Why’s it called a “play”? Why’s it called a screen”play”? Why’s it called a stage”play”? Why’s it called a VR”play”? Why do children play?

This one is about acting, theatre, childhood development, and philosophy. Be warned, it’s a long rabbit hole, but for those equipped for the deep dive, it definitely sheds light on who I am. A thoughtful Pisces Moon below this Capricorn shell. Not a lot of VR stuff.

Why do people play? What does it mean to play?

When a few kids run around with toy guns pretending to be true detectives shouting at criminal kids for robbing their treasure chest, is this “play”? Are these kids engaging in a real act of governance? Probably not. Some would say. But what do we know for sure?

We know that within the world that these kids exist in at this moment, they have a certain amount of rules. A certain amount of regulations with which they must behave under. Is this any different than reality?

In reality some person or people determine the rules that everyone in their party has to play by. Maybe it’s a monarch. Maybe it’s a religious group of high priests. Or maybe it’s a group of students who just really love whacking a ball with a stick and running around bases.

Whatever the case, some authority sets the rules, and the others abide. And there is play.

When I was a kid in magic camp – it’s like a boarding school for wizards set in grounds that look like Hogwarts – one of the eldest professors Hiawatha taught me that in order to create any piece of art, you must first understand the parameters. If you don’t know what the rules are, you can’t expect to make anything. If you don’t know how to properly mix your oil paints, you won’t ever achieve that beautiful image haunting your vision. You may not even be able to vision it. If you don’t know how to point and shoot a camera, you bet your ass you won’t be taking very many beautiful pictures. You need to know the rules in order to play the game, and any owner of a hedge fund will tell you that the more knowledge you have at your disposal, the better you’ll be able to use that knowledge for personal gain. The key to life is understanding parameters.

When a kid pretends to be a chef and sits down at their toy kitchen set, they open the cupboard and they remove their ingredients and they whip something up. Depending on what ingredients they have, maybe the food will be edible, or maybe it’ll be plastic. Furthermore depending on what culinary processes they know of will determine what kind of chemical alterations, if any, they make to their ingredients. But at the end of the day, given the right materials and the proper knowledge, any kid who sits down at the right kitchen set with the same intent, may just be primed to prepare a delicious meal by the time they’re finished “playing.”

What does this tell us?

It tells us that both adult chefs and kid chefs are doing the same act to some degree. Both intentions are the same, the only difference is the materials and knowledge. If you see your child has a knack for wanting to play chef, I’d suggest sitting them down in the real kitchen and teaching them a thing or two, perhaps even just how to lather peanut butter onto a jelly sandwich, and voilà. Your kid is one step closer to being a real chef.

The common consensus among parents these days is that kids don’t have the maturity to do real people things, but we must ask ourselves, What is “maturity?” Maturity just means to grow. In one sense, anybody who has grown even a smidgen has matured to some extent. Okay Okay, but how do we mature further? Like actually mature? Like adult type mature.

Back in the day you were expected to work for your society before you even hit puberty in some cases. Imagine that? Having to bring home dinner, treat mom and dad’s wounds? Bring home a paycheck? All before the little hairs pricked up out from your crotch yet? There was a time where mommy and daddy died around twenty years old and that was the NORM. Genetically we’re the same creatures as we were, so if a kid back then could handle adult tasks, playing by adult rules, there’s no reason a kid today can’t either. There’s a few things we can do to help them, however, and number one is give them knowledge. Teach your kids how to not be useless fucks.

I know, I know. When Sally picks up her plastic bread and smacks it against her plastic jar of peanut butter, and drops it on a grimy, booger covered plate and hands it to you for bon appétit it’s just the most precious, adorable thing ??? She really expects us to eat this! Isn’t that CUTE.

Well I’ve got news for you. You know what’s even cuter? When Sally turns on the real stove and carefully prepares a medium rare juicy steak that’s about the tastiest thing you’ve ever salivated on even though she can barely see above the kitchen counter, even with the poop stool underneath her adorable feet. That’s magic. And that’s not very impossible. It just means taking the time to train Sally to sit still and – listen – to you as you give her some expert knowledge that’s taken 35 years of your own life to decipher, and then patiently working her through the nuts and bolts of it. She’s not an idiot. She’s your kid. If you continue clapping at her utterly useless, albeit adorable attempts at playing chef for another three years, guess what? Sally’s never going to cook for herself. Sally’s never going to cook for you. And when Sally does learn to cook at a “reasonable age” she’s going to be like every other shmuck’s kid who doesn’t start sophisticating their culinary skills until they’re twenty-five. If you give Sally the benefit of the doubt, and trust that she really wants to play chef, maybe by the time she’s thirteen she’ll have her own Michelin star restaurant, or win some award on TV, or get a scholarship to some Ivy League degree program and you can bask in all her glory taking all the credit along the way and saving yourself some money. Want to know the secret? Stop letting seven years go by of Sally playing “pretend” because the utter truth is that when Sally plays “pretend,” Sally is doing the best she can with the knowledge and materials she has at her disposal, and when you spill tears of joy at her useless attempts at cooking a plastic hotdog, she thinks she’s really good. She thinks she’s preparing a hotdog. And that’s the key to all this “play” talk. The art of delusion.

Delusion often carries with it a negative connotation. And I understand why. Most people – most people – don’t want to be delusional. For acting delusional means acting under false beliefs that everyone around you knows are false, but you think are true. Some people though, thrive on being delusional. These people make a living on it. These people are actors. Actors have essentially one main job – be delusional. At least for several hours a day.

