This a story of a man’s voyage (mine) into Playfulness in Denmark. What drew me there, what I found and why Playfulness is important to me!
Let’s start with this last part first. Playfulness has had an important part of my life for more than two decades since I first learned to juggle at University in 1994. Actually much longer than that I lost touch with it for a while at some part. Learning to juggle, and becoming intensely passionate about it, reignited my playfulness. Everything became possible. Life buzzed through my veins.
After finishing my degree in Chemistry I left the UK for a European Juggling Convention, canceled my return flight and started traveling around Europe. 18 months later when I ended up in Rome I decided to stay there for a while and started studying dance, acrobatics, yoga and started unlearning with clown training.
Inspired by the book The Zen of Juggling by Dave Finnigan, I started to develop my own special way of holding residential workshops for jugglers. Five years later on my intense desire to learn took me to study Physical Theatre with many brilliant masters at the Dimitri School in the Swiss mountains (2003-2006). For three years we dived fully into the fine art of performing and movement. Learning to think with the body as a whole. A small class of eleven classmates with 7 different mother languages!
I then decided to return to Rome and continue my Yoga and Qi Gong/Taiji training and practice under the supervision of Master Mario Verri that I’d begun in ’98. These continuously deepening studies in the years have been fundamental in my personal research. Yoga and Taiji have given me powerful instruments for self-study and allow myself time to move towards spontaneity and freedom.
Researching playfulness for me is ultimately the search for freedom.
From last November I decided to dive much deeper into the practice and understanding of Playfulness. I felt the need to cultivate more playfulness for myself and wanted to share it with others. The world all of a sudden seeming a very serious place! As soon as I made this decision things started to move around me and I came to find out about the counterplay festival in Denmark
I was immediately drawn to this curiously exotic playfulness conference. Counterplay is a “container” that has 200 people from all over the world come and talk and practice playfulness together. Just down the road from the birthplace of Lego. I had to go.
I had a crazy idea on how to finance my trip to the festival that would need lots of courage: create an online course to raise the funds I needed. I’d been working on Charles Eisenstein’s ideas for living in a gift economy and decided to make the course a gift and gather donations to fund my trip. I divided the course into four sections. The first two are more passive and receptive and the second more active. It’s still available and would love you to follow it here:
It was a great learning experience for me too (and I’m quite proud of how the course evolved).
And I managed to raise enough funds for my trip to Denmark!
At Counterplay I’d be holding a workshop as well as attending others’ workshops and conferences, I was excited.
The greatly anticipated day arrived quickly and it was time to set off on the Playfulness Adventure!
A school boy’s dream had my plan to go to Legoland the following day but found out just before take-off that it was closed. Ah! I was reminded “Man makes plans and the gods laugh”.
I had booked a place 8km from the airport in Billund, very near to a famous theme park. At the airport, I had even seen a direct bus to Aarhus (Denmark’s second city and where counterplay was to be held) but I decided to go to the nearby lodgings all the same and get focused and ready to play. The taxi drivers wanted a lot of money to take me there, more than the airfare from Rome to Billund, so I walked in the twilight and then darkness in the middle of the woods and through farms to the countryside accommodation. I had my rucksack and trolley suitcase and just went for it. Google maps showed me the way. There was no moon, quite a chilly wind and the whole thing felt like the perfect start of my playfulness adventure. I felt the need for this rite of passage and loved it.
It was dark when I arrived at the farm building and I was exhausted. The key was in the room and there was no one around, meeting not a person but a very ordered apartment in the middle of nowhere. As if it had been holding off for me, just after I arrived, rain fell all night. Apart from the rain on the roof there was a deafening silence about the place. The following morning, after I’d done my morning exercises, I met up with the owner of the place that had written to me saying he’d be going to Aarhus and could take me at 12. That was awesome as I’d already imagined how on earth I’d get to the station from here, in the middle of nowhere in the rain, and felt like trust was leading me to playfulness.
It turned out I could help him sort out a payment for an electricity bill for a house he’d recently bought in Italy but couldn’t seem to be able to pay for it. We phoned an Italian number and I set up a direct debit for him. He told me of his passion for basket making and we set off for the 90-minute ride.
On the way we passed through the green Danish countryside and even passed the highest point in Denmark (which is 170m, Denmark is pretty flat). As we entered Aarhus, we passed the modern library DOKK1 where the conference festival was to be held. There was nowhere to stop for quite away, so when I got out I walked back along the seafront. I was excited and could see the library from across the harbour. I enjoyed the anticipation.
After climbing up the unusually designed diagonal steps I entered this incredible new building. The reception desk pointed out where they were setting up for a festival for the next day. Mathias Poulsen, the organized, had been working very hard and seemed quite nervous. A huge very friendly man. I helped out a little bit, went to find the room I’d booked, and then joined everyone that had already arrived at the massive street food hall. The atmosphere was already very friendly. It was great to finally meet lots of the people that I’d already “met” in the counterplay Facebook group in the lead-up, and even others that were participating in the online course that I’d put together. People from all over the world. Masters in playfulness in everyone’s unique way.
The festival began!
One of the things that struck me about the festival was the strong link between art and playfulness.
As we arrived we were encouraged to create our own name tag with material that was on the tables. A Danish fun punky group Æsken then lead us into dance just before the morning welcome ceremony.
I’m always amazed about how little is needed to lead us into play. In the welcome ceremony, we were invited to mentally choose three people in the audience and then go to them one at a time and: pass through someone’s legs, over another’s arm (they could lower it) and circle around the third. This already created a playful atmosphere in the room. Laughter and giggling and breaking the ice of embarrassment. We found a small bag of gadgets on the chair that would invite us into play.
