Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Where the Wild Things Are ... Or Rediscovering How to Play Again

This is the name of a book by Frank Forencich, who also writes a blog, The Exuberant Animal,  where he promotes a "comprehensive multi-disciplinary,  invigorating, liberating and life-changing" approach to fitness using  play-based movement training.

In his most recent post, Moral in Tooth and Claw, he discusses how "Play ...  can take us to a higher level of physical health, vitality and social functioning."  According to what is being learned in the academic circles that study these things, play-deprivation is threatening our health.

He concludes that

"Yes, sweat and effort are still essential, but these elements are far from sufficient. If we bring more play into fitness, we expand the potential enormously. We go beyond the body and make our practice more holistic."

Well, if you've gotten to know me a little through reading this blog, you know that I am listening to all of this from a singer's point of view as well.  These ideas strike a chord with me because it is only recently, after many years, that I have begun to rediscover the playful side of me as I explore my  voice.  In fact, I've intended my whole Frescamari's Practice Studio, which you see at the widget to the right, to be an expression of this new playfulness extended on the Internet.

I don't know exactly when it happened, but I suffered for many years at having lost my sense of play ... my playfulness.  I'm not sure exactly why it happened, but I have some theories.  As you grow up, and learn about the responsibilities you will have as an adult, as you encounter disappointments, as you experience hurt in relationships, as you encounter deep moments of pain that life can bring, somehow the play gets snuffed out.  I also think that my tendency to be a perfectionist cut me off from the side of me who liked to play.  Everything became so serious.  Everything became so scary.  Every move had to be so careful. Everything became so rigid.  Depression sets in.  Energy levels diminish.  Fitness levels decrease.  And absolutely nothing seemed funny anymore.

This is not good for a person, and especially not good for an artist.

It seemed like such an extreme thing to happen, because I was very playful as a child.  I had three sisters, close in age, to play with almost all the time.  I did not watch a lot of TV in my childhood and spent the time thinking up all kinds of things to do, and playing all kinds of make-believe games.  I used to like to write plays and puppet shows, and get a cast of kids together, like you used to see in the old Little Rascals programs, and put signs up all over the neighborhood and put on a big show for everyone.

I spent hours, and I mean hours with my feet crossed swimming around in our little backyard swimming pool pretending I was a mermaid.

When I was in high school, I was the babysitter that everyone always requested, because I was the one who would play.  I enjoyed playing with the children because it extended my own childhood, and it made the hours of babysitting pass, and I wanted to be the kind of babysitter that I had liked.

And I remember how much fun it was to be in the school musical.  I remember standing backstage looking at the painted stones on the "castle" scenery and squinting at them and seeing if I could convince myself they were real stones.  I wanted them to be real stones, and I wanted it all to be real, this world that was happening on the stage.

So, when did my play go away?

I'm not sure exactly when.  Maybe it started during my interview for the  Jr. Miss pageant, when the judges, looking up from what I had written on my application, asked me, "So, you want to be an actress!  Tell us! What do you think of the Stanislavski method?" (I did not know who that was.)

Or maybe it happened my senior year, when my physics professor,  after I had just finished performing the first movment of  Grieg's A Minor Concerto by memory with my high school band, and which I had worked harder on than anything I ever had in my life, said to me, "You really should not ever perform a piece in public until you are entirely ready" because I had faltered in a couple of sections.

Or maybe it happened during the summer, when a director, who had given me the role in his play at the community players theater said to me, "I don't know why everyone says you are such a great actress!  You can't even figure out what to do while you're standing there during this scene!!"

Or maybe it just happened because that's what life is like and I was not prepared or resilient enough to be able to process these things when they occurred.

For whatever reason, I found myself at a play-diminshed point in my life where I was entirely unprepared for what was asked for in my acting class over a several week period one year during college

My professor came in one morning holding a copy of the children's book, Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendack, a story which at present is playing as a new movie in theatres.

He showed us all the book, which was familiar to many of us, and explained that over the next couple of weeks, the auditorium was going to be the jungle, and we, the acting students, were going to be the Wild Things.  We would come to class, and find  a spot in the auditorium to "sleep" and he would raise the lights for sunrise, and we would live out a day in the life of these wild things.  He would gradually lower the lights at the end to signify sundown, the end of the day for the Wild Things, and also the end of the class period.  We weren't going to talk to each other during this time of exercise.

