Play? A Primer for People in Recovery

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Play? a recovering workaholic s Primer on Play and Improv

Cynthia Winton-Henry

Almost nobody dances sober, unless they are insane" - H.P. Lovecraft


FORWARD I wrote this essay under the title Landing on My Feet in 1992, attempting to describe how improvisation helped me lighten up, open up, and play well with others. Mind you, THIS WAS NOT MY NORMAL FEELING! I come from wonderful people who wrestle with depression, anxiety, and over-doing it in work, eating, love, exercise, alcohol, gambling, violence, service etc. My people reach toward and away from help and religion, often disappointed by offers for a better life. On the other hand, our addictive, behaviors let us feel better for a moment. Some of us are a wee bit neurotic. Others mumble a lot. Yet, each family member in her or his way also gets it about play and service. If we didn t we d be up a creek.

Play? To this day part of me will dare you to make me play. I tend to be defensive, protective and easily turn art into a mission. As the cofounder of InterPlay I sometimes joke, Don t call me the Queen of Play! I m here because I need to play too. Evenso, I am incredibly grateful to claim that yes, I do play. I can let go, trust, and let life play with me. Oh marvelous gift.

I realized how much I needed to learn about play the day that I went to the ocean with a clown named Margie Brown. She and I were working on PhD s in Theology and the Arts. Instead of going out for coffee she suggested we head down to the San Francisco bay with giant water guns and blast away some frustrations.

Margie has Cerebral Palsy and often falls over. Her creative genius took root in this context as she traveled around the US to perform and teach. She made me 3

laugh. She did and didn t think like me, so I followed her. As is my natural tendency, I also wanted to help her out in case she fell over. We parked right off the freeway near the bay. She got out the giant water guns.

Let s play! She said.

My spine got stiff. I faked a laugh. Play? Play without a plan? Play just because? Play right here in front of the bay area commute? I had no clue what she was talking about. I taught improvisation to classrooms of seminarians on Holy Hill, but play right out in public?


I instantly knew that my fear and resistance were W-A-Y out of line. An image of playful me cracked. That s when play s true freedom, peace, serenity and sanity popped up for research. Why is play so hard if it feels so good?

A wise woman in recovery told me that Why is not a spiritual question. I think this means that Why is a good way to avoid playing. In spite of that I grabbed the handiest specimen, me. At that point I didn t know how directly I descended from the first puritans or why they were determined to work so hard. In Chasing the Dance of Life: A Faith Journey I chase the divine through out patient treatment for workaholism, recovery groups, wild performances, spiritual retreats learning psychic flip flops, and learning how to tango with depression, break down, resurrect, fail at normal jobs, create my own job or ALL THE OTHER REASONS I DIDN T FEEL LIKE PLAYING!


I will say, that in spite of all this play saved me. Some irreverent, lucky play gene carried me. That and anti-depressants, the 12 steps of Alanon, sleep, nature, contemplative practices, a “higher power� and lots of good people. There are many reasons a person might say, NO THANKS! I DON T WANT TO PLAY. But if you are curious about play and want to recover some light and beauty, I am happy to share some experience, strength, and hope.

To land on my feet, I learned to improvise until I really felt like playing. I gained skills like adaptability, flexibility, and creativity even before I knew how to integrate them. Through dark years, improvising set me in a free zone where health shone forth like a signal. As I learned to watch for and nurture it I wondered, could joy, playfulness, improvisation be more than a parenthesis in life? Indeed, it is.

A STORY In the middle of adulthood I stopped. It seemed like life had turned into a cauldron of difficult memories from my youth. Simmering, boiling, burning onto the bottom of the pot, these memories rose again and again, bitter chunks, hard to cook, harder yet to chew. When I danced, I played. The rest of the time I stewed. 5

There were two people in me. In dance studios, theatres, and performance spaces I let loose. Someone once characterized me as irrepressible: exuberant, laughing, generating an endless stream of creativity. Irrepressible? The image landed on my consciousness with a "THWOP!