The festival was spread out throughout the open space public library, the conference rooms were super hi-tec with tablet-like panels on the wall that controlled lights, sound, and moving equipment!
One and a half tonnes of green Lego bricks had also been delivered in one space! That’s really a lot of Lego.
There were many conference spaces and many “hands-on” playfulness workshops. About four or five different events were going on at any one time. It wasn’t easy to make a choice but as a preference, I went to the more physical sessions.
I followed a conference on the courage to play, courage coming from the Latin word meaning “heart”. This wasn’t new to me but it’s always good to remember. Another conference on developing games for grief sufferers. I’d imagined a group setting in which to play with grief together and was surprised to find out that it was a talk about developing computer games with players in grief in mind, held by Sabine Harrer. Mentioning among others a Swedish computer game called “Brothers” where the brothers work together on missions at the same time. When one dies you still need the other to help you even though he’s still not there.
Angela Halvorsen Bogo gave a great workshop on playing the fool; very quickly we were fully playing and looking at the world through very different eyes. I enjoyed Susi Rosenbaum’s Unserious Movements and Playful Bodies workshop. Through playful movement, I personally find my more authentic access to playfulness. At one point in the workshop, we were playing in pairs at being a beast with it’s tamer and I was so into it I almost bit Stephan Merchant!
The workshops for the first day ended for me with Dale lefavre’s workshop on New Games as a Lifestyle. I love the New Games movement. We played many group games where the emphasis was on having fun rather than worrying about winning or losing. Dale is one of the original founders of the New Games movement that started at the end of the ’60’s in the US and was a great pleasure to follow his playwork.
After a full day of playfulness we were off to the pub! Or rather a characteristic beer factory come food hall along the sea front. We filled the place, ate very well and danced to the Punk group Æsken some more!
The day after Kevin Davidson gave a great gnomy workshop: Playing on the Edge of Chaos, a combination of folk dances, pair coordination exercises, cat cradles and other silliness all stringed together with a theme of the lives of gnomes. I then went up to “the box”, where most of the playful movement was. I saw I load of people sitting in a circle and was about to leave and got waved in! It was a pleasant and inspiring project by Esben Wilstrup about Changing the World through Play. Esben works in a school were all the subjects are taught through play. He’s involved in many humanitarian projects where play and performance activism come together to try and create a better world to live in.
I popped into Albert Kong’s Goblin Aesthetic workshop. A mask building and interesting movement creation workshop. Here’s his description which I thought was just genius:
“Deep in the belly, the Inner Goblin grumbles calling to be released, to create absurd and delightful situations in public. Its secret is that this is an undertaking that must be done together. Let us gather to find our inner goblins and release others from their cages of propriety. During this workshop, we will share ideas for revolutionary play. We will explore local problems through a goblin aesthetic, and we will make masks to march as our inner goblins”.
It was my then my turn for my “Finding the game (that takes you to the edge)” workshop. I had a very pleasant group and we went to the heart of what game it is that we are playing in our lives (that isn’t always all that much fun). The emphasis was on finding fun in even normally boring actions by fully diving into them. In a sense, I felt like we were really working on universal principals that can help bring more playfulness and fun into our lives. Thanks to everyone that joined in!
Oh, I forgot to mention the wonderful coffee and tea breaks with some really amazing cakes!
On the second evening, we were off to the Dome of Visions: a huge and beautiful Buckminster Fuller type dome on the harbor front. Really inspiring space to just be in, chat with new friends eat a vegetarian hot-dog, listen to some playful stories, some games and of course dance to Spanish style music.
Saturday was the last day and things already started to feel like they were wrapping up a bit. I enjoyed Robbie Foulston’s workshop on playing with our shadows. This is a work to come back to again and again picking up parts of ourselves that just don’t get much or any voice. I started to feel much more whole. Bart Durante’s workshop on embodied play was just what I needed to end the festival workshops. Bart just explodes fun and lightheartedness out of every pore.
How to integrate all that we’d learn and experienced in the last few days?
Write and draw in out on a table top of course!
The evening we walked to a picnic spot in the woods and heated up some soup that Matthias had prepared on fire. It was a great way to end the festival.
This is just my version of the festival. I couldn’t make it to everything. As I mentioned there were often several workshops and conferences going on at the same time. The academic conferences gave the festival a kind of importance and make a bridge between the “playful world” and institutions, companies and more intellectual people. I felt however that the conference speakers could often do with taking their work (and themselves) a little lighter and cultivating more playfulness themselves!
All this richness in points of view on playfulness had quite an impressive effect on me. Parts of me started to come alive that I hadn’t realized were “sleeping”. For example how many stories I’ve got inside me and how it’s time to bring a lot of them out. The role of art in cultivating playfulness is huge, even if you, like me, can’t really draw very well! Collaborative projects, creating things on your own.
One thing saddened me a little and this was how digital interaction through video games is seen by many as a way to overcome loneliness. Sure a lot of quality learning and sense of connection can be achieved through video games and I know we’re suffering a terrible sense of isolation on a global level but I’m hoping that play communities will be able to reach out to everyone. More nature, more human contact for me too.
The day after the festival I headed off to Legohouse. It was much more touching than I had thought and brought me right back to my childhood. There was even a yellow castle on display that my mother still has at home.
Thank you Mathias for putting on such a great encountering of playful souls.
Now I’m even more motivated to bring Playfulness to everyone.
I’d love to work on residential retreats to cultivate more fun for everyone, deficiency in play is a serious thing!