Musicals, Playfulness, and Social Infrastructure
Note: This essay was originally included in my newsletter. If this interests you, subscribe below!
This monstrous essay started as a letter, then I decided it was better as a newsletter, then I decided to make it a full-on essay. A newsletter probably isn’t the best form for this but by the time I realized that, I was already committed1.
On Thursday, I started wanting to write about my love of musical theatre, since that would be a productive way to procrastinate on packing for Chicago (duh). After starting, I realized I was actually writing about the importance of play and how it relates to the sorry state of the built environment in the US (eventually tying it back to musicals). Hang with me here for a minute, I promise they all go together.
I am a reliable reader of the Hacker News home page. Earlier this week one of the top posts was titled “Play deprivation is a major cause of the teen mental health crisis”. The article is a thought-worthy read by itself but I started thinking deeper when I read this comment by Andrew Blakey summarizing his fathers observations of Andrew’s children:
“[Play has a purpose]. They’re testing the world. They’re learning how things work. How gravity works. How friction holds Lego together. How actions cause reactions. How friends and strangers behave when you do things. How to use language with make believe. How to comfortably and safely explore new ideas out loud with their action figures. How to discover what feels good and what doesn’t. They’re not playing. They’re growing.”
Psychologists and pediatricians agree that play is an important component of childhood that has countless benefits later in life. It is perhaps telling then when there is also broad consensus that children, particularly in the US, aren’t getting enough unstructured play.
Let Grow and Right To Play are two organizations working in this area. An example of their recent activism involves Colorado passing a bill to narrow the definition of child neglect. This means it’s easier for kids to independently play without their parents running afoul with the law. Many states still define neglect as extremely broad. Simple things like leaving a child in the car while putting a shopping cart away mean that everyday tasks become criminal offenses, let alone allowing kids to play responsibly outside.
Editors Note: I barely managed to stop myself from going too far down the fascinating rabbit hole here, but I’ll note that there is also an “International Journal of Play” which has a selection of their articles marked as open-access diving deeper into this subject.
Play in Adulthood
As adults, “play” isn’t really something we do. We might have “free time” (I wish) or “explore”, but play is beneath us. The phrase “f*** around and find out” is the epitome of this culture. The mentality of “I’ll f*** around, then find out, then learn from it,” is a much more attractive mindset from my perspective. People try to avoid mistakes at all costs leading to the deprioritization of play, where mistake-making is a primary tenant. What harm does this have? Probably more than we care to admit. The largest benefits of play come out of adolescence but without play in adulthood, people are loosing out. Play provides a whole lot, one of those things is exposure to chance.
A few years back, Veritasium made an interesting video about where success comes from. The big point he tries to make is that luck (chance) isn’t something you can ignore2. If you want to maximize luck then making mistakes is a helpful, abet somewhat counter-intuitive, strategy. One common way to experience exploration is the repetition of practice (“let me try it this way”). Each of those attempts is an opportunity for something to happen by chance. Many of the inventions crucial for modern life were created in moments of serendipity, because of novel exploration.
This newsletter is a type of play for me, since this is solely for my enjoyment. When I receive positive feedback (as was the case with the one I last sent out, thanks y’all!!) or negative feedback, I’m able to use it to help shape the style, tone and purpose of my writing as a whole. These last seven letters have been extremely helpful to center my thoughts about the way the world works and improve my writing. It wasn’t until today that I realized that each of my previous letters has some sort of accidental tie back to the importance of exploration. If I had to plot the amount of exploration I’ve done in my life, the last 18 months or so would be a pretty big spike. This explains the common theme throughout the life of these newsletters.
How Do We Play More?
In society at large, there are barriers for children playing together. At a young age, cars pose one of the biggest risks. It’s a combination of children and drivers not paying attention. In the above thread, one of the biggest worries parents had about their children playing was cars. As kids grow older, the difficulty starts to become other extracurriculars and scheduling. Both of those issues indicate a larger need for a shift in physical and social infrastructure.
One of the first books I read which touched on this topic was “Palaces for the People: How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization, and the Decline of Civic Life” by Eric Klinenberg3. The whole thesis is in the title. I draw many connections to the social infrastructure he talks about and intentionally creating safe spaces for children to play. This lowers the barrier to play happening, which makes children more likely to play and thus they are better prepared for the world.
Strong Towns, a organization focused on helping cities and towns move away from “the suburban experiment”4, just posted an article talking about prioritizing walking. The ability to safely walk places is a huge factor in accessibility and inclusion. Kids can’t drive, so making it easier to walk and bike allows more independent exploration (and adults benefit from the increased mobility as well). When the standard for parents becomes “go play/hang with your friends after school/practice, then bike home” instead of “I’ll pick you up in front of the school at 2:35”, everyone wins. Developing urban infrastructure which allows this independence is a complex task which over time leads us towards a better built world.
I don’t feel like I can talk about play without mentioning it’s ties to suffering and inequality5. This may be different for other folks, but when I think of play as it relates to my life right now, I tend to think of it as a luxury. Why I am able to play when others in the world are suffering? However, exploration and play isn’t the sort of thing that can be restricted to specific groups if the full benefits are to be developed. The feeling of inequality can be a helpful check, “what can I do so others can play more?”