It was true and yet the word I secretly used to characterize my life was "struggle. An uneasy, turbulent, judgmental, effort-filled churning directed my thoughts and actions. The word peace held no meaning. I constructed my worldview around the theme of struggle and mistrusted happy people as shallow and misinformed. Still, when I danced, sang, or performed I was happy in an unusual way.

The tension between the dancer and the struggler grew more intense. I took my dancing self to seminary and trained to be a minister. Helping others was consistent with my struggle theme. Couldn't I help others in their struggles too? I loved to dance, but it was hard to resolve dance as being of any help to people. Of course I did my best. I became a member of a dance company whose choreographies touched upon human issues and concerns. We performed a great deal for churches and conferences. The dancer and the minister continued to wrestle. What would it be? Couldn't I be both?

In the midst of being ordained wildness blazed in me. I felt crazy. Dreams and pains flashed through my filtered memories. I choreographed conflicted dances: Yoke of Rage, Falling, Rachel Weeping. When I choreographed I got nauseated. At the corner deli one day after rehearsal, the clerk looked at my ochre face, sat me down, and offered to call my husband to come get his pregnant wife. I didn't realize at the time what it was I was birthing. 6

Oddly, in the midst of all of this I would improvise dances and songs that were humorous and full of joy. I loved to improvise, spontaneously make things, and enjoy the interplay of people in present time. "Do whatever it is that you are good at", said a friend, "whatever is uniquely you." I began teaching others the skills of improvisation.

Improvisation was slowly teaching me to play until I felt like it. Memories: •I am a toddler dancing in front of a circle of adults to tunes on the living room radio. •I give up ballet for Girl Scouts after the teacher never chose me to demonstrate. Instead, I practice tour jetes on my driveway, do my leaps and turns on badminton courts, and command my younger brother and sister to sit still and watch as I improvise the entire Swan Lake ballet. •In my backyard with playmates I marry, kill, die, and have children hundreds of times. On trips to the mountains my brother and I sing homegrown operas.

Mom and Dad casually encouraged our creative impulses in spite of their own difficulties. It has taken years of research, remembering, and "seeing" to know that the turmoil in my family history is typical of many alcoholic families. A deep undercurrent of struggle flowed down to me from occasionally violent grandparents. I was in elementary school when I stabbed my brother in the arm


with a stick. There are memories too hard to tell. So I arose from childhood with two messages. "Be creative, fly" and "Life is hard, harder than you think."

The two messages signaled two ways of being and two ways of surviving: 1) dance and play wherein I found life and 2) work where I controlled chaos through achievement, being good, and taking emotional responsibility for others.

The cost of the second way was high. In 1987 at dinner with a supervising minister, I blithely blurted out that I was a workaholic. It was one of those situations where the words were prophecy to real awareness. Unable to stop working, I had completely sacrificed laziness, quiet, true wildness, and deep need for others. At times I felt like I was having a stroke, my body desperately trying to warn me of the culminating stress. I found myself taking on the grief and hurt of all situations and people. A "sweet girl," I observed my goodness turn unpredictably into abusive rage. Yet even in high school, behind the face of the longhaired girl with the Peter Pan collar and the puffed sleeves lurked an imp, an improviser who nudged me toward liberation.

I was a workaholic...unable to stop working; I had completely sacrificed laziness, quiet, true wildness, and my deep need for others. By the time I became a pastor, my work ethic and my passion for play shared opposite corners of what was becoming a boxing match. I wanted to be taken


seriously, so I acted serious. I preached and taught and carried on "serious" conversations with parishioners and clergy.

Compelled to play, I also danced, ran up and down the aisles of great sanctuaries, and led others and myself into the memorable terrain of noises, body parts, and an old game, "follow the leader." No one ever said to me "Don't stop preaching. Don't stop helping others." Time after time people窶知y father, my friends, complete strangers-said, "Cindy, whatever you do, don't stop dancing." Whenever they said this, I was improvising.

