Pure Play

I’ve experienced what I would call Ultimate Back Having exactly one time in my life.  Now mind you, countless individuals have had my back.   What I’m talking about is UBH on a massive scale.  Over time.
UBH is a fairly simple concept.    The concept is essentially, “Let’s play & have each other’s backs.”   When UBH is around, the benefits are obvious.   It’s fun.   It makes you feel good & it makes others feel good.   You give and take from each other in a communal fashion because playing is its own reward.

Take Fun Fun Fun Fest for instance.   My buddies started crowd games that numbered in the tens, perhaps hundreds.   By creating the UBH environment we confirmed what I always believed to be true:   people are dying to abdandon social convention and just play.

Play for the sake of play.



When you hear tale of Improv Everywhere pranks or when you see the result of UBH efforts–  you can take it for granted.  You can try to manipulate and manufacture the phenomenon.

But I’m here to tell you there are conditions that must be present.  UBH is an elusive beast.

Nobody knew this more than the grandmother of improv, Viola Spolin.    You know the warm-ups you and I play on a daily basis?   These are the hand-me-downs from this amazing woman.     She knew that play was its own reward and that talking about a student’s hangups would only serve to reinforce the negative.   They serve to put the student further into his head.   So when a new hangup presented itself Viola did something better– she invented a game on the spot.

The student would play the game.   Boom.   The student would challenge himself and then feel rewarded for taking the leap.

Play is its own reward.  Encourage people to play.

Where did Spolin get this revolutionary idea?   It had actually been around since 1915 or so.    A social worker in Chicago had devised an entire thesis, the “Theory of Play”.

This woman did more for improv than hundreds of improv gurus that followed in her footsteps.   But do you know her name?    Does anybody?

No, she didn’t write any books. No, she did not come up with the concept of “Yes, And.”   No, she did not call the idea “improv.”

Improv is an imaginary concept to get adults to act as free and carefree as children.    Improv is simply the repackaged idea of play.    None of us learned how to improvise.    We simply unlearned the tedious process of being serious.   Of being an adult.

The woman’s name was Neva Boyd.

She researched games for years with a vast number of clients.   She taught the games to others including Viola Spolin.   Let’s consider Boyd’s relationship with her student Spolin.   Improvisation as we know it was passed down from this single point in history.

Had Spolin not brought Boyd’s “theory of play” from social work to theater, we would have no improv.  We would have no UBH at the New Movement.

Originally it had nothing to do with theater.   It had nothing to do with acting or “Whose Line Is It” games.    The goal was simply spontaneity and getting a person out of his head.

There were guidelines for true play, things to avoid that would tangle up folks in their heads:

“While the values in play are many and play activities and the experiences therein are essential in the growth and development of children, play does not always bring good results. There is a kind of play that separates, sets us in conflict with each other in contrast to play that draws us together.

An overemphasis on winning defeats other possible values in play. Stress put upon the structure and technique of a play activity by the play leader or teacher tends to prevent the release of organic elements essential to creativity and expression of any kind.

Fun is the essence of the spirit of play but when the pretense of fun is “played up”, it tends to kill the natural vitality of play. Pretense of fun kills real play.”

1.  No competition or emphasis on winning.
2.  No faking it.  Everyone has to be genuine or it will die.
3.  No stressing the structure or the rules.
Breaking these rules murders the idea of play.   They are the ultimate no-no.   You’ll notice Improv Everywhere breaks one rule, as Paul F. Thomkins recently pointed out.   The games are usually not inclusive and create “victims” for on-camera pranks.

So whether we call it improv, UBH, or play– I’d encourage us to remember where Neva Boyd was coming from. She took every day people, sometimes suffering people, and challenged them to have each others’ backs no matter what silly thing they would do.

Sometimes people try to convince us that improv is about winning, playing it up,  or the rules of games.   These are simply not inclusive to everyday people.   We all get hung up on the details or on the spirit of the activity.    We look at those around us to make sure we aren’t being duped.

Be genuine and spontaneous, and for God’s sake stick by the people you have the most fun with.

Ask yourself:

Am I obsessing over details or rules?  
Am I playing it up or exaggerating?  
Am I just buttering people up?
Am I worried about winning, or benefitting at someone else’s expense? 

These are sure signs that you are leaving UBH behind.   Just take a pause and collect yourself.  Take as much time as you need.  Then join the others when you are ready.    It’s OK.  We are all trying to find it together.  It’s damn tough.    Come back to the group when you are ready to have fun and include others.   Play for the sake of play.

I’m not telling you anything new.   The theory of play has been around for a hundred years.  Hiding.  Waiting.  And three years ago, almost a full century after Neva Boyd, something remarkable happened.   Chris Trew & Tami Nelson came along and handpicked theories from the collective social consciousness.   From their teachers and various improv environments.    And they did something quite spectacular.     They unwittingly rediscovered Neva Boyd’s philosophy, the theory of play.  They plucked it right out of the ether and they custom crafted it for you and me. They named their teachings The New Movement.  And indeed it was new.   Improv may have evolved over the last hundred years.   Ideas added, subtracted, tweaked, adopted, evolved.   And men idolized.

But two women knew the formula for good improvisation before any of that.   And it was simple.  It was ultimate back-having at its simplest.   At its finest.   Improvisation started offstage and now we’re bringing it back home.  So here’s a toast you can use:

“The New Movement is the Original Movement.     Onstage and off.   UBH.