The Importance of Play: What a Classic Musical Taught Me About Therapy

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La Mancha - Mark Ettensohn, Psy. Sacramento Psychologist

About five years ago, I had a chance to perform in a local production of Man of La Mancha, a musical based on Miguel de Cervantes’ epic masterpiece, Don Quixote. The show is a fictional account of what may have happened to Cervantes while he was working on the manuscript for his book. Set to appear before the Spanish Inquisition, Cervantes is thrown into a dungeon amidst a terrorized and hopeless group of prisoners. He attempts to rekindle their spirits by involving them in a play based on his manuscript for Quixote. As the show progresses, it weaves an intricate story about healing, human dignity, and the importance of hope.

Man of La Mancha is striking for its use of multiple and interchangeable layers of reality and fantasy. Much of the story takes place in a play within a play, a literary device known as a “frame story”. These embedded frames of fantasy serve as transitional spaces – zones of potential in which harsh, overwhelming realities yield to the creative powers of imagination.

Whereas a typical frame story may include one level of embedded fantasy (e.g. a play within a play), La Mancha presents three: the world of the dungeon, the world of Cervantes’ play, and finally the central world of Don Quixote’s fantastic visions. Cervantes must take his fellow prisoners to this thrice-folded layer of “impossible dreams,” populated by giants, dragons, magical helmets, and sacred quests in order for them to finally glimpse the still-living hope that they had long since abandoned.

The more I think about Man of La Mancha, the more I realize that therapists have much in common with the character of Cervantes. When we meet our clients in dark places, we too must make the case for hope. But there are times when we find ourselves facing odds that seem overwhelming. At times, our message of hope falls flat because the parts of the client that need to hear it are stuck in a dungeon of their own, locked behind thick walls of pain and defense.

When I think about how to help these clients, I am reminded of how children use play in the service of their growth and development. Through play, children enter a space in which the rules of reality are temporarily suspended. Play allows us to fashion pretend tools to solve problems that are not yet solvable. A frog can magically become a prince, or a favorite doll can be transformed into a needed friend. The magical solutions afforded by play are protective. They preserve a basic feeling of safety and allow us to negotiate our fears by testing them out – always safe in the knowledge that it’s “just pretend.”

But the value of fantasy doesn’t expire when we turn eighteen. Man of La Mancha reminds us of the shear implacability of the human spirit in the face of overwhelming adversity. The key to its resiliency is our lifelong ability to fantasize – to play.

Many clients come to therapy beset by “unsolvable” problems. Many are trapped in their own dungeons awaiting trial by unforgiving parts of themselves. Like the character of Cervantes, we can offer our clients a space in which they are allowed to “play though” these dilemmas. As children, we naturally engage in fantasy to solve our problems. But as adults we tend to ignore this natural ability.

When we ask our clients to explore their fears, to examine their feelings, or to imagine worst and best case scenarios, aren’t we really asking them to engage in a kind of play? Whatever one’s theoretical orientation or therapy model, isn’t the therapy room really a space in which to jointly play “let’s pretend?” Whether it’s gaining mastery of new skills, learning new ways of relating to the self and others, or jointly exploring narratives of the past, the best therapy includes an implicit spirit of discovery.

If we are sensitively attuned, we can find rich dimensionality concealed in the spontaneous gestures, memories, associations, dreams, wishes, and even fears reported by our clients. This content can sometimes contain subtle invitations to engage therapeutically with vulnerable, disguised parts of the client within the safety of a transitional space (Hoge, 2008). In these moments we are tasked with meeting our clients in the midst of a very old and very reliable method of problem solving. We are asked to play.

In La Mancha, the prisoners of the dungeon are transformed by their journey through fantasy. As therapists, we know that it takes more than fantasy to make tangible changes in a client’s circumstances. After all, Cervantes’ play didn’t physically rescue anyone from their predicament. But the genius of Man of La Mancha is that we are left feeling like something more important than physical rescue from the dungeon took place. Hope was rekindled. When met in the transformative space of play, our clients can be helped to reconnect with forgotten abilities to love, hope, and dream. Sometimes, that’s all it takes to plant the seeds of healing in even the darkest of dungeons.

Works Cited
Hoge, H. (2008). Dreams within dreams; books within books: Embedded frames of illusion in psychoanalysis. Psychoanalytic Dialogues, 18,1-26.
Wasserman, D. (1966). Man of La Mancha. New York: Random House.


I shall impersonate a man. His name is Alonso Quijana…”

– Man of La Mancha

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