Creative Tapas and the Chair Game


Last weekend most of the family Gallo partipated in an event convened by Robert Poynton and family at La Serna near Avila in Spain. The event was called the Creative Tapas and it was properly exceptional. A group of about 40 of us did simply what we wanted, from dawn to dusk and beyond. In that loose array, we became truly creative.

Many things struck me. The shrunken heads that became photo head bombs, the random phrase conversation, the water wheel run, the shadow play, the paper planes, the movies, the move from light to dark…  I could go on.

In looking back I already know one distinct thing that sticks out for me and will particularly remain. That was a late evening running, an “after lights out” version of “The Chair Game” played on the thankfully lit but deliciously dewy night-time lawn.

The Chair Game is both a simple and a highly complex thing. In simplicity it is one person, the walker, whose job it is to sit down on the one free seat that is not occupied by a group of players who sit on all the other chairs. Those players are free to move around the chairs as fast as they like to block the walker from sitting down in the free chair with the one caveat that once their buttocks leave the chair they are on, they may not move back to the same chair.

From this simple start the game becomes a frenzy of movement that continues in wave after wave. The complexity comes once you start playing the game and realise just how many lessons it can teach us. There is obvious teamwork and communication on the immediate surface but then one starts to notice all the different styles of play and participation that emerge. Underneath there is also a structural thing going on that partly depends on the layout of the chairs. In the game we get to see the devils of structure and process pitted against reliance on pure emerging human ingenuity. Nowhere have I seen this balance better demonstrated. Altogether, this game seems to have most of the big life and corporate lessons meshed into it somewhere.

At the weekend I got the nickname “The Rock”. I think this was because I spent a lot of time watching the game and moved rarely. I learnt things about the game from sitting tight but I also learnt that to really learn I needed to take some risks. I needed to get up and mess up a move. Lesson no 1: Movement is required. Lesson No 2: To really learn you have to be prepared to fail. I did then duly learn these lessons.

In this playing the game also took on another dimension. Earlier in the day there had been an experiment with commentary for a football match. Like many situations in life we thought this was about the match when really it was much more about the commentary – the story which builds up around the play. Steve Chapman and Jorge Alvarez were the initial commentators and they each took specific roles in character. Steve and Jorge now provided the same commentary to the Chair Game.

Now you might think that providing commentary on a game you know very little to nothing about is difficult and that would be true. However that only remains true if you remain under an assumption that knowledge is always helpful. I don’t want to decry the experts here but in an uncertain situation such as this game too much expertise can simply blind us to new possibility. Here the progress of the game is far better served by the commentators just making believable stuff up, but doing so convincingly.

What really helped here was that Steve took the job of “Advance” whereas Jorge was “Colour”. This is a classic story-telling approach, the balancing of the job of advancing the story on the one hand and the colouring in of details on the other. Too much of either can kill our interest – a balance is what works best and finding that balance can be tough. Here, Jorge playing the local “expert” extemporised beautifully and Steve grabbed back the action as the play developed.

The role based approach works in commentary partly because of the handover. When colour is required the microphone was physically passed over. When advance is needed, as the action picks up, it is handed back. It also works because each knows their role. Colour knows that the job required is to paste in information that will interest and entertain. So we learn something about the player – how they got their nickname and what off field behaviour they are renowned for as well as something about their playing history. If as in this case there is not much real information then the job is simply to make it up. And boy did they make it up.

As the night turned into morning the commentary got swapped around as more and more people had a go at the microphone. Before long the history of the game emerged; a rich legacy of international championships intertwined with the lessons of Reykjavik and Oslo in the late 90s and early 80s. Classic moves such as the Etruscan Defence and Newton’s Shuffle were explained as they got discovered, demonstrated and then repeated on the lawn.

As the commentary got intertwined back into the game the power of story telling and improvisation, offer and acceptance, knitted the game stronger. This showed us the power not only of the thing but of the legends and stories that surround it, how history is created and sustained.

La Serna 2016 will now live on in the history of The Chair Game as it continues to grow. This is a game that not only has a lot to give but also now has a growing culture of moves, plots and characters. It is a simple creation of complex genius and I commend it to you.


Thank you to Steve Chapman for the photo used above.

Thanks also to John Willshire who is starting to curate the moves and history of the game.

Here is a slowmo video of action at a previous running at the V&A by Rowan Gray 

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