This story is part of the Creative Wellbeing series, a partnership between Creative New Zealand and All Right? that shines a light on the transformative wellbeing and hauora benefits that arts, culture and creativity provide. You can read the whole series here.
Writing about the intersection of wellbeing and the arts couldn’t come at a more opportune time. I’m burnt out, stale and tired after wrapping up some intense mahi and life stuff. My head and heart feel weary, and I miss having fun.
I’m not always good at calling myself an Artist. The capital A terrifies me – it’s a shocking, scary label! My hang-ups include the classic second-generation Asian migrant kid pressures and internalising the dismissive attitudes in many professional spaces I dip my toes in. Because my “silly little art thing” is important to me. So give me the same respect you give ‘Dave’ who does triathlons. I will lay down my body, tragi-comedy melodrama for the arts!
Being a full-time artist isn’t always a viable option for many of us - family, money, time. But also, maybe we don’t want to because of all the other adventures and career paths we want to go on.
Regardless of how we label ourselves, being creative, playful and silly is good for the brain. And as someone who struggles with their mental health, being in the creative flow helps my noggin and body to keep chugging along.
It might look like being part of a book club, making your own jewellery or being part of a cultural dance group. Or maybe you prefer going to the cinema or having a boogie at a gig at your local pub. For me, it’s making funky shapes in the theatre, wandering around art galleries and convincing my friends that their shower thoughts are the next Pulitzer award-winning novel.
Engaging in the arts and having a creative practice doesn’t have to be super serious, structured and committed. It can be fun and flow in everyday life. A recent study from the University College of London, commissioned by the UK Government, found that regular engagement in arts and culture was associated with higher levels of life satisfaction, lower mental distress and better mental functioning.
So what does ‘creative play’ look like, and what are some ways to incorporate it into everyday life?
For comedian and actor Janaye Henry, it’s all about being silly, cracking jokes and being absolutely shameless. Because as her whānau told her, “If you don’t laugh, you cry.”
She explains that the world has had its fair share of bleak moments, and finding pockets of joy and laughter is survival. “The Titanic might be sinking. But at least I’m telling a joke on the way down.”
She sees humour as a tool to transform heavy topics into digestible chunks for her audience. Because as a Queer wāhine Māori standing on stage, Henry feels her existence is political.
“When you're angry, people's defensiveness immediately goes up,” she adds, though she wishes it wasn’t the case. “But if I’m funny, people listen for longer. I sneak in my own political messaging. I do propaganda with a funny twist.”
Beyond the stage, Henry uses creative play to solve everyday problems. “My best friend and I will role-play, enact different characters, then swap roles to find solutions or figure out how to have conversations.
“I don’t understand how you stay mentally stable without being silly. It’s the outlet and the processor of all these big things.”
While Eve Gordon, performer and director of circus school The Dust Palace, sees creative play as a way of unlocking a different part of the brain in learning. The benefits of experimental investigation shouldn’t just be for creatives, but all learners and students.
“Humans naturally learn through play. Trying something out, failing at it a bunch of times, and making games out of things is found in all cultures worldwide,” she explains. “[Art] is what makes people think and look at the world around them in different ways. It creates a whole lot of social change.”
Reflecting on the playful nature of the circus environment, Gordon sees the benefits for practitioners not just with endorphins gained from moving through space but the sense of achievement in improving on a series of movements.
Gordon says many neurodivergent people are drawn to the creative play in the circus and it’s often a calming space for them. “Everything else falls away. You can just focus on one thing: the pathway between one physical movement and the next.”
Even if she’s not on stage, Gordon exercises her creative muscles by always challenging herself to see her environment as art. “The creative brain is a nonlinear space. It allows you to connect ideas and things that you wouldn’t usually make,” she adds.
For Sam Scott, artistic director of Massive Theatre Company, it’s all about the joy performers find in playing pretend.
Despite the uncertainty of Covid-19 restrictions over the past two years, Massive continued rehearsals over Zoom. It didn't matter if they could perform it in the end, as long as they were staying connected: “We're creatively curious and having fun. And that's what's important in a fundamental, human way – especially in a crisis, especially when we're all isolated.”
