What would Neva Boyd think?

In Chicago, last week was for the playing of games.

Three of Chicago's best-trained game players — Aidy Bryant, Tim Robinson and Cecily Strong — landed lucrative, career-making gigs on "Saturday Night Live," a tantalizing reminder of the suddenly arriving upside craved by every struggling iO improviser in town. As a consequence of the teachers strike, the city's young people were out playing, en masse, while their stressed-out parents surely would have preferred if they could safely go to class. And if the two sides of the battle between the Chicago Public Schools and its teachers were hardly playing games — the stakes were too serious — they were certainly indulging in gamesmanship.

The media played some games too. Ever since Rahm Emanuel took office, he has lacked a worthy antagonist in the big melodrama of the city that the media loves to tell. In Karen Lewis, the blunt-tongued and seemingly fearless head of the Chicago Teachers Union, the media finally found one, or the beginnings of one, allowing the storytelling of the strike to be defined, however inaccurately and however destructively for a city reeling from youth gun violence, as a battle of wills between two outsize personalities.

I wonder what Neva Boyd, who reportedly had a magnetic effect on all children who came within her orbit, would have thought of the last seven days in Chicago. Much of what has happened in town comes back to her.

About a century ago, Boyd was a sociologist (among many other things) at Hull House and later at the University of Chicago and Northwestern University. Before she went to Northwestern, where she taught for years, Boyd was at the forerunner of the Chicago Park District, running something called the Recreation Department of the Chicago School of Civics and Philanthropy.

She was a proponent of the "Modern Play Movement" and a passionate believer in the power of game playing as a tool to help urban kids adapt to, and thrive in, the world around them, and her ideas influenced her student Viola Spolin, of theater-games fame, who in turn influenced her own son, Paul Sills, who influenced Second City, which influenced "Saturday Night Live," which just did that big Chicago hire last week.

Improv owes everything to game playing. Without Boyd, who died in 1963, there arguably would have been no jobs for Bryant, Robinson and Strong. Yet Boyd, of course, was not doing comedy sketches for late-night college-age audiences. She had no interest in that. She saw the playing of games, the right kind of games, as one of the few ways to develop individual potential through the exploration of how we all function in groups, whether we like it or not, building community and, yes, even preventing violence on Chicago streets. She would be a useful presence now.

"The greed for power, the hatred and dishonesty which have become associated with competitive games are not an inherent part of them but have found their (way) in them through a false sense of values," Boyd once wrote, as her biographer, W. Paul Simon, noted. Boyd was big on collective ensembles. Yet, Simon wrote, Boyd also said, "I can't see how anybody owes anybody else anything — education, security, jobs. We must work out together ways of getting things we all need."

That would have been a useful text at the negotiating table.

You actually could see Boyd's influence last week in the way arts groups swung into action to offer displaced kids some structure to their games during their lost week. Artists, typically making far less money than a Chicago teacher makes, at the likes of Hubbard Street Dance Chicago and the Lookingglass Theater (among many others) came up with "strike camps." The dancers at Hubbard Street led workshops in improvisational dance. A group called Brain Surgeon offered a "make a movie camp," where kids could work alongside professionals to storyboard and then film a movie of their own creation; it would be, of course, a team effort. These groups were following a key Boyd precept — community responsibility for kids' unscheduled time — and doing so in an emergency situation. These camps offered games, but the right kind of games.

Boyd, like business leaders, knew that effectiveness in teams is a crucial skill. You can see the potency of her theories merely by looking at the headings of her notes and writings, which reside at the University of Illinois at Chicago: play and social growth, rapport, behavior change, moral education, problem solving, leadership, education.

Boyd would not have had much time for the Emanuel-Lewis narrative, especially when played out against a fraught national political landscape within a dangerous world, especially when centered on a city still dangerous for the young. She would not have liked kids not being in their schools last week, even though she also loved teachers. But she would, I think, have been more interested in what was going on in those "strike camps" than in watching "Saturday Night Live."

Maybe all the negotiators should have headed over to Hubbard Street, thought about Boyd and learned better games.


Twitter @ChrisJonesTrib

Copyright © 2015, RedEye
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