Institutions also need to play more. There is an argument to be made that governments and organizations would benefit greatly from experimenting more. The US happens to be set up to do this quite well, and we see it every once in a while but I think it could be slightly more frequent. Since each state has it’s own laws, there is often room to experiment in the specifics. The counter-argument contests experimentation is less efficient. My response is “quite right,” the goal is to maximize long-term happiness, not efficiency. Multiply this across every jurisdiction in the US and we have an impressive amount of capacity for safe experimentation.
A quick aside on capitalistic maximization: I think society would be far better off focusing on gross domestic happiness compared to gross domestic product, but I am also aware of the reality we all live in. The world doesn’t work a single way and as such, the small individual changes we make are probably the best way to improve the average life not an immediate change of a fundamental system.
To explore and play is to be. As a crude comparison, we understand the importance of providing regular environmental enrichment for zoo animals, yet we don’t provide that same sort of enrichment for ourselves on a societal scale. It’s clear when an animal is unhappy, and it’s easy to experience the joy of an animal playing (obligatory Oregon Zoo video). We are suffering in a cage that we created. This is exemplified to me in a Not Just Bikes video titled “Designing Urban Places that Don’t Suck”. The juxtaposition of enjoyable and unenjoyable urban environments is stark to say the least. The craziest thing is that we have the power to (slowly) change these environments and we haven’t yet.
All of this finally leads me to (one of the many reasons) why I love musicals.
Musical theatre is a place where skill, talent and preparedness all come together to create something uniquely magical. From the writer(s) to the actual performers on stage and everyone in between (link to the Broadway Community Project), it took loads of work and practice before opening night to open the curtain.
The performing arts, and art as a sector, is a prime example of what I’m going to call play as a profession. I don’t mean that being in the art world is all fun and games, it most certainly is not, but rather it requires exploration and creativity in a way that isn’t necessarily offered in other industries. I imagine if you polled people working on Broadway, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn’t want to be there6. But play as a profession isn’t just restricted to art.
My father recently came across the book “The Dream Manager”, which focuses on the strategic advantage companies have if they help their employees pursue their dreams. There is the age-old adage that says “if you love what you do, then you won’t work a day in your life,” which is most certainly an exaggeration. However the idea behind the book, and relevance to play as a profession, is the creativity and exploration that comes along with “love what you do” benefits everyone. By helping people pursue their dreams, organizations can help satisfy the natural urge to explore.
When I see a musical, my ticket buys a one-night-only seat to watching a whole group of people thrive, and do so in a live environment. It wasn’t just the days of rehearsal before the show, but the time as children someone belted out a song and nailed it for the first time, the lighting designer who spent hours figuring out how to light a particularly challenging scene, the seasoned assistant stage manager smoothly handling last minute difficulties, and so on. The story, lyrics, music, choreography, et cetera clearly help make musicals impactful, but the people behind all of those components are also fascinating.
Theatre is the epitome of “creative under pressure,” though far from the only example. Pure competence is one of the things in the world that makes me the happiest7. It’s hard not to love a working dog in action (sheep or service dogs as an example).
I want to see the world play more.
And now hopefully a payoff for reading so much, a curated selection of videos tied in some way to musical theatre:
- A model rocket creator I follow released the final part of his series on building a solid rocket motor. Watch at least the three minutes of the video. The fact that Joe majored in music while in school and this is unlike any other content on his channel may be helpful background information.
- I’ve recently become slightly obsessed with improv musicals. Jess and Zach are near the top of this very niche genre, and their entirely improvised stage performance of “We Object To Fear” (incidentally performed in Portland) is about as good as it gets. You don’t get “Hamilton” level performances, but it’s very impressive for what it is. A highlight song starts around 31:29.
- You gotta love Billy Porter and his performance during the commercial break of the 2019 Tony Awards is all the evidence you need (alternative view). This is what I mean by prepared, confident, and competent.
- A drummer hearing “Mr. Brightside” for the first time (without the drum track), then performing his own rendition.
- I’m a casual theatre nerd. My exposure to the production of musicals mostly involves viewing them, though I have a small bit of non-professional onstage and backstage experience. I don’t have entire musicals memorized (yet) and I’m far from a triple-threat. So know my perspective likely doesn’t represent folks who are more ingrained in the industry.
- This is distinctly a US-centric (and privileged white guy from Oregon) perspective. There is a solid chance this is all completely wrong or misguided. Judge for yourself. Many of the issues I mention are not isolated to the US.
I spent far too much time on this relative to packing these last few days, so I’m sending this out now to prevent it from being more of a time suck. ↩︎
At least as it relates to where your life leads you. ↩︎
I’m not really sure how I stumbled upon “Palaces for the People”. I’m certainly glad I did, given how it fundamentally shifted the way I view the public and private spaces around me. I read it over winter break my freshman year of college according to my GoodReads log. If I had read it a year or two earlier, there is a solid chance I wouldn’t have gone to OSU or majored in Computer Science, I might have taken a risk and studied urban planning. By all accounts it isn’t a “perfect” book, but the attention on the importance of physical spaces translating to social spaces for societal well-being was a helpful wake-up for me. ↩︎
Another really cool organization. Smart planning and development policies for the win! ↩︎
Actually, I don’t think you can talk about anything without mentioning suffering and inequality. A close friend of mine wrote his entire thesis about suffering and while his work was enlightening, he still felt no closer to closure than when he started. ↩︎
I couldn’t find any relevant research in a cursory search, but I would be astonished if this isn’t true ↩︎
And by extension, true competence is extremely attractive to me. It’s important to note that being arrogant about competence quickly erases that attraction. Confidence can sometimes convey competence and other times it just conveys someone’s ego. ↩︎