Scott has since been able to start up Massive’s free workshops again and spent the last few weeks touring around rural high schools, teaching rangatahi physical theatre and playing games. But it hasn’t been easy, as she’s noticed an increase in young people feeling anxious and worrying about what other people think of them.
“Joy looks like when they forget themselves. When they get out of their heads [...] When they’re brave enough to let go and be their authentic selves,” explains Scott. This could be as simple as running across the space or how they show off their favourite dance moves.
Her workshops often start with a simple handball game, and Scott says these “silly little games” are just as important as rehearsing a script. Because at the end of the day, theatre is just “playing pretend on stage!”
For Scott, she loves to exercise her creative muscle by watching people and getting to know the stories behind people’s lives. “For example, I want to find that Greek restaurant serving the 150-year-old recipe from a family that's owned it for six generations. Then I want to know the reason behind that recipe.”
Ellie Lim is a programme producer focusing on cultural communities and youth at the Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki.
While there are plenty of families with children popping into their whānau drop-in session for crafts and colouring in, Lim has also noticed many adults enjoying the experience of playing with different materials.
They might start hovering nervously, wondering if the space is for them, but Lim says once they dive in, have fun and play, they leave proud of their creations. “It’s so exciting; they’re taking selfies,” she says, laughing.
She sees the Art Gallery as a place of inspiration, whether it’s encountering an art work or an exciting spoken word event which sparks creative play afterwards.
“The art might make you feel political, and it might make you want to do things elsewhere,” explains Lim. “It’s nourishing, and it feeds people.”
From organising a badass group of Pasifika wāhine poets (Karlo Mila, Selina Tusitala Marsh, Courtney Sina Meredith) to launch Declaration: A Pacific Feminist Agenda, to a panel discussion of Asian Creatives inspired by Yona Lee’s In Transit series, Lim hopes to address the many emotional barriers people find coming into the gallery.
“People walk through, and they don't know if what they feel is right,’ she adds. “But your opinion is completely legitimate. If you don't like something, that's okay. We want to know why you don't like it.”
Lastly, All My Friends are an up-and-coming Queer and PoC events and nightlife collective with a cheeky approach to their themed parties.
Tommy Jiang, one of the co-founders of AMF, says the collective was born out of a desire to see themselves in the events circuit. And coming out of lockdown, they felt the itch many could relate to: reconnecting with friends and absolutely letting loose.
A graduate of Elam School of Fine Arts, Jiang hopes to move away from the ‘high art’ of it all. “[Creative] play is being able to have output, and not getting caught up in the ‘art’ of it all. It’s just having some fun and reminding ourselves that doing is how we learn.”
He sees himself more as a creative rather than an artist and is still figuring out what artistic practice means to him. Regardless, his mahi is all about collaboration, telling a story and making events accessible to a broad range of audiences.
With the quirky, imaginative concepts in their events, Jiang says some attendees find it fun to question representation and the story presented. But it’s also just as valid to “enjoy the good music” he laughs. “Our making process is quite playful.”
Because creative play is about being present, joyful and playful. Maybe you’ll also find your silliness by taking a pottery workshop, or it might be trying, failing and trying again to learn how to knit like Annabel Hawkins, who asks: “Are we losing time to make or just try things? Our intense need to be productive feels so shit and capitalist sometimes.”
Creative play doesn’t need to be output driven. If there’s nothing to show for it, but a renewed sense of calm, that’s all-good, e hoa! We’re not preaching ‘wellness TM’ here! You don’t need to drop dollars for a bundle pack of ‘creative play.’
You can find it by seeing the comedy of stink situations with your friends. It can be learning a TikTok dance, ‘borrowing’ your niece’s old watercolours, or piecing together the hottest outfit from your recent op shop haul.
Whatever nourishes your inner kid, go hard, and have fun.
This story is part of the Creative Wellbeing series, a partnership between Creative New Zealand and All Right? that shines a light on the transformative wellbeing and hauora benefits that arts, culture and creativity provide. You can read the whole series here