Here is what happened next. When I realized I was addicted to work and control I checked myself into an outpatient treatment program and began attending adult children of alcoholic meetings. A year later I began improvising more frequently, inviting friends to join me. I took care of unfinished family communications. With the passage of another year I resigned from the pastorate, choosing to teach, perform, and improvise full time. The split healed.

I attribute my healing to God, support from friends and family, my own spirit, and the resource of improvisation, which sets my spirit free.


Improvisation taught me to play until I felt like it. Once it was a parenthesis in my life. Now I feel like I am playing all the time, even when I am working. There is a broad, wide playground beneath all my activities. I am not afraid of overworking anymore. From the marriage of work and play, passion and health spring. Anica Mander and Anne Rush in Feminism as Therapy said:

As we re-introduce play into this wealthiest and dullest of all societies, we are discovering more and more that it stems from the same creative source as work: we might say that play is the form, while work is the content and that the two, of course, are inseparable. Reintegrating work and play, then, is something feminism is attempting to do. We are turning to children to teach us how to accomplish this since it seems that this separation is less advanced with them, that they do not differentiate between work and play until they learn to do so. Many adults "in recovery" are nurturing and inviting out their inner child. Many adults long to be like children again. Improvisation generates the experience of spontaneity, creativity, and thriving for which we yearn. But one of the things that I love about it is that it demands that we call our whole being into the moment. While I may feel like a child when improvising, I also feel like an adult, an adult who really plays! To bring our child up to our adult, to continue to have all of our adult skills and thoughts, to be physically playful and mature, this is exciting. One of my students astutely articulated our hesitancy to continue to physically playas adults.

I notice how sensual and erotic the play of adults can be. This, I believe, is one of the reasons we are uncomfortable with the passion that rises up when we allow ourselves to play with all the power and knowledge that we can possess as adults. There is a certain amount of risk which one faces when one chooses to 10

live and play and act and love and walk passionately. We become very vulnerable as we put more and more of ourselves out there. However, if we don't take this risk we lose out on the powerful, passionate possibilities. I choose to risk for a chance at more possibilities.

One might think that the value of play, improvisation, and the arts would be their cathartic power. Many people use the arts as a way to unleash emotion. Paradoxically, I discovered that through playing with the how-tos" of dance, theatre and music, new experiences emerge. It is more like playing on the path, rather than trying to undo, replace, or work on the old.

Change happened as I found an option that was preferable to the old way of being. This is how play saved my skin and my soul. A new way of being gradually began to develop as my predominant mode. Improvisation was an arena to tryout new ways of being.

Even now, improvisation teaches me new skills, gives me options, liberates me to be bad and good, and liberates me to be me. No more pretending, just play.

I’ve got my hands on a survival kit whose balms and remedies I love to apply. I love to have fun. That is the bottom line of my healing. I healed because it was fun!


LEARNINGS Now I continuously find myself in a state of enjoyment where I learn and enhance new skills and options. (Truthfully, happiness is still a surprise and a delight.) Out of hundred of realizations stored in my files here are some big ones.

1. Creativity happens as a result of messing around with things. If you are willing to make even a small mess, you can be creative. 2. Experiment. If you screw up, you won't die. 3. Normal range of expression is narrow. Increase your range to increase your range of responses to ordinary situations. 4. You can take up room. You can move out. You can voice yourself. 5. Facial expression is a key to being present. 6. You can do what you want even if you are terrified. 7. You can change your position and your mind quicker than you think. 8. You don't know what you can do until you do it. 9. Play is a turn-on. When you use your whole being to physically play, you unselfconsciously access natural erotic energy. This is the passion we desire in our work and our leisure. 10. Limits and injuries can inform play instead of inhibit it. 11. Starting from a different vantage point you can generate ideas you never knew you had. 12. Initiation is easier that you think. Supporting someone else's idea is often the greater challenge.


