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Gwen Gordon takes us to the playground
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I'm reading
Gwen Gordon takes us to the playground
Pass it on
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I'm reading
Gwen Gordon takes us to the playground
Pass it on
Pass it on
Conversations
7 November 2019

Gwen Gordon takes us to the playground

Interview by Daniel Teitelbaum
Photograph provided by Gwen

Gwen Gordon is full of joy. I love the way she approaches life, with an unbounded playful curiosity, a willingness to throw herself into what’s in front of her and a deep desire to help us all find our joy.

At 19 Gwen started working for Jim Henson on the Muppet’s Take Manhattan Movie and joined Sesame Street; creating new characters at the peak of global puppet popularity, living the dream life of a craft-loving creative. The problem was, she wasn’t happy. Partly because her active study of philosophy and social theory led her to have concerns with Kermit – a cold-blooded reptile and male lead, and Miss Piggy, the one-dimensional female supporting role. But it wasn’t just that, Gwen felt herself burning out fast. Despite having a great job working on Sesame Street, she was becoming overworked and stressed. From a young age, Gwen had followed her joy on the playground but now everything she did was measured on the proving ground.

The proving ground is where we live most of the time. It’s anywhere we feel a sense of having to continuously achieve in order to prove our value. On the proving ground we feel threatened and insecure. We trust less, risk less and stay away from ambiguity and strangeness. It’s not a great place, but it’s where we live. The playground is where security is inherent. On the playground we trust more, feel greater freedom and, as Gwen put’s it “hopefully get a glimpse of our true nature”. Our work, our home life, our inner world are all places that can be experienced as either a proving ground or a playground.

How do we make these places playgrounds? Gwen will lead you there, it’s the work she does. But first thing I think you should do is take a deep breath and become a little more present. It’s time to play.

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DANIEL – You started your career really quite young, making puppets at Sesame Street at age 19. How did you get to Sesame Street?

GWEN – When I was 12 my favourite place, my playground, was the gymnastics gym. It was my happy place, particularly the trampoline. Until I started competing. All of a sudden it was all about legs straight, toes pointed, stick the landing. I started trying to win ‘meets’, working out two to three hours a day. It soon stopped being fun. I felt like my playground had become a proving ground. Then, when I was 14 years old, I was ‘hot dogging’ on the trampoline, going really high and doing twisting flips, and I came down on my head and broke my neck. I had a 70 percent chance of being paralysed.

I’m at home, in a brace, and I’m going totally stir crazy. I’m kinesthetic, I really need to move. Then my mother gave me the 50 pounds of porcelain clay. She puts it next to my bed with a tray and I start to make things. After the clay I started to sew. I get a sewing machine; I start creating soft sculpture, I stuff everything until my entire room resembles a padded cell.

My playground moved from being merely kinesthetic to being a creative maker of things.

I’d also started writing and illustrating children’s books

Then I found out that Muppets Take Manhattan was being made. I hear on the grapevine that they’re in the middle of making this movie and they’re hiring. I had never made a puppet before, but I knew I had to find a way to do it. He was a crocheted bird called Clive. I sent him as if he’s applying for the job. That gets me an interview and then an apprenticeship.

And the apprenticeship led to a permanent job?

 Every year at Sesame Street there are a couple of new characters that are written into the scripts. There are about five of us working there and we all submit an idea to Michael Frith our director. He chooses the person who’s selected to make a puppet. I made Rockheads, piles of rocks that suddenly pop up and are animated, and mine was selected. So, in my first year I made characters, and that got me a job. That’s how I got to Sesame Street.

Incredible. What was it like working there?

The company was still small at the time, it was intimate. We got to know Jim, he would drop by regularly. We were at the beginning of the great explosion of Muppets.

It was thrilling. The Muppets Take Manhattan movie was the catalyst for the explosion, it was a muppet takeover.

What was the sense at Sesame Street as to why you guys were all there making puppets together? Was there a sense of vision, or a mission?

Well, there is an inherent sense that Sesame Street was an experiment. We were all there because this was the end of the rainbow for people who were creators. It was a fun-loving job, an amazing opportunity to be part of a creative team and to get to make wacky things, every day, and to be part of a really high level, brilliant show. Jim Henson was a great leader in many ways. I think it wasn’t an articulated vision around a mission as much as it was the possibility of sharing this sensibility, which was warm, funny, creative. Puppets as a form of mainstream entertainment was a whole new frontier.

And all this when you were just 19.

I was a little different to the team, I was more philosophical and reflective. I had questions; “Are we really conscious of the messages that we’re conveying?” I was studying social theory and writing about how, in the Muppets, the leader is a male that’s a frog, an amphibian, a cold-blooded reptile. The pig is the feminine, and it takes up the entire character, you don’t know anything other than her female-ness, whereas Kermit could have lots of dimensions. She could only have access to power through the frog… and all these ways in which modernity was essentially being recapitulated through the Muppets.

This is sort of sacrilege in the Muppet world, there wasn’t an atmosphere of really critical thinking, it was very much, “let’s play!” So, I was aware of that and I had my secret place where I’m imagining creating a better, more whole and perhaps more radical vision of a healthy society.

How has your sense of play evolved with Sesame Street?

I started to develop a spiritual life, the people who are the most inspiring to me, the people who seemed the most spiritually mature, who were happiest were also the most playful. It resonated, I saw myself, “that’s how I am when I feel free”. I had that sense of, “oh, that’s what freedom looks like!”

