Play Time: Why It's Important To Have Fun Now More Than Ever
Rebecca Barry Hill goes in search of the playful among us and discovers why now's the time to let loose — even the experts say so
The other children wanted to be doctors and pilots. Nick wanted to be a clown.
“And for the most part, I am a clown,” says the drag star better known as Kita Mean. “I actually achieved my dreams.”
If you haven’t seen her in a blaze of big hair and bigger shoes at Caluzzi, the cabaret bar she co-owns with fellow drag queen Anita Wigl’it, where the femmes spill on to Karangahape Road to dance in the traffic, you may have discovered her as the effervescent big kid on RuPaul’s Drag Race Down Under. Kita burst on to the Emmy-winning reality show with pink pigtails, a dress like dayglo candy and a personality to match. She wasn’t a frontrunner at first but by the end of the series it was obvious she’d win.
After touring with her fellow queens in the Ru Paul stage show from February, in April she’ll star in her one-woman show, Delightfully Camp, in which an inflatable Trojan unicorn will deliver her to the stage. A theatrical child, Kita took drama classes wherever possible, and was often reprimanded for finding the scatological funny.
When I was young, I was told, ‘Stop being immature, grow up!’” she says. “I’d laugh at like, someone farting, all those things kids find hilarious. I never let go of that.”
She found it confusing that others would poo-poo her amusement at, well, poo-poo. Then during her teens and 20s she started to suppress her true nature. “I used to feel like I was such a letdown not being the adult I was supposed to be.”
Coming out helped, and from there it wasn’t a huge stretch to embrace drag, a world in which nightclubs, comedy and fashion combined into the ultimate adult playground. “I came to the conclusion that it’s actually quite natural to find these things funny,” says Kita. “But as adults we tell ourselves, you have to be more sensible.”
It was Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw who wrote, “We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.” How we define play will look different for each of us but it could be anything we consider to be a fun, healthy activity that doesn’t serve a purpose other than being a fun, healthy activity, perhaps something we enjoyed as children: painting, dancing, making daisy-chains…
“Play can help us, literally, come back to our senses,” says Dr Luke Sniewski, a wellbeing coach and mindfulness-based therapist. It can facilitate a way into the present moment, steering us away from ruminating or distressing thoughts, and has such an impact on our emotional wellbeing, he adds, it could be considered a psychological intervention.
“Play releases endorphins, improves brain function, reduces stress and stimulates creativity. It keeps us young in heart, mind and body.”
Luke says clients are often shocked at the suggestion they have the permission to be playful in their lives. Some make excuses. Others don’t know where to start.
“When someone learns, likely in childhood, that they have to work, succeed, achieve, and produce to be validated and confirmed as worthy, then that belief will invariably impact whether or how someone engages with play,” he explains.
Gaining an understanding of a person’s core beliefs thereby becomes more important than solely recommending playful activities. “The person has to firstly become aware of their core beliefs, then choose a different way of relating to themselves.”
“If you’re not playful, then what’s the point?” says Debbie Dorday, the vivacious former Moulin Rouge dancer who ran iconic Parnell cabaret club Burgundy’s throughout the 80s. For the past 20 years she has partnered with fellow performer Jim Joll and put on award-winning variety shows throughout the country, comedies in which each of the duo play 25 characters, rotating through no fewer than 50 costumes. Although the past two years have meant cancellations and postponements, the prolific entertainer has never let herself wallow.
“I thought when you were going to ask me, ‘How do you stay happy?’ I was going to say, ‘I bash the cat next door every morning,’” she says. “And I thought, better not.”
During the first big lockdown last year, she created a bingo game for her friends in her Orewa neighbourhood. “It got hysterical in the end. It wasn’t so much whether you had a number to cross off and win.” The prize? An international voyage on the Diamond Princess, the cruise ship that experienced a major Covid outbreak at sea.
People were sorry when the game finished, so she wrote a play and cast it among friends, many of whom had never acted before. “My friends are all in their 60s and over, and I had them as a 19-year-old ballerina from the Royal Ballet and a 22-year-old tart… It was delightfully funny.”