My students also pointed out many truths in the midst of learning. I take enormous satisfaction from this. Penny Ford wrote:

I was really nervous about being the leader for one of the groups when we had a class improv and also really excited. It felt like that split second when someone asks you if you want to race and you think "yes ... no ... well...," and then you're off. And it's better not to think too much, because then you start planning strategy, calculating the odds, deciding the path, weighing the alternatives ... and before you know it, you've talked yourself out of running at all. It's amazing what a little amount of play will teach us about ourselves! Again, it seems like issues of personal power and integrity arise, and a great deal of that depends on my own decisions to live FULLY in the whole range or restrict myself to a safe little section of life. The creative nature of improvisation or play is to focus on the game, task, or question: What happens when ten people simultaneously play with walking forward, backward, and standing still? When you take a posture and start walking, what character comes out? Can you lift someone else? How low does your voice go? What happens when you play with a low voice and clapping? The exploration is endless. When you add a number of people to the play, you add all the questions about how two, four, fifteen people can work and play together without having to discuss their relationship first.

Improvisation is highly relational and therefore offers a paradigm for exploring the many facets of individual, interpersonal, and corporate relationship. Penny says it this way:

It has been really exciting to be a part of a group that doesn't mind letting the holy, the human, and the ridiculous melt into each other and swirl into one indistinguishable mess. And yet, I don't think we ever lost sight that playing, really playing, is one of the most honest


and most sacred things we can do. The experience of lifting others and being lifted was one of those moments that I will remember long after this class is over. And the group was not an instant spill-yourguts type of community (thank goodness!), and yet somehow I feel connected because we have played, laughed, and danced together. Absorbed in resolving the play task, we lose ourselves momentarily. Dynamically engaged in the moment Thomas Merton said it.

We are invited to forget ourselves on purpose, cast our awful solemnity to the wind and join in the general dance. Improvisation short circuits so much mental effort and at the same time allows us to use our minds. It allows us to do that chastised thing‒to act before analyzing. Weren't we taught to think before we act? Somehow we got it confused. Analytical editing has a hardening tendency to diminish our creativity and range. Fortunately, thinking is not limited to analyzing. It is one of the most creative of all human acts, blending imagination, invention, reason, discipline, and passionate curiosity.

Analyzing is also there for protection. Opening to life can trigger danger if a person isn t ready to encounter their nature or truth. For that reason I have learned to trust people to decide if improvisational work is right for them at any given time. It is critical to respect each person s timing, needs, and process.


Meanwhile, in an affirming, open space a blessed thing can occur. We act like ourselves. We realize how quickly we can think on our feet. We get reacquainted with being whole. Most people experience great joy in this.

I am still amazed to discover how improvisational work (the word "work" now meaning the same as "play") influences broader life. The following comments are indicators from people with whom I have improvised:

*I have been reflecting on the suggestion that I try to integrate the playfulness and enthusiasm I feel in dance with my voice and personality in other settings. YAHOO! YAHOO! For some reason, my style of speaking and writing has a terse academic formality to it. YAHOO! YAHOO! So I've been making a conscious effort to use less effort in my social interactions and to just generally lighten up. YAHOO! YAHOO! Improvisation has helped me to risk the boundaries, get in touch with my body, as well as dare to experiment. It helped me in ways that therapy has not.

*Challenged to move beyond the boundaries of a mediocre range of safety, "to go for the gusto," I have tried to do that in dance. This experiential learning has spilled over into many more areas. In my personal goals, I decided to "go for it" by seeking an internship in El Salvador. It is something I had thought of for a very long time, but it never would have been a reality if I had not stepped out of my "passive receptivity" mode of being and become a very active initiator of my own future. *On Friday I awoke with a dream of eagles in formation. I immediately thanked God for the dream, as I knew what it might refer to. It referred back to the dancing in class and meant that the work we are doing is prompting movement within the unconscious. The dream was called "The Eagles are Landing." The dream refers to what Robert Bly speaks of in his essay on the "Flying Boys" and how if the sexual energy of the mother or father is diverted inappropriately to the child, the boy or girl will 'fly up." The grounding of this sexual energy, the energy of desire, is critical for healing. For the first time if I 15

continue to move with God within the larger "word of the heart" context that improvisation provides I have a chance.

