An invitation to play, that’s what I do when I go out and do roving performance. I walk amongst the crowds and I search. I’m looking at people for sustained eye contact, a hint of curiosity. I am looking to share a moment with someone, anyone. Anyone who is really listening or watching the world around them. Anyone who accepts this invitation to play.
There’s many times that people will try to ignore me and look at their feet as they scurry by, but there’s glimpses out of the side of the eyes from many people. So many people who’s hearts want to play but can’t. Perhaps they are busy, on their way to work. Perhaps they have already judged play as frivolous, and judged me along with it. Most often, the invitation is first taken by a child. A child usually has their curiosity in still in tact, before we buried it under a pile of so-called “more important” things.
But I found someone to play with, and we play this game together. They may ask questions. What is she doing? How is that happening? Whoa. whoa. Whoa. What the? And I know I have them with me, and we are now sharing this experience together. My clown teacher David McMurray Smith would call it the “I know that you know that I know that you know”. Most of us call this connection. You can see it in our body language. We both begin to lean in towards each other. I share the visual dance of my ball, that appears to be floating in the air. Sometimes they will disengage for a moment to look to their parents to do a reality check “Do you see what I am seeing too?”. This connection is contagious. The people who were once closed are now captured by the child’s curiosity, and the connection that child has built with me.
As for the others, they begin to be captured into the fun too. Where they were once looking at the floor with their feet are turned away from me, they are now slowing down, rubbernecking, their bodies still moving forward but their head captured in the moment. Eventually they stop too. They still keep a safe distance. It’s less threatening to be far away and they are not yet willing to be a participant. They are observing my connection with this child. My posture will start to open up start to include all of those rubberneckers. The circle of connection grows. A few more people start to engage with me, and they begin to feel safe and allow themselves to be seen looking at me. They come in closer. That lets me be in their world and they’ve come into mine. This is that moment of connection with everyone that I was looking for. This is my job. I invite people to remember their feelings of awe and wonder.
Some people will take time to open up and that’s normal. It’s okay not to accept the invitation to play if you’re not in the right space. The hope is that this invitation, will be met with a moment of curiosity. A moment in which someone will allow themselves to open just for a second to see something outside of their normal world. Because it’s so unusual. The combination of the human statue and my floating ball will actually make some people afraid for a moment. Let’s be clear, it is totally weird, and it’s natural for people to fear the unknown. On top of this alien creature, the statue, the illusion of the ball can create fear and doubt because it causes people to doubt their perceptions. Many people will look around and say, does anybody else see that? Am I the only one? They want to make sure that what they’re seeing is in fact what they’re seeing and that other people are also have joined them. Because the ball looks like it’s floating people will say to to their friend “that’s freaking me out.”
They can’t figure it out and they don’t understand it, and just for a moment they feel outside of a world in which they fully understand. This is actually a magical place. This is where anything is possible. But sometimes this wonder and awe is scary. This is uncertainty, this not knowing, and it’s this edge that allows us to feel alive and connected.
For example, the event that I’m imagining as I write this was at a college with new students. People who are embarking on a journey of newness and change. They are open to learning and they’re about to open themselves up to an entirely new way of thinking. The difference is, going to college is something accepted as normal. New ways of thinking are accepted as possibilities in the world of school. We accept that at college we are supposed to be open to learning about ourselves and others. Unfortunately, for many people, this is the last time they are in a place where they are willing to completely immerse themselves in the unknown.
But college is not all unknowns. Our teachers would be trusted because of the hierarchy that they are in. But me as an animator? I am not in a hierarchy. It’s not known where I fit when one is simply walking by. It is not known where my place is, and therefore people place me at the bottom. Society has a ranking system of things in our world. Where do you put something that hasn’t been ranked? How do I fit this into my perception? The three little words that terrify most people: “I don’t understand.” They are so rarely uttered because it is necessary to appear to be in control to save face – to keep your own place on the hierarchy.
From the moment we are babies, parents begin correcting their children. We begin teaching them “the right way”, and we rarely allow open ended answers or what academics call “Free play”. Instead, we go to school where there is always a right or a wrong. Everything is black or white, and there is no grey. There is no room for other colors. Everything is marked, graded, judged. The “I don’t know” is not acceptable.
Yet, there is so much uncertainty in the world, and there is so many ways of knowing and seeing that can’t be seen if we control every moment. If we place everything into these hierarchies, then everything becomes standardized, normalized and we become desensitized to everything outside of our controlled boundaries. There is a safety in it, I know. But what if we could be safe in other ways? What if we placed different boundaries on ourselves, ones that could be inclusive of the unknown?
We need to be allowed to not-know. We need this moment of processing, this moment of uncertainty to be open to new things, to be open to joy and wonder.
And that’s why I am here, standing on the street in front of you, just for a moment. I invite people into a place to play, where a simple red rope that surrounds me creates a boundary for everyone to know the rules. I create a space where not-knowing is ok. I create a space of not knowing with an invitation to play. That invitation says, I’m here with you today. Let’s connect. Sure, I’m a stranger. Sure, I look weird and this thing I’m doing is totally weird, but you see it, and you see that I see you seeing it. This moment in which we’re connected, this moment where we are playing together is a gift I am giving you today. A moment to be seen in your own moment of joy is a gift that’s rarely offered to adults, and I am honoured that you allowed me in.