The Play’s the Thing

Have you ever wondered at the grace and dignity with which the men and women of the civil rights movement conducted themselves amidst the brutality and violence of the police and white supremacists who confronted them? Have you ever wondered if you could withstand such abuse? I’ll be honest, I haven’t. I’ve been privileged enough not to have to. And now I wonder (and doubt) whether I could. But I have a secret to tell you: the way they did it was not merely on the strength of their moral conviction (though that helped). It was because of one key thing: practice.

The movement that became so associated with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s soaring rhetoric was enacted and made real by the bodies of those men and women who put themselves on the line. Their effectiveness was due not only to the bravery and heroism of their convictions, but also to the seriousness of their practice before facing these overwhelming challenges. They role-played. In churches and living rooms, they would take on the role of the cop, the Klansman, the person who would stop at nothing to harass, humiliate, and destroy them. And in so doing, they were prepared when the real threat came at them. They knew how to respond since they’d seen it before.

When I was in seminary, I had the pleasure of taking a class called Theatre of the Oppressed with the amazing Jiwon Chung, in Berkeley. Theatre of the Oppressed is a collection of “acting games” developed by Augusto Boal, originally in his home of Brazil under an extremely repressive dictatorship. It grew forth under circumstances not unlike what MLK was facing, and like MLK, Boal taught his students to resist oppression through role play.

Then something interesting happened. He was forced out of his home country and lived as an exile in France, of all places. In his home of Brazil, he had come to associate the European face as the face of the oppressor, but what he found in France was that these women and men, in their own circumstances of wealth and privilege, were suffering their own forms of oppression, albeit more subtle, and often internalized. There he developed concepts like “cop in the head” and the “rainbow of desire”. But the thing that didn’t change was the power of play as an andragogical technique to teach his students to overcome difficult situations.

Child psychologists and ethologists understand that play is rehearsal for life. The problem is, for most adults, once we start performing, we stop playing. By now, I’m assuming that most of my readers are familiar with the notion that it takes 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to become an expert. Now, there’s a lot of criticism of that theory, and much of it is valid, but the basic idea that expertise requires deliberate practice is indisputable. Deliberate practice is the key. What is “deliberate practice”? Well, one thing it’s not (and this detail is often lost) is performance. Let me say that again: deliberate practice is not performance.

When you are performing, you are under a great deal of pressure to get it right. Failure is not an option. Sadly, we live in a world now in which so much of our lives are a performance. Now that everything is recorded in the infinite log of the Internet, you can be judged for your words years, nay, decades after you say them. There is little room to practice.

Enter Flourish Space: a safe space (zero real life consequence) to practice the life skills, skills of empathy, communication, leadership; skills that will help you to flourish in your career and your life. With our coaches and our labs, you can learn to practice these skills in a judgment-free zone. (How rare is that?) A place where it is okay to fail, get up, and try again. A dojo for the mind and heart. Because, if we are ever going to build the beloved community of which Dr. King dreamed, we need to develop these skills, God help us, we need to develop these skills. And there is no way we will do that without a safe space to practice them.

Dr. Strange