet dog in a game of “house,” you must walk around on all fours and bark rather than talk. If you are Wonder Woman, and you and your playmates believe that Wonder Woman never cries, then you refrain from crying, even when you fall down and hurt yourself. (Development of Characters and Characterisation)
The category of play with the most explicit rules is that called formal games. These are games, like
checkers and baseball, with rules that are specified, verbally, in ways designed to minimize ambiguity in
interpretation. The rules of these games are commonly passed along from one generation of players to the next.
(Not unlike traditional Clown Skits) Many formal games in our society are competitive, and one
purpose of the formal rules is to make sure that the same restrictions apply equally to all competitors.
Players of formal games, if they are true players, must adopt these rules as their own for the period of
the game and be willing to stick to them. Of course, except in “official” versions of such games, players
commonly modify the rules to fit their own needs, but each modification must be agreed upon by all the
The main point I want to make here is that every form of play involves a good deal of self-control. When not playing, children (and adults too) may act according to their immediate biological needs, emotions, and whims; but in play they must act in ways that they and their playmates deem appropriate to the game. Play draws and fascinates the player precisely because it is structured by rules that the player herself or himself has invented or accepted.
The child's real-life freedom is not restricted by the rules of the game, because the child can at any moment choose to leave the game. That is another reason why the freedom to quit is such a crucial aspect of the definition of play. Without that freedom, rules of play would be intolerable. To be required to act like Wonder Woman in real life would be terrifying, but to act like that in play––a realm you are always free to leave––it’s great fun.
I would contend that the greatest of play’s many values for our species lies in the learning of self-control. Self-control is the essence of being human. (Clown is humanity amplified) We commonly say that people behave like “animals,” rather than like humans, when they fail to abide by socially agreed-upon rules and, instead, impulsively follow their immediate drives and whims. Everywhere, to live in human society, people must behave in accordance with conscious, shared mental conceptions of what is appropriate; and that is what children practice constantly in their play. In play, from their own desires, children practice the art of being human.
Play is non-literal, imaginative, marked off in some way from reality.
Another apparent paradox of play, is that play is serious yet not serious, real yet not real. In play
one enters a realm that is physically located in the real world, makes use of props in the real world, is
often about the real world, is said by the players to be real, and yet in some way is mentally removed from
the real world.
Imagination, or fantasy, is most obvious in sociodramatic play, where the players create the characters and plot, but it is also present to some degree in all other forms of human play. In rough and tumble play, the fight is a pretend one, not a real one. In constructive play, the players say that they are building a castle, but they know it is a pretend castle, not a real one. In formal games with explicit rules, the players must accept an already established fictional situation that provides the foundation for the rules. For example, in the real world bishops can move in any direction they choose, but in the fantasy world of chess they can move only on the diagonals. (A Clown must believe in the imaginary and share that world with the audience)
The fantasy aspect of play is intimately connected to play’s rule-based nature. Because play takes place in a fantasy world, it must be governed by rules that are in the minds of the players rather than by laws of nature. In reality, one cannot ride a horse unless a real horse is physically present; but in play one can ride a horse whenever the game's rules permit or prescribe it. In reality, a broom is just a broom, but in play it can be a horse. (Any object can become a 1000 objects) In reality, a chess piece is just a carved bit of wood, but in chess it is a bishop or a knight that has well-defined capacities and limitations for movement that are not even hinted at in the carved wood itself. The fictional situation dictates the rules of the game; the actual physical world within which the game is played is secondary. Play of all sorts has “time in” and “time out,” though that is more obvious for some forms of play than others. Time in is the period of fiction. Time out is the temporary return to reality (In a Clown’s world an aside or shared piece of information with the audience)—perhaps to tie one’s shoes, or go to the bathroom, or correct a playmate who hasn't been following the rules. During time in one does not say, “I am just playing,” any more than does Shakespeare’s Hamlet announce from the stage that he is merely pretending to murder his stepfather.
Adults sometimes become confused by the seriousness of children’s play and by children’s refusal, while playing, to say that they are playing. They worry needlessly that children don’t distinguish fantasy from reality. When my son was four years old he was Superman for periods that sometimes lasted more than a day. During those periods he would deny vigorously that he was only pretending to be Superman. To acknowledge that play is play is to remove the magic spell.
An amazing fact of human nature is that even 2-year-olds know the difference between real and pretend. A 2-year-old who turns a cup filled with imaginary water over a doll and says, “Oh oh, dolly all wet,” knows that the doll isn’t really wet. It would be impossible to teach such young children such a subtle concept as pretense, yet they understand it. Apparently, the fictional mode of thinking, and the ability to keep that mode distinct from the literal mode, are innate to the human mind. That innate capacity is part of the inborn capacity for play.
Play involves an active, alert, but non-stressed frame of mind.
This final characteristic of play follows naturally from the other four. Because play involves conscious
control of one’s own behavior, with attention to process and rules, it requires an active, alert mind.
Players do not just passively absorb information from the environment, or reflexively respond to stimuli,
or behave automatically in accordance with habit. Moreover, because play is not a response to external
demands or immediate strong biological needs, the person at play is relatively free from the strong drives
and emotions that are experienced as pressure or stress. AND BECAUSE THE PLAYER’S ATTENTION IS FOCUSED
ON PROCESS MORE THAN OUTCOME, THE PLAYER’S MIND IS NOT DISTRACTED BY FEAR OF FAILURE. So, the mind
at play is active and alert, but not stressed. The mental state of play is what some researchers call “flow.”
Attention is attuned to the activity itself, and there is reduced consciousness of self and time.
The mind is wrapped up in the ideas, rules, and actions of the game.
This point about the mental state of play is very important for understanding play’s value as a mode of learning and creative production. The alert but unstressed condition of the playful mind is precisely the condition that has been shown repeatedly, in many psychological experiments, to be ideal for creativity (Ideal for performance) and the learning of new skills. Strong pressure to perform well inhibits creativity and learning by focusing attention strongly and narrowly on the goal, thereby reducing the ability to focus on means. In the pressured state, one tends to fall back on instinctive or well-learned ways of doing things and in doing so becomes boring.
When an activity becomes so easy, so habitual, that it no longer requires conscious mental effort, it may lose its status as play. That is why players keep making the game harder, or different, or keep raising the criteria for success. (Devise new work continually create new work, play with your skits or become boring and Adult, a long way from being a Clown) A game is a game only if an active, alert mind is required to do it well.