Posted by: Anya Martin | October 18, 2008

Rules of Play

Thoughts on Liga by Kassys in The Pittsburgh International Festival of Firsts

My “blogleague” (that’s blog and colleague together) Justin, is right in comparing Amsterdam-based theatre company Kassys‘ production of Liga to the “Brilliant Orange” 1970’s Dutch soccer teams. While I don’t know a thing about soccer in general, much less orange wearing soccer dynasties of Holland during the 1970s – I do believe that sports and good theatre have a lot to do with one another. (See How Steeler Fans Can Watch Theatre Like the Pros 😉 )

Aside from the occasional orange uniform or orange costume, aside from the whole point of my first article relating the parallel terminology in both theatre and sports–there are even more relevant bonds, which tie these two events to the core of human behavior. These essential bonds are the rules of play.

rules of the game

rules of the game

Just like the game of tag you played when you were a child, or your last backyard football game, you can’t play until the rules have been established. This tree is base! That trashcan is the end zone. The same is true in theatre. You can’t be free in play until you know the rules. In the process of creating Liga, company co-founder, Liesbeth Gritter, designated 10 rules for her actors to follow.

By following these rules on stage the behaviors of the actors are forced into a kind of “toddler state.” While the actors never demonstrate toddler behavior as in crawling or sucking on pacifiers–they do act as toddlers, and therefore somehow become them. They shift their attention constantly, giving equal value to the wonder of a shiny table leg as to their fellow human beings–a rule about focus established by Gritter early in rehearsal.

The play begins with each actor individually entering the playing space. They soon start to engage with the space, the objects in it, and the other actors–all the while following a set of shared “acting rules.” While the audience does not completely understand the context or story, they seem completely engaged and delighted, giggling at the silliness and seeming spontaneity of the performances.

The actors are so fully engaged and physically committed that their energized and joyous freedom is evident. As long as you are not the weary parent or teacher, who doesn’t enjoy watching young children cut loose in a joyous frenzy of exploration, pretend, and play?

At one point the group escapes the playroom of the stage, bursting through an upstage back door. They are quickly reined in again by the “baby sitting,” disgruntled stage manager who removes their coats and jackets, and organizes them to sit quietly together. This seems to subdue the kids for a short time, until they discover a big secret–the audience.

Which brings us to yet another similarity of sports, theatre, and human behavior–the entertainment of the audience. Once the toddlers discover the audience, there is a flurry of activity as they compete for our attention. The competition builds to a frenzy, as one actor climbs the railings, another bangs props together, and yet another lifts as many objects over his head as possible. They run, jump, gyrate, strip, and scream in a heated competition for the audience’s attention. The more the audience laughs the bigger the game becomes. Their antics grow more and more urgent and ridiculous as the audience continues to reward them with attention.

Just as their ludicrous, attention-grabbing tactics climax, “Mom” bursts angrily onto the scene, as Gritter enters playing the part of the fuming director. Along with behavior shaping rewards, there are punishments. She scolds the children harshly, slapping one across the face as an angry parent might spank a bottom. With the stage manager, she works to restore order, getting the children back on stage, cleaned up, and properly clothed.

After the sullen faced kiddos are once again sitting quietly together on their beanbags, Gritter takes a deep breath. Now she begins to create rules of play not just for her actors, but rules of play for her children characters. She speaks to them in sweet and patronizing, tones, crouching down slightly to address them even though they tower over her.

Pointing to a structure one of the boys has made, she says something like, “What is that, huh? A Barbecue? Are you all going to play barbecue? Yes, that’s it, a barbecue.” To one of the girls she says something to the effect of “What’s that? What are you making? A salad for the barbecue? That’s healthy. A nice big salad.” To another girl, “What is that, huh? Is that your vacuum? Are you going to clean up for the party?”

In this way gender roles are also assigned, and even personalities. To a quiet boy, often separated from the group she says something like, “What are you doing, huh? Are you decorating for the party? Are you painting your bean bags?” In this way the outcast, is even perhaps labeled as “the artistic one.”

With these new contexts and labels pushed on them, the children hesitantly begin their play again. The boys take off their shirts and get to work managing the grill, the women cooking and cleaning, the lonely artist painting beanbags in a corner. With new adult games to play, the children quickly “grow up” only now the grown up world of pretend is revealed, and with it the many disconcerting rules of adult behavior are unveiled.

The group congregates to eat their barbecue of props. The actors’ fine miming skills are evident as they expertly convince us that their absurd props of play guns, hats, and broken bike handles are now grilled meats, plates, and salad tongs. Their polite party conversations transform into a humorous and tragic revelation about the pretend games played by adults. Cliché remarks overlap and intertwine in an uninspired sound scape of insincerity.

“To each his own!”
“Yes, nice neutral colors.”
“Well, what do you say to that?”
“Thank you!”
“You’re welcome.”
“A real gas guzzler!”
“Orange suits you.”

Their need for attention from each other and the audience is now achieved through new methods of “witty” party dialogue and lame jokes. They work for the “reward” of a common chuckle or knowing nod from the group.

In the end, the piece is brilliant in its unflinching observations on human behavior both learned and unlearned, and in its ability to comment on theatre and society in complex and mirroring ways. The energy, spontaneity, and freedom of the actors’ performances is a sheer delight. However, the piece in some ways fails to transcend beyond pointing out these observations through a cleverly devised process.

After drawing our attention to the sometimes delightfully absurd and sometimes awkwardly tragic behaviors of humans, no new questions are raised. Such as: Where would we be if we didn’t say please and thank you–whether we mean it or not? In a society without rules for pretend, would we be murdering or freeing one another? Beyond its incredible intellectual perception and skilled acting, the piece is a lot of mirror tricks reflecting back at one another and in some ways lacking in in-depth investigation.

Yet, despite these questions the show is smart, fun, energized, and wonderfully a little messy. I, for one, am always up for plays that play on play in all its wonder, confusion, and absurdity.



  1. […] Well, I definitely think it was about the rules of pretend, so that makes […]

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