Once lockdown was over, the all-female cast rehearsed, sold tickets, and staged the play in a living room, raising money for charity. Not only did it give everyone involved a fun experience, it also ignited a spark, with some of the women having since taken up writing.
“You’ve got to think outside the square of what you’d normally do,” says Debbie of tough times. Performers all over the country are missing out on feedback, a critical part of the creative process, so they’ve had to dig deep to keep themselves sharp, she says. Being playful is also her natural way of keeping her spirits up.
“You can’t bash yourself up if you can’t be hilarious all the time. But when I wake up I try to think of something besides housework and getting dinner, something that will be funny for my husband and me, or I’ll send some texts to girlfriends that might be a bit on the daft side and make them laugh. I’ve got a girlfriend who is sick at the moment, and I never ask her how she is. I just send her something funny in the hope she’ll find it funny too.”
The power of laughing — especially at ourselves — has long been recognised for boosting our ability to cope with adversity. It’s a philosophy that has worked for New Zealand artist Li-Ming Hu, who has survived her share of challenges since moving to the US four years ago, her sense of humour intact.
Best known for creating video performance works inspired by pop culture, Li-Ming describes her art as “goofing off”. Her videos often show the former Power Rangers and Shortland Street star wearing a cardboard mask, re-enacting performances or playing multiple characters — like each of the members of Boney M, interviewed mockumentary-style. Power ballads are a constant source of amusement. “It was really important for me to enjoy what I was doing, to have fun,” she explains of the tone of her works.
Since receiving a scholarship to the School of the Art Institute in Chicago in 2017, she has used art as a prism through which to explore the concept of performance — she even records our interview, itself a form of performance, as potential fodder.
Last year she took a dream role as public programmes manager at Chicago’s Gallery 400, and art magazine New City named her a breakout artist. But the gig was rudely interrupted when Covid forced the city into lockdown, the majority of her tenure in the role conducted online. As the virus peaked in the city, it looked likely she would lose her job.
Zooming from her new home in the Lower East Side in New York where she made an “impulsive” move earlier this year, Li-Ming confesses to feeling overwhelmed at having to crack the Big Apple. It helps that she secured a residency with arts collective Flux Factory, and a job working as an assistant for fellow artist Chitra Ganesh.
But it hasn’t been easy. Li-Ming’s attraction to comedy has made her somewhat of an outlier in the often po-faced world of fine arts, with some in the scene writing her off as a goofball. Sometimes there’s the cultural barrier — what is deemed to be funny in New Zealand may not be the case in the US. Throw in the constant doom and gloom of world events and she concedes it’s not always a piece of cake finding the comical, particularly when striving to create conceptually rigorous works
“It’s hard, but it’s about trying to find what makes me laugh and follow that without worrying too much about whether it’s going to become a great artwork.”
With humour a cornerstone of her practice, it’s also given her a powerful point of difference. “Sometimes fine art can be really opaque, and you have to have read three books on critical theory to have understood it. I always wanted my work to be accessible to as many people as possible. And I think play helps.”
It’s not only gratifying to see people giggle at her work, the humour often acts as a hook through which people can engage with the deeper ideas within the works. She hopes to return to New Zealand in February for The Performance Arcade, a performance festival in Wellington based in shipping containers on the waterfront. Li-Ming and her collaborator Daphne Simons are working on a piece re-enacting aspects of performance arcades past.
“It’s a coping mechanism,” she says of her work’s intrinsic sense of playfulness. “It’s the way I’ve dealt with my anxieties. Particularly earlier on when I was still at school, my art world anxiety. And so I was laughing at myself and I found that important… The way I cope is to laugh.”
Laughter is the best medicine, after all. Wanaka-based Emma Vickers knows this better than most, having worked with various festivals including Auckland Arts Festival, Rhythm & Alps and Luma, her goal to trigger people’s imaginations and encourage a sense of play.
But it’s her role as performance director of Splore where her understanding of this most primal release comes to the fore. Emma curates the weird and the wonderful acts at one of New Zealand’s most famous playgrounds for grown-ups, the annual three-day music and arts festival held at Tapapakanga Regional Park (the next one is scheduled for February).
