Are You Craving PLAY? Join the Fun and Avoid That “Shining” Moment

October 2017 – by Jenni Lilledahl

There is a chilling, pivotal scene in the movie The Shining. (Spoiler alert! And if you’re too young to know this movie or have not seen it – it’s masterful.) The Torrance family has been staying alone as winter caretakers of the remotely located Overlook Hotel. Jack Torrance  (played by Jack Nicholson) is an aspiring writer and recovering alcoholic working on his play. In this famous scene Jack’s wife Wendy (played by Shelley Duvall) peeks at the stacks and stacks of papers that her husband has been typing for weeks. When Wendy picks up the top sheet of paper, she sees that Jack has typed repeatedly, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” Every sheet of paper in the thick stack contains the same phrase, over and over and over and over. It’s a stunning reveal, so well shot and suddenly the film takes an even creepier turn.

When I saw this scene and then re-watched it again recently, there was an “oooohhh nooooo” in the pit of my stomach. It’s that sort of realization of deep knowing that something has gone terribly wrong. It’s knowing that someone has lost their spirit or joy, or in this case, gone off the deep end and lost their mind. It’s that pit-in-the-stomach-knowing that the continual, battering focus on work and achievement and work and work, coupled with the absence of play, can strip any human of their sanity.

We all know this. In fact, when I did a bit of digging (okay, Googling) the phrase “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” is actually a proverb that is first found as early as 1659 in a collection of proverbs by James Howell. This particular proverb has populated our modern media culture, showing up in films (The Shining, among dozens of others), literature, music, television (think of the opening title sequence for The Simpsons where one of the chalkboard gags shows Bart writing “All work and no play makes Bart a dull boy.”), and now social media (SO many memes!).

This permeation tells us that this belief is something we hold true and know as part of our human wisdom. (Side note: I could not find many memes about: hey, work more and play less or you’ll turn into a silly dodo.) It’s a truism – we know that there is a line, an invisible threshold that we cross when we’ve become consumed by work and lost our sense of play. And most of us agree this is not a healthy place to find yourself.

The study of life balance and play has long made its way into our science and psychology research. Dig through the research and you find links between play deprivation and mental illness, play deprivation and brain development, play deprivation and healthy relationships, and play deprivation and physical health to name a handful. A few have gone as far as to suggest that the lack of play and the social connection it provides is a significant contributor to the rise in gun violence.

I attended a week-long retreat last winter and one of the days was completely dedicated to playing. There were 40 of us adults ages 25 – 75, all strangers. We spent seven straight hours together playing. The only instruction we received from our facilitators at the beginning of the day was: “Today is play day. Dress to move and we’ll tell you everything you need to know as you need to know it. Try to treat yourself and drop your worry or need to be in control and just have fun.” We played games, we danced, we sang, we ate, we moved, we partied. There were tons of surprises, a bit of improv, and lots and lots of laughter and smiles. Oh, and p.s., there was no band, no expensive party planners or props, no alcohol or any other mood-altering items involved – just pure, human interaction and play.   

Before we jumped in, a few in the group admitted that they were nervous. They said they were not sure they remembered how to play. They were afraid they would fail at playing. I thought this was very sad, yet not surprising at all. As a 52-year old adult myself, I can think of dozens of times in my adult life when I’ve felt like I’ve lost my ability to play. And frankly, I continue to crave more time for play in my life. I can’t seem to get enough.  

After graduating from years of schooling (an institution for the most part that focuses on work and lacks a balance of play) many of us go on to work and build families and serve our communities. There is a high level of attention paid to keeping up, achieving, checking off the boxes as we move through adulthood, and sometimes the weight and reality of responsibility outweighs our ability to carve out time for play. We crave play and emotional connection, and yet as adults finding time for play takes intention and ironically, sometimes hard work.

I’m not worried though. Adult fun and play is making a cultural comeback. I see it in our improvisation classes here at the Brave New Workshop Student Union (BNW SU). And there seems to be an explosion of adult-geared play experiences:  escape rooms, fantasy sports leagues, and pedal pubs (okay, bad example).  And the rise in game-based apps (earn coins and win emojis) that help us make more fun and play of the drudgery of ______ (fill in the blank)  finance, meditation, exercise, taking medications, feeding our pets.

In our improvisation classes at the BNW SU we talk about this phenomenon frequently, especially in our beginner-level classes. Many of our students specifically come to do improv with us because they are longing to re-find their sense of play. We hear comments like “I’ve lost my ability to have fun and I want it back,” or “I want to reconnect with that creative playful side of myself,” or “life can be so serious and I simply need to find a way to laugh and play more.”  

Beyond the health benefits, improv above all is simply a ton of fun. We are purely humans making things up together inside of a culture of safety and support. We feeds our souls by stepping out of the real world and stretching the rules of possibility. We let go of have-to’s and old story lines and create new realities. We get to pretend, laugh, create and make believe. We get to do that with a group of humans who are cheering us on, smiling and laughing at our ideas, and telling us to keep jumping in and trusting ourselves. We discover ridiculous, funny stories together and we use our bodies, minds and hearts to make the impossible possible. It’s a blast and over the 25 years I’ve been practicing and teaching improv I’ve never seen anyone fail at playing. We all played at one time in our life and with a little loosening up, our students will tell you that not only is it possible to find that play again, but that practicing improvisation is one of the most powerful things they’ve ever done.

About 15 years ago I stayed at the Timberline Lodge in Mount Hood, Oregon, the actual lodge that was used for the exterior shots of the Overlook Hotel in The Shining. The interior lobby of the Timberline is very close to the set they reconstructed in England for the interior movie shots. We were at the Timberline to lead some improvisation training for a client. The irony that we were playing improv exercises with corporate executives in the setting where Jack Torrance succumbed to work was not lost on me. There was a bit of eeriness in the air, knowing Jack might be lurking around the corner to suck us into his madness. But improv prevailed. We played and delighted in our connections, camaraderie and laughter and slept well that night.

If you’re itching for more play in your life, it’s the perfect time to jump into one of Everyday Improv classes. In fact, classes begin Saturday, October 21 through Thursday, October 26. View class offerings and register today.

– Jenni Lilledahl is the co-owner of the Brave New Workshop Theatre (along with her husband and co-improviser John Sweeney), president of the BNW’s Student Union (school of improvisation) and co-founder of Gilda’s Club Twin Cities.

Be Brave. Do Improv