Thursday, Sept 26 | 1:15-2:25 pm

Community Narratives 1 | Room 210

Playing in Narrative: How Play, Liminality and Improvisation Create a Praxis for Developing Communal Narratives

In his foundational 1955 work Homo Ludens, Johan Huizinga articulated an argument for setting aside the normative title homo sapiens (wise or knowing human) for the title homo ludens: playing human. Huizinga’s thesis is that “. . . all civilization arises and unfolds in and as play.” Play is the foundational activity of living beings. Play creates meaning and culture (not vice-versa), and represents the “first, highest, and holiest expression” of society-forming interaction.

How does the praxis of play undergird our ability to form true and compelling social narratives?  How might improvisational techniques found in the arts reinforce the metaphor of play to shape our foundational stories?

This paper’s thesis is that play creates liminal space where improvisation emerges, shared narratives are explored and true community is established.

By integrating Huizinga’s concept of play with Victor Turner’s theory of liminality, and stirring in Bobby McFerrin’s techniques of musical improvisation, this paper proposes play as a fundamental metaphor and praxis for developing resonant, imaginative, communally-formed narratives.


Colleen Butcher has a doctorate in semiotics, an MBA in Arts Management and a BMUS in Education. For thirty years she has trained musicians and artists to grow communities of creativity, connection and action. Her passion is to inspire others to embrace the biblical metaphor of "play," and her upcoming book calls on the church to reintegrate the arts, creativity and imagination into the playground of worship. Colleen loves to travel and read, make music with friends, experiment with paint and sharpies, weed her garden (ok, she actually prefers to just look at her garden), and walk her extraordinarily cute dog. 

Dancing at the Crossroads: Creative Experience as Practice-Based Research

This project develops a model for theorizing community narratives through participatory arts—music, dance, and theatre. It focuses around an interdisciplinary pilot project: a theatrical property, Dancing at the Crossroads: Magic, Myths, and Transformation (2013) which takes as its narrative the meetings between European and African traditions that lie at the roots of American popular culture. Its expressive language(s) of music, song, and movement are based in the creole traditions of immigrant North America and in the subaltern community identities from which those traditions emerged. 

The ethos of prioritizes vernacular culture and artistic empowerment. Practitioners and audience engaged in the participatory processes of creating, preparing, and sharing performance as a mythic narrative which embodies knowledge and values. At the same time, we develop an approach to performance analysis embedded within explorations of creative process and communities’ practices. Dancing at the Crossroads provides a model for engaged and emergent scholarship which reflects the dynamics of the creative process, and which investigates both the mechanics and the philosophical and pedagogical implications of communities’ creative work. 

Our analysis of Dancing at the Crossroad’s process echoes the principles of Devised Theatre, a topic of growing interest to both scholars and practitioners, as it allows for "interdisciplinarity" between performative and visual arts, in order to create new works. In our application of Devised Theatre’s principles, the “Crossroads” topic is examined dramaturgically and "mined" for both the inspiration and organizing principles it provides for mythic narrative.

Drawing upon ethnomusicology, folklore, pedagogy, historiography, and performance analysis, and documenting composition, arrangement, casting, rehearsal and production—the artistic dialogues that articulate expressive goals and the strategies which bring those goals to life—we develop a practice-based model, philosophical basis, educational materials, and set of procedures for collaborative performances that can be replicated and implemented elsewhere.


Dr. Christopher J. Smith is Associate Professor and Chair of Musicology/Ethnomusicology and director of the Vernacular Music Center at the Texas Tech University School of Music. His scholarly monograph The Creolization of American Culture: William Sidney Mount and the Roots of Blackface Minstrelsy (Illinois; September 2013) has been described as “a dazzling addition to the literature on American popular music and its history.” He records and tours internationally with Altramar medieval music ensemble, Last Night’s Fun, and the Juke Band.  He is also a former nightclub bouncer, carpenter, lobster fisherman, and oil-rig roughneck, and a published poet.

Dr William Gelber is an Associate Professor and the Director of Theatre in the Department of Theatre and Dance at Texas Tech University where he teaches acting, directing, theory, and period styles, including Shakespeare and his contemporaries. He has a Ph.D. in Theatre History from the University of Texas at Austin, where he studied with Oscar Brockett; an M.F.A. in Directing (also from U.T.); an M.Ed. in Curriculum and Instruction from Texas A&M University; and a B.A. in Drama from the University of Houston. He is the director of over fifty productions from a variety of genres, and has also acted in plays, commercials, and industrials.

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