The Importance of Play

By     Mar 17, 2016
Failure and success tend to go hand in hand. One can’t experience one without the other. Failure is how we learn, how we grow, how we change, and ultimately, how we succeed. And allowing ourselves the space for failure in our lives, is the greatest measure of one’s success. There is a confidence in that. And boy, have I failed spectacularly in my life.

Embracing failure is something I’ve worked very hard on in my life. When I first started doing theatre, I was introduced to the world of improvisational comedy. The first rule I learned from the improv teacher, Keith Johnstone, was “don’t be afraid to fail.”  He went on to say that stage fright comes from the idea of always trying to be your best, which causes anxiety, stress, and fear.  Instead, don’t be best.  Be average.  Be obvious.  Don’t be afraid to fail, and instead, just play. And in theatre, I’ve found the work I love to do. It’s not really work at all–it’s play. So how can I ever be afraid to play? I can’t mess up having fun. That realization has been a great success in my life as an art maker, and a great confidence comes from this.

But sometimes you get reality checks in failures, and it’s hard not to compare and despair when you look at your peers’ and friends’ personal and professional accomplishments, and feel like you are indeed, a failure after all. This happened to me recently.

What I saw, was a portrait of a failure. A 34-year old man who “plays for a living.” Who has more student loan debt from pursuing an MFA than most medical students have getting a M.D. Who drives a vehicle that is 17 years old, and is one of the only material things in the world he actually owns. He has no savings, no retirement, and lives in one of the most expensive cities in the world, far removed from family and old friends. It’s hard not to feel like a failure in these respects. I sometimes fall into these depths. But thankfully, I was lucky enough to go on a trip to Iceland last spring with a few of my Creative Community Fellows, and it changed my life. It reminded me that I needed to play more in my life. That I was getting caught up in financial and material and professional success, and forgetting to play. Work was work. I didn’t love it. It suffered. And so did I. Yet embracing this failure, and embracing this community, and simply remembering the importance of play, changed me for the better.

Now I can see a truer portrait of myself. I’m making a living doing what I love in New York City, arguably one of the hardest places in the world to ply this trade. I teach theatre at two universities, and have traveled the world making my work. I founded and direct three theatre companies with programming that creates real impact in various communities. I am encouraged to fail in my work, thus there is no pressure to be “the best,” and play is ever present.

Through this cycle of failure, embrace, and play, I have found confidence in my abilities, and in my life. Confidence, that on the other side of failure, there is always something worth while.