Few concepts are more important to folklorists and other who study cultures than that of “play.” When you think about it, most of what transpires in our lives (most of what makes us “good citizens”) is highly structured, rule-bound, and predictable: we brush our teeth, eat our breakfast, get dressed, go to work, sit at our desks, answer e-mails…and so forth and so on. We file our tax returns, balance our checkbooks, buy gifts for weddings and birthday parties, go to church, and schedule vacations with plenty of advance notice. Widely considered the underbelly of the social order, play is how we “let loose” and become more permissive (with our speech, gestures, habits) and therefore more creative.
Play has also been described by anthropologist Victor Turner as “a volatile, sometimes dangerous” moment; most definitions of play involve being “out of mesh with the serious ‘bread-and-butter’ concerns of life in society.” For these reasons, play is often associated with childhood (lack of care or responsibility), with artists and with mental illness. Play is also a curious phenomenon in that it can cut both ways of the power spectrum: it can subvert authority (as in parody and carnival) or it can be used by authorities to cruel ends of ridicule and shame. Scholars have been forever fascinated by the double-edged and complicated measure of this concept; they have also been fascinated by its universality. One textbook describes “play” as “a genetically based life-long activity of humans and many other animals.”
The word “play” derives from the Anglo-Saxon word “plegan,” which meant rapid movement, a grasp of hands, clapping, or playing a musical instrument. An even older related High German word, “pflegan” meant “the celebrating of festivals.” In the Old Pueblo of Tucson, we know a thing or two about “playing in the streets.” Tucson seems to be a quintessential city of festivals —there’s a new one each time you turn around (the “baconfestival” is one recent addition). A quick Google search yields more festivals than one can count in one swoop: a beer festival, festival of books, folk festival, festival of lights, festival en el barrio, chamber music festival, culinary festival, Greek festival, flamenco festival, bird and wildlife festival, mariachi festival, fringe theater festival….and many, many others. There are also other large events that don’t use the word “festival” but that are massive and festive in nature: the Gem show, the Rodeo, the 4th Avenue Street Fair, Cyclovia, All Souls Parade, among others.
And of course, there’s the one that we’d like to call “the festival of festivals:” Tucson Meet Yourself (it is also the number one item in Google when you type “Tucson festival”). Last year, for the first time in 39 years, readers of the Tucson Weekly named TMY the “best” festival. We accepted the honor gladly, only insofar as we think that our event offers a more inclusive social platform and hence functions more in the form of an umbrella, a refuge, a clustering and an invented civic public sphere than most specific and discreet other “festivals.” This inclusivity and broadening is quite intentional and has been so from the beginning. A press release sent out by the Cultural Exchange Council (the group that used to be the producer of TMY) in 1974, the first year of TMY, cited Dr. Jim Griffith saying:
“We have several festivals which feature one or two of Tucson’s traditions; but this one [TMY] attempts to present the whole, exciting multicultural package. It ought to be pretty wild.”
In 1974, it was very bold (and somewhat of a radical hipster idea) to invoke the words “multicultural” and “wild” in the same sentence. Think forward nearly 40 years and consider the troublesome associations to ethnic celebrations and studies that besieged the Old Pueblo. Also very much on Big Jim’s mind and his collaborators in 1974 was the notion that “the festival” was an intentionally staged moment of “play” —“a dramatization of the fact that we live in a plural society,” Jim wrote. The key guiding principle of that staging was that each group get the opportunity to represent itself, however it wanted, or as Jim said it in a 1974 founding document, “with a minimum of unsolicited guidance from the Coordinators.”
Few would argue that Tucson’s widespread festival culture is a sign of its healthy civic atmosphere —-a place where “politics” still means, by and large, “public service” and where artists still find nooks and crannies where they set up studios to paint Western landscapes; local entrepreneurs set up coffeehouse where aspiring writers set out to craft the next great American novel, or where folk artists learn from their elders how to weave baskets or make horsehair rope. Festivals are not only born from the society as a static reflection of values already agreed upon, they also in turn shape that society and help it negotiate, if only temporarily and imaginatively, the tensions under the surface.