Over the years I forgot how to play.
When I looked up "How to Play" on the Internet, I found "How to Play Poker," "How to Play Candy Crush," "How to Play 'Hotel California' on the Guitar."
That's not what I had in mind.
Years ago, when I started taking improvisation classes at Chicago's Second City, I had to learn all over again, what I knew naturally as a kid—how to play.
We were often sent out of the house, as in "Go outside and play." So we were forever playing Tag, Swing the Statue, and Chalk Corners. Sometimes we played Hopscotch, Intrepid Explorer, Cowboys and Indians, or Build a Fort.
Once we played Make-Balls-Out-Of-Limestone-and-Rainwater-and-Throw-Them-At-Passing-Cars. We got in a lot of trouble for that.
First thing when we assembled to play, was to decide on the rules. Like in Tag: If somebody nabbed you, did you have to yell loud and race everybody else back to "home"? Or did you just race against the kid who tagged you? Were you immediately "It" when you got tagged, or did you have to tag home base first? Sometimes we had to yell "Allie Allie opps in free!" Does anybody know what that even means?
Once we agreed on the rules—the games were on. Sometimes we hid, sometimes we climbed over fences, sometimes we crossed streets we weren't supposed to cross. We improvised within the rules of the game.
Recently Perfect Granddaughter reminded me how much I forgot about playing. She wanted to hide in a little tent. Hide from what, you might ask. But that wasn't the point. Getting down in a crouch for unknown periods of time is not my favorite thing but I had decided I'd do whatever she wanted to do. So, into the tiny tent we crawled.
"You hear that?" she whispered.
"Tigers out there," she said. "Growling."
I turned around and backed her play, making some pretty impressive growling noises.
"I hear them, too," I whispered, and made another surreptitious "growl."
We peeked out the tent flap and agreed there were lots of tigers. We growled some more. Then something amazing happened. Perfect Granddaughter got scared. We had created an alternate universe together and it was growling around out there and actually frightening one of us quite a bit.
I tried to neutralize the situation. "I think they're going away," I said.
But what's the fun of that?
Perfect Granddaughter knew that, if the tigers went away, that part of the game would go away with them, forever. Instinctively she made (what we used to call at Second City) the Active Choice.
"I think those tigers are just hungry," she said, "and that's why they're growling." I looked at her like maybe they were hungry to eat us both. "Hungry for vegetables," she said quickly, alleviating my unspoken fear. Since we had taken a year's supply of tiny tea cups and plastic vegetables into the tent with us, we were well prepared.
"I bet you're right," I said, "throw them a cucumber." She threw it out the flap. I made some slurpy eating sounds. She made some too. We threw out an eggplant, a potato—you get the picture. Then, after lots of slurping, along with the happy tigers, we both purred.
"Let's have a tea party," she said.
When you study improvisation techniques at Second City, they always tell you to "Yes and …" a situation. Don't say, "No, but …,” "because when you say that, the action stops. You have to add to the idea in progress. Don't make those tigers go away. Invent a way to deal with them. Four-year-olds know that. 60-Somethings like me have to re-learn the ploy of play.
"The play's" not the thing at Second City, or in real life, as it was for Shakespeare. It's the activity of play-ing, or play—and the rules of the game.
Jeff Michalski, who directed and taught improvisation for years, recently posted some of his thoughts on Facebook. He says when we recognize patterns in the game and we "play it forward" our neurologic pathways are stimulated allowing us to see and feel more patterns in the play. Meaning that when we "pick up" on cues from other players, we're able to send more cues of our own. We don't decide what's going to happen—we discover it.
When we feed those hungry tigers vegetables, we validate Perfect Granddaughter's consciousness and identity, and as the tennis players say, "Game. Set. Match."