Intended as an inclusive, immersive experience, with no interruption from the outside world, when you’re not dancing to the music on the main stages, you might find yourself wandering through a woven tunnel, watching a person conduct electricity through their arms or relaxing on the beach as a fluorescent insectoid wanders past.
Providing a safe space in which people can express themselves, explore, have fun and play is massively important, says Emma.
“We’ve become isolated within ourselves and our heads but we don’t have any way to express or release that. We have nowhere to release our alternative selves. You can get really stuck in your head. It’s a dark place for people. But if you’re fortunate to come out and play in these festival environments, it’s a huge opportunity to release what’s been pent up over months or years, and reconnect in a way that is gentle and welcoming. Freedom of expression is welcome in whatever form.”
Splore has been running since 1998 after founder Amanda Wright visited the Burning Man festival in Nevada. Dressing up at the festival has now gained cult momentum, giving guests who want to contribute to the atmosphere of the event an opportunity to “cast off convention and reinvent yourself”, says Emma.
Back in 2008 she co-curated the festival’s first themed cabaret, Butterfly Zoo, inspired by 1930s Shanghai, and invited people to dress up. “We weren’t sure, being a Saturday night, if people would even turn up. But they went for it. They flooded in. The environment was electric, my hair was standing on end.”
Now, she says, people start fashioning their outfits as soon as the festival’s theme is revealed. (Next year’s is ‘Wakey Wakey’.) Splore virgins who might feel intimidated by the idea of donning a neon boa or sparkly stickers over their nipples should know that nothing is expected, other than being open to embracing what they might find.
“There’s no pressure, you don’t have to wear your fun clothes. But you might find yourself hobby-horse racing or learning to twerk, or finding yourself in a weird little cinema or fairy glade. It triggers a fascinating spark in the back of your mind.”
Meanwhile in Wanaka, Ecstatic Dance provides an hour or so of fun for anyone seeking a music and dance-inspired outlet. Organiser Susan Allen says it’s a substance- and phone-free alternative for anyone who spent their 20s and 30s in nightclubs “taking lots of drugs and going crazy”. Classes are held on Sunday mornings, with a DJ playing dance tracks. Each event has sold out, and while it’s a group setting, it’s intended as a liberating personal experience.
“People absolutely love it; the people who come along are happy to let themselves go, they’re not self-conscious,” says Susan. “The atmosphere is really electric, there’s a feeling in the room of freedom.”
If day-clubbing feels a world away from the serene world of yoga, think again. The classes are held at Yoga Ground Wanaka, the studio Susan set-up eight years ago after leaving Auckland. They’re based on the idea that if we can let go of our conditioning — the cultural beliefs and identities that have been instilled in our psyches throughout our lives — we can open to a flow of energy and playfulness.
Susan also teaches a dance-like meditation that involves shaking on the spot, sitting for a time then moving in a free-form manner to ambient music, while blindfolded. What can start as a discomfiting exercise soon morphs into a trancelike state.
“In order to be able to do a meditation or dance like that, you have to tap into that playfulness, and get rid of crap in your head, basically,” Susan explains. “Because we’re so cerebral, we’re like a walking head… Through meditation of any kind, we can move beyond the small and narrow set of criteria we’ve learnt from schooling, religion, social and cultural conditioning — if we can get rid of that, what remains is lightness, joyfulness, the ability to move into a simple celebration of life.”
Maybe that’s all we need to reconnect with our inner child: an excuse to move, the chance to create and the willingness to put our responsibilities on hold.
“We need to stop putting so many restrictions on ourselves,” agrees Kita Mean, “whether it’s your diet or something you want to try doing that you think, ‘Oh no, I’ll be no good at that’ or ‘It’s messy’, do it anyway! It’s not about the outcome, it’s about the action, you know? Like, have a slice of cake and if you’re worried about it, go for a run later. If you have the cake that’s going to make you happy and then going for the run is going to make you happy too.”
This story was originally published in Viva Magazine – Volume Six