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Playing and Reality

Karen Christopher, of Haranczak/Navarre and formerly Goat Island, speaks about facilitating a climate of attention (2018) . This, with its ecological weight and a commitment to seeing the unheard and listening for the unseen, made the artist a natural mentor for developing our first full length show, Please Leave (a message).

The warnings are here but we aren’t listening.

It is a message for future generations.

It is about decay and the failures of communication.

It is about karaoke, taking the microphone and singing your song, telling your story despite the warnings and messages which plague us.

Three weeks later and we have finished our short run at Camden People’s Theatre and Karen is on the other end of a zoom call. Anonymous hands pass her a cup of coffee. Three weeks ago she asked each of us separately-whilst sat together- ‘what’s the show about’ and she listened to our answers. Now, she asks us about the process.

Playing, Lin says, discovery I say and we discuss task-based-material generation and sequencing: a live editorial process of refining fragments and rubbing moments up against each other to form new meanings. Karen interrupts. Her Zoom box has a yellow outline and she says: Play.

In the stilted moments when technology fails us, something, that across this unprecedented year we’ve become all too familiar with, we watch Karen speak without volume. We know she has more to say but we cannot hear what follows. To quote her own practice, for a moment, we ‘see the unheard’ and in the second-long silence, I think: Sequencing, editing, refining, erasing could these be the opposing forces to play and discovery? Wait. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.

From the Shining to the Zoom room our connection sorts itself out: Work is the binary opposite of Play. The yellow box reappears around Karen, she’s talking and we can now hear her:

KAREN But playing is the work. That’s why they call them plays. We don’t call this work that anymore, we call them shows or the piece or pieces but that’s what it is and that’s why the people on stage, the Actors-she adds inverted commas-are called Players.

The sounds of pennies dropping from height and hitting Jack’s desk become audible.

This dichotomy then, this slippery handle on what it is we’ve been doing, where ideas deposit themselves in the back of your head or hit the sides of the rehearsal room only to be scooped up later, edited then re-edited and I am in my costume standing on one leg, moving across the stage, trying not to touch the air.

Play vs Work

But Playing is the Work.

Instead, the tension must lay between exploration and scrutiny, illusion and disillusionment, child-like curiosity and a- grown up- mature-reality. To ‘come of age’, to ‘stop chasing rainbows’, to ‘smell the coffee’, and face reality is the demand of a discerning parent to their free-spirited/disobedient child. But why?

For the 20th century Psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott, ‘play’ and ‘playing’ are integral to infants and mothers- alike (19891). From the outset of a new borne baby’s life, Winnicott suggests that children are offered an illusion from their mothers. He states, ‘the breast provides an illusion, [as for the child], ‘her breast is part of the infant’(1989:53). This illusion will, generally, be replaced with another as the infant detaches themselves from the breast and begins to cradle something which Winnicott labels the Transitional Object. Here, this object, often a dummy or blanket becomes ‘symbolical […] a term that describes the infants journey from the purely subjective to objectivity; and it seems to [Winnicott] that the transitional object (piece of blanket etc) is what we see of the journey of progress’(8). It is a stepping stone. The object symbolises the breast, acting as another form of illusion to detach the infant from the first fallacy. To grow up fully, is to gradually become disillusioned. Crucially, as I have surmised in the example above, to do this, Winnicott suggests that the mother must provide space for illusion and disillusionment in equal measure. Play and subjectivity then, must be valued alongside maturing behaviour and objectivity.

To turn away from Karen Christopher and towards Tim Etchells, who’s Forced Entertainment, like Goat Island is a prominent source of inspiration to us, ‘the confines of what is real’ transform in his rehearsal room (1999: 53). He describes Play as a state in which meaning is in flux […] as endless transformation, transformation without end and never stillness (53). The thing is Tim, it does stop though.

TIM ‘But after days of this the discoveries (or antics) of the week would be scrutinised […] a process of interrogating the material might begin. They’d ask the questions that were largely denied until this point: what is that doing there? What might that mean? What does this imply about structure? Would this work be sustainable as a ‘show’?’ (52)

JACK So to wrangle Winnicott into my rehearsal room analogy –

TIM ‘This routine of nice cop/nasty cop, the tactic so beloved of interrogators the world over, kind of suited [us].’ (53)

JACK To extend Winnicott’s writing on the mother and infant’s relationship and the relationship between illusion and disillusionment, rather than nice cop/nasty cop, hadn’t we each taken the role of infant and mother during the process?

TIM ‘To bring down a conceptual grid or frame onto what they were doing, but then take it off again and replace it with another one’. (53)

JACK When playing with the microphones in the rehearsal room, dragging them across the floor: we were scientists digging to find the centre of danger. We were copying each other’s movements like a school of fish during an exercise, which later, with a guiding hand became a dance. We were saying the message. Together and then separately, with different voices, playing different characters and battling it out to sing our songs. When questioned, like Etchells states ‘a frame’ or logic begins to appear – or not. We each at different moments became the mother, playing along until we impose a thing as close to objectivity as you can find when collaboratively devising, we subjugated ‘free-associative illusion’ –play- for a show’s own internal logic.

Moments became re-worked, re-styled and sometimes erased. The message itself, the one we were leaving to future generations was becoming erased. Our bodies were beginning to disappear as the wall rose and the rumble of the sub-woofer (which built gradually throughout the show) began to threaten the silence. Winnicott believes that ‘playing has a place and time’. For us, that place was most definitely in the rehearsal room, it just wasn’t necessary all the time.


Christopher, K. and Grodin, S. (2018). ‘On creating a climate of attention: the composition of our work’ in Lavary, C. (eds.), Performance and Ecology: What Can Theatre Do? Routledge: London

Etchells, T. (1999). Certain Fragments: Texts and Writings on Performance (1st ed.). Routledge

Winnicott, D W. (1989)., Playing and Reality. London: Routledge


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