How Can You Play At A Time Like This?

Apr 03 2020

Holly Stoppit
Image credit: Quarantine photoshoot / photographer Joe Rosser

I've been watching myself from a safe distance these last few weeks, clocking my responses to this unfolding crisis with detached fascination. This blog charts my journey through the last few weeks, explores the place of play in crisis and offers a few handy tips to help you connect with your playfulness. 

Coronavirus is rampaging around the globe, on an urgent mission to find new hosts, so that it can stretch out, expand, multiply and have a massive party. Many of us have been ordered to stay in our homes, whilst the key workers bravely venture out in masks and gloves to do the work that keeps the world turning (I was fascinated to find out who these key personnel are – if you're interested, these are our essential workers).

My radio solemnly sits on the kitchen top, earnestly describing the global suffering, gravely charting the rising death toll. My newsfeed is a rainbow-coloured spew of questionable advice, gossip, confessions and cries for help. I'm witnessing businesses going bust and people losing their livelihoods. Frantic parents struggling with suddenly becoming home educators, their kids bouncing off the walls, whilst “invincible” teenagers flout the social distancing laws, in favour of swigging vodka and snogging each other in graveyards. Meanwhile, couples scrutinise each other through narrowed eyes, wondering whether they've chosen the right person to face the apocalypse with and then there's the single people, alone and craving human touch. Homes all over the world are infused with the acrid smell of fear and anxiety.

This is no time to play!

I am a clown teacher (surprisingly, a job not listed amongst the key workers). For the last 14 years, I've spent my time holding space for adults from all backgrounds to rediscover their playful selves. This is more than just my job, it's my passion, my calling, my purpose, my reason for being on this planet.

What I love most about clowning is its responsiveness. A clown steps out onto a stage and immediately connects with the audience in the room. Clowns look and see and hear and smell and feel and everything they do is guided by their audience's reactions. I've devoted my life to exploring the magic that can happen through this live, direct connection both on and off stage.

My job is helping people to build the confidence to trust themselves and their impulses and to learn to be fully seen in their vulnerability, so that they can step into the Great Unknown, unguarded and open, ready to find a playful connection with anyone, anywhere, anytime. The process is intimate and disarming and often leads to new collaborations, deep friendships and sometimes even romantic relationships.

Did I mention I love my work?

Because of the essentialness of people being in a room together, it may be some time before I can run my courses again. I felt a wave of grief as I packed away my rubber chickens, red noses and ridiculous hats for an indefinite amount of time.

Nevertheless, I am committed to play. Play is what I'm made of, it's what I believe in, it's what sustains me. When my play levels are topped up, I am able to meet the world with sparkling eyes and lo, the world performs an intricate choreographed song and dance number just for me.

As the crisis has been escalating, I've noticed my commitment to play strengthening. I've been getting up early to clumsily jump around in front of random youtube dance workouts in my living room, shouting my part of the conversation with the teacher, between gulps of breath:

  1. Teacher: Let's get started!
  2. Me: OK, if you insist!
  3. Teacher: Feel the burn!
  4. Me: No, you feel the burn!
  5. Teacher: One more round!
  6. Me: [lying on the floor] I'm busy!

I've been jumping on my bike every afternoon, feeling the wind in my hair, the sun on my skin, appreciating the buds of spring along the cycle path, grinning at passers by and singing at the top of my voice as I pass through the long, dark, echoey tunnel.

My fella and I have been having phone-free evenings, playing at going on dates with each other, without leaving our house. We've been getting dressed up and ordering takeaway, lighting candles and listening to jazz records (tres sophisticated, n'est pas?). We've been going to virtual pub quizzes, games nights and theatre shows. Last weekend, we had a lot of fun making the photo at the top of this blog, our very first quarantine photoshoot (Watch this space for more in this series).

Then there's the Clown Workouts. Two weeks ago, I went for a socially distant river walk with fellow clown teacher, Robyn Hambrook. We threw ideas back and forth, from either side of the river path, figuring out what we could offer to support people in isolation to keep their playfulness levels topped up. By the end of the walk, we'd come up with the concept of Clown Workouts – daily clown tasks for clowns in isolation. At this very moment, we spotted a brightly coloured kingfisher, which felt like a good omen; kingfishers are clearly the clowns of city parks.

We set up a facebook group and started creating video content to invite people to play in the comfort of their own homes. Two weeks later, we have over 900 members – together in isolation, our world-wide clown community, consisting of people of all ages and from all walks of life, are exploring the many different facets of our clowns. It's heartwarming, unifying and inspiring to be part of.

