The Queen of Hearts: Playing Up in Public

Today I am thinking about how we play.

We play games all the time. We play to express ourselves. We play for pleasure and we play for work although we might not always be aware of it.

As adults, we sometimes struggle to play. As time goes on, we might find that our responsibilities swamp us and we feel that we must behave in a serious way so that we may be taken seriously. Play becomes the realm of children.

As a performer, I am often given opportunities to play both with and for children and adults. Seven Stories booked me to be a walkabout character for their Alice in Wonderland event for the Mushroom Works as part of the Late Shows in Newcastle. The doors of the gallery were flung open for the night for the public to explore everything on offer. They are invited to enjoy the band (The Cherry Pickers), view art works, consume free wine, dress up and do craft activities. Essentially, it’s a free party.

I take my role seriously. "Play" doesn't mean any old shite will do. I do not see the point in standing around in a costume smiling awkwardly, waiting for people to ask me what I am doing. I feel that my role is to animate and this means provoking play. In order to do this, I must be willing to make an exhibition of myself. “There is something to see here and you can be a part of it”. I must be not be ashamed of being ridiculous and allowing myself to be vulnerable. But who am I going to be tonight?

Some Alice in Wonderland costumes have been brought along in a bin liner and we unpack them and lay them out on the floor. I can be whoever I like out of Alice (maiden...hmm…not feeling that tonight), the White Rabbit (funky but his pantaloons are too big for my hobbit legs), the Mad Hatter (interesting…nice hat…but not feeling it.) The Queen of Hearts…now that is a character for a party.

I have one hour before the doors open and my next job is to make some quick decisions about this character. What are the rules of her play and what are her games? What is her status and how can she be made accessible to the public? I have to make some bold decisions quickly.

Positioning is important. I take a walk around the gallery to try and gauge my status. What is my role with this space as well as within the cultural reference of Alice in Wonderland? There is a band, a craft area, a tea party installation, dressing up and free wine. Of course! I must be the host. This is my party and the Late Shows stewards, musicians, stall owners and artists are all my staff! I can now effectively “cast’ my colleagues in their roles and invite them

On a night like this, the audience is vastly mixed. Families, couples, stag nights…you name it and they are out on the town to sample the offers of the night.

Everyone has a choice. I can quickly see if someone doesn’t want to play. It’s easy. They look embarrassed, don’t make direct eye contact or will even ignore me totally. This is not an insult and not to be taken as rejection. This is saying no and that is perfectly fine. We can only play if we want to play and trying to force someone to play can be very destructive for all everyone involved.

My play must entertain, provoke and engage but what for some might be hilarious might be too much for others. I must tread a precarious path between play and aggression. Making an offer of play must be gentle but energetic enough to inspire the audience to join the game.

What do I mean by game? Good question. These games aren’t formal. I’m not trying to get people to play Chess or Cluedo or British Bulldogs. The game is simply an invite to enter into my universe of play. As the audience enter the gallery, I make a fuss of them saying “Oh you made it! Did you get my invitation? I sent it by thought text. You arrived precisely on time at…9.42pm”. Etc etc etc…. Their response to this gives me an instant indication about their willingness to play.

Our Mad Hatter's Tea Party was a success. Why? Because we managed to create an environment where

many people were given permission to play. Some games were big, others small and varied from dancing, engaging in nonsensical conversations or simply putting on a funny hat.

Some visitors wanted to treat me as a Queen and would bow or curtsey. Others would beckon me over and complain of a friend’s drunkenness and would I say “off with his head!” and administer punishment? Other situations simply require playing up to people taking photos of me with their children/other half/best mate. The game goes on…the Queen of Hearts loves the Paparazzi and wants to know which magazine she will be in next week…Vogue or Heat?

I will next be appearing for Seven Stories at Gibside in County Durham on the 13th of June as Max from Where the Wild Things Are as part of a nation-wide Wild Rumpus celebration! I'll be working with children and families to make instruments and create our very own Wild Rumpus in the woods.

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