Well, I simply HATED this.  I had to do it every day, and it went on unenduringly long.  I have been sure over the years that it was just a way of the prof's getting out of having to teach class, and I have never forgotten how tortured I felt by trying to figure out what I was supposed to be doing?  I mean, how many bananas can you eat, and how many bugs can you pick off your fellow student and for how long.?  This episode of my acting training turned in to a very funny story over the years to tell people about the silly things we did in acting school.

But I newly appreciate what this professor may have been trying to do.  Perhaps he was on to a good idea fater all.  He was trying to get us to play!  Because a sense of play is so important for an artist.

Play!  How to rediscover it.  I googled the meaning of play and was astonished to find a page that had 74 defnitions: Meaning of Play.  Just reading through these definitions can inspire a person.

The one that stands out right now for me are:

number 23:
"Motion, movement, regular or irregular, as, the play of a wheel or piston; hence, also, room for motion; fee and easy action."
number 34:
"movement or space for movement, "there was too much play in the steering wheel."

This is the kind of "play" I'm engaged in right now.  Finding out how much "play" there is in my voice.  That's what my Figure 8 exercise to balance the voice is all about.  Playing with it.  Seeing where the parameters are.   Like an artist does when picking up a blob of paint and starts smearing it around playfully to see what it does, how it behaves.  This has to come first, before he can take up the brush and start to do stuff with the paint.  How much "give" does the voice have.  What is the margin of error?  What are the colors?  How far is too far?  How thin is too thin?  This is a kind of tinkering around with it to feel out how it works.

The next definition that jumps out at me is:

number 2:
"To act with levity or thoughtlessness; to be careless."

I have been casting off my perfectionism by singing, just singing, just blasting out carelessly.  Belting out tunes from musicals like I used to in my parents' living room.  To overcome my fear of hurting myself while singing, which wrote about I had developed and which may have hampered my progress. (How Much is Too Much?)

And finally:

defnition number 39:
"the removal of constraints; 'he gave free rein to his imuplses'; "they gave full play to the artist's talent' "

This last one is going to be hard.  The rediscovery, at this late age, of my play is going to go through some awkward phases as it finds its way back out.  And there are times that I am going to seem like quite a fool.  In fact, I think it was the fear of appearing foolish that buried the play to begin with.

So, in the interest of breaking free from the fear of appering foolish, I invite you into Frescamari's Practice Studio to see a little bit of playing.  It is an awkward kind of playing, but it's a start.  I expect to show you more of it as I move through this journey.

Edited 10/26/09 to add:  Duh!  The playfulness doesn't have to just be while singing or practicing singing, and shouldn't be.  Permitting one's playful side to emerge in all areas of life will infuse the art!  I'd be better off going out to play with my dog more often if I want to "loosen" up my singing.!  Don't  make yourself play; let yourself play.
Click here to see some Foolish Playing:

Foolish Playing: Per Pieta in Horse Stance
Foolish Playing: Per Pieta Drunken Style 
Playing with Our Dog 


  1. Wow...whenever you post about an experience, like play, that makes you grow, it inspires me to seek growth as well!

    Those games in acting class are so daunting when one is starting out (like I am). I feel foolish and awkward, and what we're doing is so far removed from our "normal" socialized behavior. I haven't overcome this yet, but maybe if I can just throw myself in, cast my cares to the wind, and fully commit, then I can begin the journey of acquiring some acting skills!

  2. The key for someone who became so afraid, like I was, is to be willing to appear foolish or stupid or awkward in front of people. To know that it's okay to make a mistake and that it's okay to make that mistake in front of someone. It's okay to appear to be amateurish and inexperienced-looking in front of the whole world! Fear of this stopped me from developing my skills as an actor and as a singer. It stunted my growth. There's a certain amount of that you have to go through before you master something, is actually PART of mastering something. If we wait until our choices improve and our abilities do, we'll never get out there (that's what happened to me)