Interestingly a lot of the top acting conservatories around the world teach breathing exercises and relaxation techniques much like those employed by hypnotists to prime a subject for optimal suggestion. Looking at a lot of the most famous actors and their performance techniques, I often wonder whether or not they are in fact hypnotizing themselves before a role to get themselves “into character.” To play a character simply means to be that character. To operate and behave just as they would in any given scenario. An actor’s behavior is governed by the parameters of their character description and the given circumstances of the scene. Good improvisers can “play” a character in any given scenario, and can go out in the real world “in character” sort to speak.

Imagine that. Imagine you’re at a bar and you meet a person and you have a whole conversation with somebody only to find out later that the person was acting in-character the whole time. You’d think they were delusional. In a sense they kind of were.

Okay Mike, I see what you’re saying, but the actor isn’t delusional. The actor knows they’re playing a character. Delusional people don’t think they’re not delusional. Wait, I mean delusional people don’t think they are delusional. Delusional people don’t even think about being delusional because that’s what it means to be delusional — you’re unaware that you’re delusional.

You’re right. Kind of. On one hand, an actor is willingly making themselves behave as if they were delusional. On the other hand Leibniz had a theory called the Principal of Indiscernibles where if two things were Indiscernible from one another just under two different names, those two things were actually just the one thing. During the moment that the actor is acting, there is no difference between their behavior and the behavior of a delusional person, thus we can at least agree that the actor is temporarily delusional – or at least appears to everyone outside their brain to be delusional. And since none of us are inside their head, well if a tree was to fall in the middle of a forrest…

You get my point.

My point is that a kid playing chef with plastic ingredients is no different than a kid playing chef with a slab of raw beef, except that the kid with raw beef might actually produce a real steak. Thus, the only difference between playing pretend and playing real life is the parameters – or rules – that govern our behavior.

When you realize this, it becomes very easy to play a character. If the script has the character tying his shoe, then you as the actor just need to sit there and genuinely tie your shoe. Uta Hagen did acting exercises like this. She’d have her students get on stage and simply tie their shoe. Or call their mom. Or scream at their girlfriend for betraying their trust. How can I possibly do that and make it look believable? Um, Just do it.

Obviously if you don’t know what it’s like to have a girlfriend, or you’ve never screamed at someone for betraying your trust, it might be a bit more difficult. But then you’re like the little girl who doesn’t know how to fire up the stove and actually cook the slab of meat. In other words, you’re fired. Or won’t get the role. Because you’re acting like a kid and you’re playing pretend.

Now obviously sometimes we need to “pretend.” What if you need to be high in a scene and then sober in the scene right after? Well you surely can’t get actual high, so you’re going to cook up some plastic hamburgers. Here’s the secret — nobody knows what’s going on in your brain. Remember the delusional actor you met in the bar? Maybe they knew on a subconscious level that they were spewing a bunch of lies out of their mouth, but nobody around them knew it, and for all intents and purposes the character they were playing WAS the character who entered the bar that night. It’s who everybody met. It’s who advised the server on her life issues. It’s who the corporate executive fell in love with. It’s who accidentally drank somebody else’s beer. That’s the magic.

When you walk into a room, and sell people on the idea that you’re stoned off your ass, nobody cares if you are or aren’t.

A magician named Andy describes it like this…
They recognize the effort. And that’s all they care about.

There’s a concept called Lying in Service of Truth. I took a creative writing class on it. The point was that a fictional story may be a lie, but the lie is meant to depict a truth or convey something true or whatever. This is an interesting outlook, but it’s more like this…

Nobody gives a flying fuck if you lie. They care about their own experience, and they care that you took the time to give it to them, or that you’re talented enough to give it to them. They know you’re playing under some preconceived parameters. Nobody walks into Hamlet and expects to actually see somebody die. That’s ridiculous. They know they’re being conned. They’re paying an arm and a leg to be conned from the front row.

They don’t want to see somebody play pretend. That’s why nobody likes going to see their third grader’s school play. Because everyone on stage is smashing some plastic oranges together and calling it a smoothie.

Here’s a question.

What’s the difference between a Wharton educated businessman and a Chipotle cashier?

Genetically? Not much, maybe a fraction of a percent. Both are fucking human. They both eat, shit, fuck, and breath the same oxygen.

The difference? One works at Chipotle and the other went to Wharton. Psych.

Maybe the Wharton student also works at Chipotle to score some extra cash to spend it on weed. The point is fundamentally there is no difference between humans. The only difference is how a given human is spending his or her time. His or her behavior.

When somebody stands at a register and swipes your card at Chipotle, they are playing the role of a cashier. When somebody busts their ass reading textbooks before their business class, they are playing the role of a student. The student who really believes through-and-through that they are a student as they do this, and nothing else – they are a person who’s delusional. Somewhere – I forget where – somebody introduced me to the idea that every human has multiple selves. A mother is also a friend and a realtor and a daughter and a painter. True, but it’s more like there is one self and that self can play multiple roles. At different points in time throughout the day or year or lifespan, the rules governing that self’s behavior changes, and that self plays different roles.

As humans all we ever do is “play.” We don’t stop playing when we grow up. When we “mature.” (Yuck, that word leaves such a bad taste in my mouth. Kind of like smegma in an old lady’s dentures.) Rather, we sometimes decide that we must choose one solitary role and absolutely define ourselves as that role and play it out every waking hour. We all know these people. They choose a major. They get a job. They go to a bar, they tell everyone who they are. When they come home they are the salesman dealing with his daughter as she plays pretend at the toy kitchen set. When they go to bed, they are the salesman fucking their wife who maybe identifies as a school teacher. And that’s that. They are mature adults. Living a mature life. And they’re the most delusional people of all.

So why’s it called “play”? Why’s it called a screen”play”? A VR”play”? Why isn’t life called “play”?