Cardboard boxes + People = Play = Theatre

Towers, tunnels, hidden passages…. all constructed out of cardboard!

Polyglot Theatre brought their piece “We Built This City” to NYUAD and performed it for a couple of weeks in October. They had sessions open to people of all ages to come in and build. During these sessions, the company’s performers would be around, guised as playful construction workers. It was – rather surprisingly – a ton of fun to be a part of these sessions. Along with some friends, we got together to build on to the tunnels that were already up around us. It was extremely adorable to see peers, who are undergraduates, help faculty’s little kids construct their towers. It was such an interesting relationship to witness develop, one that is ultimately based on this very interesting power dynamic of the ‘big kids’ being ordered by the ‘little kids’, all in good fun. To finish up the session, Polyglot Theatre invited everyone to destroy their towers and tunnels, and especially invited us – the big kids – to be targets. I stood in a tunnel beside a friend as the boxes came crashing down, the little kids clearly ecstatic over the prospect of overpowering us.

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Photo by Frederik Jensen

One of the comments Polyglot Theatre made was that they were surprised that no one was playing with the cardboard boxes outside of the sessions. Intrigued by this idea of the performance extending outside of these session times, a friend and I decided to venture into the play area later that night.

By 8pm, my friend had created her own study space as a sort of igloo with the boxes. I soon joined her, and we first created a central tower. Since we really wanted to make a tunnel, we decided to create one that wrapped around the tower. This soon became an elaborate tunnel in the form of a spiral around the tower with four possible entrances allowing people of different heights to come in. The catch though, was that if you stepped in through the bigger entrance, the tunnel would become smaller as you progressed. Crouch in through a tighter, smaller entrance and you’ll eventually find yourself in an open air space. Afterwards we grabbed the longer boxes and placed them around the maze to act as dominoes. Since we were close to the Arts Center, we created our set of dominoes so that when you opened one of the doors of the Arts Center, it would hit against one of the pieces, triggering the whole chain.

Photo by author

It was such a different experience to feel like you owned the entire space for a night versus sharing it with a group of people you didn’t know. My friend and I, whilst building our cardboard jungle, reminisced about our childhood, contemplated ideas for films, and went through an emotional rollercoaster ride of emotion as we talked about life. In this sense, we were engaged in deep play. With fewer participants in the play space, it allowed for a much more intimate engagement not only with the space but also with each other.

Oddly enough, this wasn’t my first experience with using cardboard boxes and engaging in creative play. As part of the Global Cardboard Challenge initiated by the Imagination Foundation, in 2012 I organized a session in Sri Lanka (you can watch a video of the day here). This was all a result of Caine’s Arcade, a short documentary film on a boy – Caine – who created a little arcade in his dad’s auto-parts shop using cardboard. We not only had a tunnel of our own, but we also had kids totally transforming the cardboard boxes. They were making games, robots, and all sorts of things that redefined the average cardboard box.

Whereas the Global Cardboard Challenge lasts for a day, Polyglot Theatre’s piece last for several days. Anyone would be able to come into the space and play. I talk to one friend in his junior year studying Engineering who admitted he snuck in one night to build a tower. Each session would culminate in the destruction of all the towers and tunnels built, but even more exicting was the last day of ‘the performance’ where one could destroy the boxes themselves. This is actually much harder than you’d think! With forcerful stomps though, the boxes are pretty much done for.

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