Perpetual Stage: The Value of Pretend Play

I just binge-watched a TV show; rare for me, these days. I love TV but it’s so time-consuming. Your evenings and weekends just seep away in front of the screen.

But I felt I had to watch FX’s Legion, the show about a troubled young man who may be mentally ill and may have psychic powers. It’s a gorgeously shot and well acted eight-part show from Noah Hawley, who was also responsible for Fargo.

I saw people online complain about the show being too whimsical and indulgent; I’ve seen it called pretentious and precious.

I’m not convinced. Yes, a lot of goofy stuff happens in the series – but I found it easy to forgive, because it felt like the adult version of kids playing with action figures.

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Did you do that as a kid? I couldn’t get enough of it. Transformers. Action Force. Manta Force, even. I played Star Wars, too – I didn’t even like Star Wars films much, but I loved the toys. When I went to hospital when I was about 10 years old, I found He-Man figures in the children’s ward. I’d never played He-Man before, but it didn’t stop me.

“I’m just helping tidy these away and sort them for the little children,” I told my mum self-importantly, while sneakily making up a quick story with the chunky, unfamiliar toys.

Growing out of those games really upset me as a kid. I remember trying to pick up my old toys when I was around thirteen and realising that the magic was gone; I couldn’t bring these plastic lumps to life anymore. (Thankfully, I’d started writing stories instead).

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In the final round of my action figure days, I repurposed the Star Wars toys for my own adventures. Lando and Leia were the heroes, raggedy resistance fighters; Luke Skywalker with his blonde hair and one black glove was a Space Nazi; my C-3PO had lost his legs, so he was a roguish robotic space captain who swung arm-over-arm around the corridors of his space ship, dangling from the ceiling.

Later on, when I was a student, I caught Wes Anderson’s movie The Life Aquatic. It captured something of the feel of those old days: like children’s pretend play, it has the same zig-zagging plot, the same brightly outfitted army of heroes indulgently plonked into an array of vehicles – a helicopter, a sub, a paraglider, a boat – and locations – an offshore lab, a pirate island, our heroes’ home base.

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It’s not that strange, because The Life Aquatic was cooked up over a series of lunches where the writer and director used the items around them like toys, to map out the plot. (For example, the movie’s ‘Pescespada Island’ is named for a swordfish entree).

We shouldn’t be too surprised: the point at which shared pretend play shades into storytelling and back again has always been somewhat blurry. You could even argue that action-adventure storytelling is really just about the business of playful problem solving.

In fact, is this kind of play really about storytelling at all? Or should we be thinking about it as open-ended make believe? This activity, where we share the responsibility of deciding what happens next, is more akin to improvisational comedy than any fixed and finished narrative.

Writing on pretend play for the British Library / University College London Playtimes site, Jackie Marsh explores how children undertake make-believe roles and enhance their imagination, their problem solving, and their understanding of narrative. Her focus is specifically child development, but she quotes a marvellous line from the Opies, a couple who were renowned 20th century folklorists of childhood.

Writing about how children use play to explore the world around them, the Opies write:

“Whatever has latest caught their fancy is tested on their perpetual stage.”

I like to think that this shared perpetual stage remains open for performance throughout our lives. Scott Eberle, writing on wild play, points out how unstructured play spills from story into sport at the very highest levels, when adult athletes choose to concentrate on the quality of experience rather than the outcome of a contest.

Back in 2015, I started to wonder about introducing wild play into cultural institutions – the idea of trading control for the delights of the unpredictable perpetual stage. One way for institutions to explore this was Fun Palaces – we supported over fifty of these community events in 2016.

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I was especially pleased to see a zombie-battle Fun Palace in the regional Australian city of Rockhampton. Fun Palaces begin from the motto “everyone an artist, everyone a scientist”: Rockhampton Library’s play-based fictional scenario lowered the barriers to entry and allowed even the youngest members of the community to celebrate their own expertise.

Windblade toy on the planning wall at State Library of Queensland

This approach has benefits in more rigorous environments too: last year I introduced playing with action figures and soft toys into sessions for occupational therapy students at Griffith University.

Watching Legion – which spends a substantial proportion of its running time in healthcare settings – I found that I enjoyed the story, the performances, and the production values, but I also appreciated the moments some have considered ‘indulgent’ – the dance sequences and the surreal visual digressions.

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After all, when you’re playing with your action figures, aren’t those tangents often part of the fun?

And in this world which is so often less than playful, couldn’t we let grown-ups enjoy some of those tangents too?

That’s what we’ve been aiming for with activities like Library Island, an open-ended roleplay for librarians to experiment with new ideas and activities. It’s not so far from the make-believe games of our childhood. Like the children’s play which Jackie Marsh describes, such activities enhance participants’ imagination and problem solving, and also deepen their understanding of broader strategic and contextual commitments which are often overlooked in our day-to-day work.

The only thing I have against TV is the sense of being a spectator rather than a creator. So after finishing up Legion (one episode to go!), I’m off to indulge in a bit of make-believe of my own.

You should consider that too.

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