It's not just freedom from suffering or freedom from pain, it's freedom for play. Freedom for love. I started to see the connection between love and play.

So how do we align ourselves to our play state?

There’s the million-dollar question. I’d say that for me there are four things.

One is about cultivating space for sensitivity. What stops us are layers of fear and concepts of attachment. All the defensive structures that constitute a sense of self as something separate from the Universe.

The density of those personality structures starts to thin through practices like mindfulness or just becoming present, letting go. Then you can ask, where does that energy want to go? It’s also when to stop working, when the system needs to find balance. We have lots of coaching systems, right, these extrinsic systems that are based on the wisdom of what organisms need, what psyches need. They are external supports while we get attuned and start to trust the ways in which energy naturally moves through us.

So the first two things are letting go and attuning.

The third thing is welcoming everything. It’s huge because it’s the biggest block to play. If you peel off layer by layer it’s usually early trauma, pre-verbal, pre-conscious even. The starting point is as soon as you feel resistance, being with it, stopping the play, being willing to feel, to experience it and being present with yourself. That’s often really hard to do alone, and sometimes we need to do that with a lot of support.

And the the fourth one is rest. Because people need to hear that explicitly. When you really listen to yourself you know when to rest and when to play.

Yes! Rest to play.

But most of us who’ve been on the proving ground for decades are exhausted, and many people say, “Playing? Excuse me, I’m exhausted, I’m sorry. I just need a break, don’t make me play. Don’t add that to my list!”

I tell people that we play when it's time to play as long as we know how to rest when it's time to rest. The permission is an essential element.

Can you tell me a little bit about playground, proving ground and battleground?

I was able to earn a living playing and yet found myself consistently becoming really stressed, overworking and getting really unhealthy. Even though my external life was amazing, internally I could never do enough, accomplish enough or be valuable enough to finally relax and play. I was trying to compete and then competition made me feel like I was more valuable if I won than if I lost. I got really attached to the outcome and if that happens the play really stops. I was finding myself turning playgrounds into proving grounds. I had world class playgrounds in my life. Ifelt like I was the luckiest, most miserable person I knew.I was carrying the proving ground with me wherever I went. That proving ground was really a sense of deficiency that came from having to be somebody, having to prove myself, perform, achieve, accomplish.It starts with most of us very young because, even if we have a great childhood we were still tested early in school.

The thing that is the most playful – learning - gets turned into all about proving. 

How do you transition from a proving ground to a playground?

It’s based on an insecurity that is innate in our culture. It’s not just a personal failure, “Oh, I’m so insecure there must be something wrong with me.” We are a hyper individualistic society, there’s reasons for this insecurity. The more insecure we are the more threatened we are by ambiguity and strangers, and so the battleground is really like the other extreme; where everything’s a potential threat. I need to protect and defend myself against it.

Proving ground is, “I have to continually test and prove myself to others to earn a sense of security”. In the playground, security is inherent. We’re safe already. We’re carrying that sense of safety with us. So, the shift is fundamentally from the sense of an ego structure, being identified with that ego. It’s like a little aeroplane that’s held together with tape and gum, it rattles. We’re never going to feel like we’re safe and the scariest thing is letting go. How can we trust? We might lose everything we cherish. It’s a practice of letting go and the practice of play is a big part of the path. It’s not the whole path but it’s really a way in which we can experiment with letting go that is safe.

We get to be in control by being out of control. When we play, there's no long-term consequences.

The more we trust, the more we have these little moments of feeling free. And hopefully they give us a glimpse of our true nature. For a moment I’m not so obsessed with what people think of me, I’m not so self-absorbed, I’m not so self-conscious and for a moment I’m not monitoring myself. I want to understand, how do we play at deeper and deeper levels?

Can you tell me the story about your mystery joke friend?

I think it’s partly a good example of the fact that we’re all a part of the same fabric and we don’t have to hold onto these identities as strongly as we are. You can connect to someone so deeply, so quickly, when there’s trust. By appealing to the play in them.

There’s this woman who happens to have the same rhythms as me. I bump into her a lot. I really don’t know how it started, I think she might have been the one to tell me a joke. There wasn’t even a hello she just started telling this joke. And I laughed, and I thanked her, and I told her a joke and that was it. We just laughed and walked away. We have bumped into each other regularly and for a long time now we have stopped to tell each other a joke and then just walked away. We don’t know each other’s names. I have to think of material because I know I’m going to see her!

It shows that it’s possible to ignore a lot of what we think are hard and fast rules of how we’re meant to be in society and in interacting with people. What’s driving you into the future, what are you looking to do or understand?

Well I definitely identify with the trickster archetype, and I’m always looking ahead at what rules I can break. In Silicon Valley the word being thrown around is “relevant”. You have to have relentless innovation to be relevant. That’s the proving ground. I actually have this fantasy about being irrelevant and just really embracing irrelevance.

Daniel Teitelbaum

Daniel Teitelbaum is a faculty member in The School of Life, as well as a performer, radio broadcaster, teacher and facilitator. Daniel specialises in creating playful, memorable and meaningful experiences for people. Daniel has been a strategy consultant working with social enterprise, the Head of Content at The School of Life Australia and an associate teacher of design at Monash University. With a background in philosophy, law and theatre studies, in recent years Daniel has focused on play-based professional development for companies, NFPs and local governments – using games, toys and theatre to help others develop important skills and ways of working. Visit playfulthinking.com.au to get in touch.

Photograph provided by Gwen

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