Playing the Ocean

This is the story about the six year old actors who taught me the power of intuition and creativity

One afternoon, in a theater class, one boy pretended he was playing the guitar on a beach and the two girls paired up as mermaids. But the forth student, Jay, just didn't want to participate. When I allowed Jay to stay on the sidelines, something remarkable happened...

"Ok, we have Allison and Allison and Fredrick."  I turned to Jay "Now, my friend, who would you like to be in this story?"

"Uh, no one," he said meekly.

"You can be anyone you want, there are no wrong answers — we have a guitar player, a mermaid and another mermaid - who do you want to be?"

"I don't know," he said.

"You could be a fisherman or a swimmer or a guy playing ball on the beach here..."


"Oh, I know," I was trying to find an idea that would resonate with Jay, "you could be a whale or a dolphin."

"Uh, uh"

"How about a shark!" I was desperately appealing to Jay's boyish sensibility.

"No, and ah, no. " Jay was looking down. He was stumped and I was being too pushy... time, I thought, to skip forward.

"Ok, Jay, you can assist me and maybe later you'll think of a character you want to be." 

Sometimes the wrong encouragement can turn a child against's not as easy for them as I once assumed. Jay would get a pass this week if he didn't want to be in the play. That was probably going to be better for the artist in him than any short-term victory I'd muster today by forcing this issue.

I stepped back, slightly defeated and took my own deep breath.

"Let's look at the setting - where are we? We need water because the mermaids swim, right?"

They all agreed, even my new assistant Jay. Phew. I may have even shared out loud. The kids know we all wrestle creative argument together - and that includes me, the teacher.

We needed a place near water. 

"Will," I asked, "do you want to be on a boat or in a field or beach?"

"I’m on a beach," Will grabbed a stool near the wall and carried it to the center of the room. He picked up the guitar and ever so slightly the room began to transform and a beach appeared underneath Will and his guitar.

Will played on. Random strumming as he smiled and swayed like a musical master.

"Hold on Will," I paused him, "I like it, I love it, but we need to get the mermaids, Allison and Allison into position too."

I still had no idea what the story was becoming but I was deep into this 6-year-old mindset and it seems important to allow the mermaids to swim.

"Ok," I directed, "we need to decide where on stage the ocean will be.... beside Will?, in front of Will?...what do you think Jay?"  I really wanted him to start participating.

"I know," Jay had an unexpected excitement.

"Yes, Jay."

"I am the ocean."

"What?" I was sure I heard him incorrectly.

"I am the ocean!" he exclaimed.

"You mean, your character is...the...ocean?" 

Then I looked into this boy's eyes and he looked at mine. He was hopping up and down actually and smiling but serious in his heart - it's the way we all are when creative moments fuse.

"Yes!" Jay repeated, "I will be the ocean"

"Ok,” I was a little reluctant; after all I'd already given in the whole mermaid naming Allison and Allison name rule break. But why not? One of the most beautiful performances I'd seen in my life was a dance troupe performing a piece called "River." Humans can play water on stage. More important to me, Jay was just so darn happy right was as if he found his own answer to Will's guitar.

"Show me how you'll be the ocean?" 

And at that moment Jay took over - with such veracity and focus and belief.  He just was the ocean.  He spun and he swirled, she slashed forward and shuffled back - he swung and flailed his arms - he told me he was a stormy ocean which aptly explained his wild movements. Suddenly Will, in his childhood genius, began to play storm music. In this second story recreation room, I began to feel wind, smell the salty air and see lightning crack in the distance, just where the exit door and the radiator touched.  The mermaids were laughing, just like real mermaids would if they were tossed and rolling in the big waves.

I shouted to Jay, as if I was leaning with a megaphone off the deck of the QE2, "How can we end can we calm this down?"

"I can't," said Jay the Ocean.

"I'll play calmer music to settle the waves" said Will, I mean Fredrick the Maestro.

And somehow, in broken chords, Will and Jay synchronized an event that rivals any professional performing art piece I've ever seen.  This was a raw interpretation of ocean and waves and distant thunder until the wind settled and the mermaids stopped bouncing around.

I was in true awe - not wanting this to end - no rushing, no narrating, and no explaining...

Then gracefully Jay the Ocean twirl and big long twirl as he descended to the floor - his stomach down against the chalky linoleum, his arms stretched wide and his feet far apart.  His head was turned to the side with his cheek also flat against the floor until he lifted it to say with quiet authority "the mermaids can swim in now."

Hilary Crowley