I realise that the idea of clowning in a time of crisis might sound jarring. I imagine people might see our playful offerings and say “How can you play at a time like this? People are dying! People are losing their jobs! People are isolated, miles away from their loved ones! How dare you be so insensitive?”

But my question is “What else are we going to do?”

It doesn't feel healthy to sit and wallow. I'm not advising we leap to the other extreme and spend all our days only having joyful, positive experiences, skipping through the daisies and laughing our heads off, I'm certainly not! For me right now, it feels important to touch in with all emotions – both 'negative' and 'positive' - to honour them while they're here and allow them to pass through. To not hold on to them, to not push them away and to not create a massive story around them. Feelings come and feelings go. 

As well as being a great escape-hatch from reality, play can be a container to help us explore our emotions, our thoughts and our situation. Through play, we can build our resilience and sharpen our coping tools. Play is not just for kids!

Here's Some Ways that Play Can Support You (and some handy little activities you can do right now)

1.) Feel Your Feelings

Through play we can safely access and express our true emotions. For instance, if you were playing a character or puppeteering an object; you could allow yourself to turn up and really express the emotions of the character / object, exaggerating your breath, vocal sounds and body movements. Through this process you might magically get to experience and release some of your own true feelings. This catharsis can be a really useful antidote to the fear-induced stasis that may naturally be happening for many.

Just moving your body around to a song on the radio can help you to unlock stuck feelings. Turn it up and get on down!

2.) Cultivate Empathy and Compassion

In a similar way, play can help us to take on other people's perspectives and attitudes, allowing us to see the world through their eyes. For instance, you could take on a character of someone very different to you, someone who's views totally contradict your own. This way, play can help us develop compassion and empathy, qualities that help us to keep our hearts open to each other, which can be a tricky thing to do in times of suffering.

Fear can cause our hearts to harden which in turn leads to guilt or blame as ways to attempt to diffuse difficult feelings. Guilt can lead to self-destruction and blame can lead to defensiveness and before you know it you're warring with Doris on your local facebook group about who will water the flowers, when all you really wanted to say was “Hey guys, I'm really frightened! Anyone feeling me?” Cultivating empathy and compassion can help us to stay open and loving towards ourselves as well as other people.

Take a moment to tune into how you're feeling right now, exaggerate it a little, turn up the breath, let your body join in for a moment, until you have a sense of how you are. Now step out and see yourself through the eyes of a loving friend. Imagine you are your best friend – see yourself feeling that feeling and offer yourself some compassion. What might your friend say to you right now? Come back to your own body and notice how it feels to receive that compassionate attention. (see the video at the bottom of this blog for a fully version of this)

3.) Access Freedom

Play can give us access to our boundless imaginations – transforming the all-too familiar walls of your living room into far away landscapes, providing backdrops for fantasy adventures. Just because we are living in isolation, doesn't mean we can't travel in our imaginations. Play is a ticket to freedom!

Transport yourself to a beautiful, nourishing place – real or imagined. Use your senses to create a total total 360 experience for yourself – bring in sight, smell, temperature, sounds, taste, touch. Put yourself in your idyllic location and enjoy it, take time to explore it, take in the goodness, let it soothe or invigorate you!

4.) Embrace the Unknown

To enter into the state of play is to voluntarily step into the unknown. In true play, the game presents itself moment by moment, rules may emerge to shape the play, then drop away when they are no longer serving the play. Learning to trust yourself and your impulses in play, directly translates to your relationship with the unknown. We are in a time of great unknowing, we can't know how long this will last or how we will be effected in the long-run. Perhaps play holds a key for learning to be with what is.

Pick up an object, any object, feel the weight of it, the texture, the temperature, give it a sniff if you like, look at it closely, notice the details of it. Without planning, discover 5 things you do with this object. Allow yourself to be surprised. Opening to the quality of discovery is to willingly place yourself in the unknown. 

My heart's wish is that all people feel free to play, create and express.

If you need any permission, I'd like to invite you to make space for play every day!

To help you on your way, check out Clown Workouts. We release a new workout every week day at 10am UK time.

Today's Clown Workout, Playing With Resistance, explores how to play when you don't feel like playing:

I didn't know it at the time of writing, but this blog is the first in a series of Lockdown reflections. Here are the others:

Exploring Emotions Through Clowning

Cultivating Resilience Through Play

Welcoming Joy

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