Monday, February 18, 2008 Leave a Comment

What does that fancy pants word mean? And why does it appear as a title in a post on a theatre blog? Read on, dear reader, read on.

Reading the Sunday Time Magazine, I found a fascinating article by Robin Marantz Henig on the scientific reasons for why children play. Being an adult who spend as much time as possible engaged in play, I though this article might shed some interesting light on why exactly that is.

And the most interesting part of that article is this notion of equifinality; "an idea from systems theory that says there are usually more ways than one to arrive at a particular end". The idea is that play, in contrast to more formalized systems of learning, encourages children to find alternate solutions to problems. As adults, we settle for '"false endpoints" because we're in a hurry and don't have time to examine other solutions. And when we teach children, we generally teach them the straightest line to any given point. But play is the point, and because play is so much fun, children are likely to keep at it even after several solutions are found. The ability to find multiple solutions to singular problems was once a useful evolutionary tool before data entry and assembly lines and rote learning became the norm.

The article goes on to offer many other interesting concepts for why children play, but this concept of equifinality resonated with me deeply. In a previous comment on Jeffrey Jones blog (which represents the best source for theories on alternative play structures I have found), I attempted this:

"That is not to say I understand the psychology of the characters, or the morals of their actions, or the meaning of the changes. I can’t write a term paper on the indecisions of Hamlet or the immolations of Hedda (or I could, but would rather not). But I have experienced the actions and changes they created and endured, and carry that visceral experience into what little understanding I have of my own life. Moments from these plays come back to me in snatches of dialogue or in stage images, and some aspect of my changing life becomes quickened, I become more aware, my own actions amplified by the lives I’ve experienced in a theatre."

And it was this idea of equifinality that struck me so forcefully - the idea that theatre (or any story-telling medium for that matter) has existed for thousands of years because it serves an evolutionary purpose; that through the play of theatre, adults become reawakened to the fact that there are "more ways than one to arrive at a particular end". Meaning that what I was nearly able to say in that paragraph on Jeffrey's blog is this:

Theatre exists to amplify the possibilities of human experience. Having lived through the journey of a character, we are viscerally awakened to the fact there are more ways than one to arrive at a particular end.

This is not a moral journey, because often theatre show truly cruel and horrific ways to particular ends. But remembering that cruelty is one of the many possibilities of human experience is a necessary thing; and so while theatre is not a moral act, the amplification of possibility it provides can act as a liberating force against fundamentalist views of human nature. As the majority of political systems strive to narrow down the possibilities of human experience, and the majority of financial systems attempt to categorize and commodify them; theatre emerges as a necessary force to remind and reawaken, to amplify and protect, those possibilities.

And, of course, because it is only play, it is also simply fun; and in trying to understand what biological urge has made it such a damn good time, its important not to overthink its importance; its important just to play.