#986: Janna’s Light

September 28th, 2018

As a child, Janna Sobel wanted to find the moment the light shut down and you became an adult.

“I felt like my friends were more playful, goofy, spontaneous, like whole, emotional, funny, alive,” she said as we sat in the grass by the Lincoln Park Children’s Fountain, the coincidence not occurring to me until I wrote this sentence. “As a kid it seemed to me like there was a light in their eyes — that’s the way I described it when I was young — and I didn’t see that same level of fullness of being or animatedness or livingness in most adults. It looked like something had happened.”

As an adult, she found that moment. 

Teaching performance at a progressive school in San Francisco after college, she would watch students go from kindergarten through eighth grade. Over her decade there, she studied and pinpointed when her students’ light started shutting down.

“I see that to be between fifth grade and eighth grade,” she said. “I see it having a lot to do not only with expectations from adults around them — the socialization that comes from their teachers and their families — but also from each other. There’s cool. Cool comes into play and does a lot of the shutting down for the kids. So every summer they would leave and come back to me and be cooler.”

To fight the cool and shutting, in 2005 Janna invented a week of games for the students, each day steeped in an aspect of improvisation. There was the day spent in antique shops or ruins, inventing the story of a place or thing they hadn’t seen before. There was Tourist Day, where the students would create characters and have to live as that person for a day while they explored their hometown. There was a day of learning to trust others — Falling Down by the Sea, that one was called, a name that explains nothing and it all.

And there was Intuitive Treasure Hunter, which Janna and I came to the park to play.

Imagine turning left every time you wanted to turn left, or climbing a tree, or knocking on the door of a house you wanted to see the inside of. Imagine following and nursing that little voice of whim or whimsy and, if you doubt that voice for a moment, you have a pair of friends or strangers there to tell you to stop being stupid and to sit on that statue already.

That’s what Intuitive Treasure Hunter is. Sort of.

It’s a way of recouping yourself when you start to feel “worn down and squished, and fit into the compartments we’re supposed to fit into.”

It’s a way of “reminding people of a thing they already know but forgot about.”

And more importantly, it’s a small side business with a website and tickets available for this Sunday afternoon and a price point I can absolutely, perfectly 100 percent vouch is worth every penny.

It’s pretty cheap admission for finding your personal treasure.

Janna is a storyteller, actress and teacher, who found her way to Chicago by playing a massive, monthslong version of the game with an Amtrak Rail Pass and a summer heading wherever her light told her to go. She ran into an ex on a New York street so they could cry and move on, met strangers who connected her with long-lost mentors, and she found herself standing on the Michigan Avenue Bridge 10 years ago watching tour boats pass when she got a call from a friend about a theater putting on his play, and it would be a perfect role for her if she only were in Chicago.

Her improv side shows as she uses her hands to form the Half Moon Bay fog cresting over a cliff.

“In walking with this white wall of fog is this giant white stallion, the kind of white stallion that even if you are not a girl who had dreamed of horses your whole life would be the best thing you’d ever seen in your life,” she said.

She’s telling me the story she tells at the beginning of Intuitive Treasure Hunter games. It’s about one of the early games she ran with the middle schoolers in San Francisco. This game was with three 12- or 13-year-olds, two girls and a boy.

The boy is “simultaneously gangsta and goth, safety pins in his ears and black eyeliner and throwing gang signs and bandannas backwards and all of it at the same time, and he’s one of my favorite people.” He’s six feet tall, “in a brand-new, grown man’s body,” and paired in the game with a popular, athletic, horse-obsessed girl and and a tiny girl with a story so sad, I’m declining to write it now. It’s not my story to tell.

The horse-obsessed girl is walking toward the horse.

“We just watch them meet in the middle of this field and [the girl] bends down and picks up a leaf of one of these giant cabbage plants and the horse lets her feed it, which is awfully generous because it has all the options,” Janna said, improv gesturing at invisible cabbages. “And she stands there with this horse for probably like a minute or two, not very long. And the thing is sweet enough to let her pet it, she pets its long face, and they just have this sweet little moment of communion until it gives her this really nice little nudge, ‘Here,’ and then just continues along its way.”

The girl who loved horses had found her treasure. She found her horse, the boy found a conversation with an old man who reminded him of his recently deceased grandfather and the girl with the sad story found her voice — I’ll let Janna tell you what that means if you go on a game.

Janna tells the story at the start of games because it’s magic, and it’s banal.

“If you think about it, there was nothing so incredible about what the kids found,” she said. “They found a horse on a farm, they found an old man and they found a river. There’s nothing fancy about any of that. The reason it felt like treasure to them is because of the way they were paying attention.”

That’s part of Intuitive Treasure Hunter too. You will find your treasure because you’re looking for your treasure. It’s magic because things are magic, if you look with light.

“Can we play?” I ask.

She says yes.

Read about sadness on a bridge

Read about a game with strangers

Read about a drunk in the snow

Why not to tell stories (sometimes)

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