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My playlist is an eclectic collection of tools that help me approach my work as play. My hope is that they’ll do the same for you.


Object: Bringing the spark and energy of improvisation into everyday work sessions

What Didn’t Work: Trying to improvise on my own.

My Aha! Moment: Joyce Piven is one of the mentors who has been most significant in my creative life. In my Writerly Play work with students, I’ve sought to achieve the spontaneity and creative energy she taught me to stretch toward in story theatre classes at Piven Theatre Workshop. There’s something indefinable—and yes, a little magical—that happens when a group of improvisers play together.

Since then, I’ve researched the science of play, searched for cold, hard facts to define what play is and why it works, and read hundreds of articles on the topic. However, when push comes to shove, whenever anyone asks me why I believe in play, I show them a group of people playing together. When you see the magic for yourself—or even better, experience it—you know it works.

I’ve often told the story of my graduate school advisor asking me whether I play in my own creative process. She challenged me to find a way to do so. Honestly, I’ve struggled with this journey. Playing alone, while effective, isn’t the same as playing in a group. My own brain doesn’t naturally toss out ideas that disrupt my thinking process and keep me off balance. However, that state of unpredictability, of being ready for anything, is one of the most valuable parts of play. That’s why any tool that provides creative disruption can be extremely valuable. Brainsparker is one of those tools. It’s an iOS app, but the developers are also working on an Android version. Also, you can sign up for creative sparks via email as an alternative.

How I Play:

  • Brainsparker is a simple, colorful app, with animated card decks.
  • To play, you open the app, scroll through the cards, and click on one.
  • The card flips over to reveal words, a question or an image.
  • I take a moment to mentally list any ideas the card brings to mind.
  • Then, I turn over a new card and repeat.

Player’s Notes:

  • One of the best things about improv is that every game can be applied to different purposes. Your can use a game to move into a state of play, to work on a specific project, or to solve a creative problem. So, before I start a Brainsparker session, I come up with a quick objective, so I know the parameters for my play.
  • The Brainsparker card decks are organized by purpose, so you can choose the ones that fit your parameters quickly.
  • Sometimes I need to capture my thinking, in which case I make sure to have pen and paper (or iPad and Apple Pencil).
  • Sometimes I don’t need to capture my thinking, so I let myself play fast and don’t slow myself down with the note-taking process.

Take it to the Next Level:

  • You can stretch your thinking by forcing yourself to make associations between unrelated items. If you’re trying to push yourself toward truly novel ideas, try a session where you consider how each of the cards offers new perspective on your creative challenge. Ask: How could this relate to x?