RESULTS I remember seeing the promises of Alcoholics Anonymous up on a wall. They seemed like the church s promises of the Kingdom of God. I had to assume both were "hoo-ey," magical thinking. If I had no experience of them except in fleeting moments, what were they but human fantasy? Now I know they are possible.

• We are going to know a new freedom and a new happiness. • We will not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it. • We will comprehend the word serenity and we will know peace. • No matter how far down the scale we have gone, we will see how our experience can benefit others. • That feeling of uselessness and self-pity will disappear. • We will lose interest in selfish things and gain interest in our fellows. • Self-seeking will slip away. • Our whole attitude and outlook upon life will change. • Fear of people and of economic insecurity will leave us. • We will intuitively know how to handle situations which used to baffle us. • We will suddenly realize that God is doing for us what we could not do for ourselves.


I believe improvisation accelerated and gave me real tools for change. I continue to have difficulties, challenges, and frustrations. And yet a lightness and enthusiasm pervades my life. Learning to trust my happiness, the genesis of new life, I wisely remain suspicious. Will this pass?

As I continue to lean on the teachings of this great spiritual guide, improvisation, I celebrate, dive into, and research human experience. Through each initiation I am led deeper into the meaning of sacred words like Whoever seeks to gain their

life will lose it, but whoever loses their life will preserve it. (Luke 17:33)

Improvisation, play, dance, song, and general messing around created a crucible for my little salvation. The word salvation in Hebrew literally means "room to walk around in." Would you believe there could be such freedom, such spaciousness, in this riskiest of all places, the unknown, the dark, the edge of our understanding? I would not forsake the center, all I have experienced, known, or seen. It gives me courage to improvise, "to do the unforeseen." But I am learning that Mystery, the destination of improvisation, is a land generous in its spaciousness, a realm where one dances in and out of light and dark, a place more trustworthy than I imagined, a source of the ingredients needed to move beyond survival into thriving personhood.

Improvisational play teaches me that I can become so broad that I too will become a land of Mystery. Where this would once have terrified me, now I wonder at who I might become. I would be delighted if I became like one of those encountered by Adam Houchschild who said,


Once in a while one meets people who have crossed an invisible line, stepping into a territory from which there is no turning back; they are already in such trouble that nothing they say will make it any better. They are relaxed and open and they laugh. So, Here is an idea. Let us make something out of nothing No not nothing Let us gather up everything that we ever were or are or will be Let us be Shapers, Creators, Makers of Some Thing, Some World, Some Living. Let us dare to succeed at it, Dare to fail at it, Dare to fly on the wings of this moment. Let us improvise our dreams. Let us leap boldly from the shoulders of our lives, Our histories, Our loves, And our disasters. Here is an idea. Let us play ourselves out! (The real work)


Let us do nothing at all. It may not matter. Let us run the risk of naked individuality. Let us go out wildly, Not just as one, But as a union, an ensemble. Here is an idea. When we make our worlds Let us remember to go with them To stay with them To commit to them To hold still with them And to let them go when it is time. Let us breathe Let us sing Let us laugh Let us be characters Let us dance. Let us see what will be When we invoke God, Sex, and Power.


For more on the Practice and Life Approach of InterPlay see Cynthia s work continues to explore body wisdom practices for creativity, spirituality, and social justice. Join her at CYNTHIA WINTON-HENRY & PHIL PORTER formerly members of Body & Soul Dance Company developed the InterPlay practice and technique. Through their non-profit, Body Wisdom, Inc they share InterPlay and travel throughout the United States, and in Canada, England, Scotland, and Australia performing, training and teaching classes and workshops. INTERPLAY is their technique for discovering and developing a natural ability to move, sing, act, and create. It is an exercise of intuition, interaction, creativity and play. It opens up new possibilities for personal exploration and community building, and gives people new tools for being in and dealing with the world. It develops a sense of comfort and delight in one's body and confidence in the ability to respond to others.

CYNTHIA & PHIL 1992, 2012 WING IT! PRESS 2273 Telegraph Ave. Oakland, CA 94612


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