In our first week as Artists in Residence at Minneapolis Institute of Arts Brandon and I devised a creative challenge for the entire staff. At the end of the monthly all-staff meeting, we gave every person an empty mason jar.
Later that day we sent out a message through the museum’s intraweb system with instructions. The idea was to put something in the jar that helped tell one’s own story; to make a kind of diorama of one’s essence or personality. We wrote, “If you play classical piano, perhaps you’ll put in some sheet music. Or if you love gardening, perhaps you’ll put in some soil and seeds. It can be as abstract or as literal as you want.”
But even before those instructions ever went out, something very cool happened. We stood at the back of the staff meeting, handing out the empty jars with no direction or explanation, and virtually all 80+ employees at the meeting walked up, accepted the jar with a smile, and said, “Thanks!”
There weren’t any accusatory questions, “Is this some kind of joke?” No one simply rejected our gift, “I don’t want one.” And the vast majority of folks were pleased and excited with the mystery, “Cool! Thanks!”
Perhaps it’s because the museum folks didn’t know us yet and assumed we were some sort of surrealist artists who’d just hand out empty jars like Leonora Carrington gives out hair omelettes. Perhaps they just wanted something to put their salads and drinking water into. Or perhaps the whole museum staff secretly love pickling.
My theory however is that the staff here are simply open and accepting of the new and unknown. They take something unexplained and imagine the possibilities, not dread the potential burden.
Giving and accepting gifts is one of the first lessons any improviser learns. If improviser Ron enters a scene and declares, “I can’t believe we’re getting married!” it’s a pretty clear gift for the scene. Ron is giving his scene partner the gift of a situation, a relationship, and some intrigue, just to name a few.
It sounds easy enough, but beginner (and even some veteran, yet self-absorbed) have trouble recognizing lines of dialogue, actions, or character traits as gifts. In the situation with Ron and his scene partner above, it’s frighteningly easy to imagine abandoning that excellent opening gift.
Imagine if Ron’s scene partner responded to his opening line about getting married with, “The surprise party is going to start any minute. Why aren’t you hiding?!” The partner either wasn’t paying attention to Ron, or had such a strong idea of what he wanted the scene to be about that he steamrolled over the gift. If that pattern continued, we’d have a pretty rotten scene, or more likely, two individuals each doing their own thing who just happened to be on stage together.
Off-stage, the philosophy of gift giving is fraught with all sorts of other complications. Here again, we sometimes fail to recognize another person’s idea as a gift upon which we can jointly build something fantastic. Alternatively, we may recognize that someone else has offered something up, but we reject it or ignore it. Perhaps because we fear their good idea will somehow show us up. Or we’re afraid to jump on board in the event that the idea fails and we’ll look foolish.
Of course this paralyzes innovation. The best ideas are almost always the product of each of us working together, taking one idea and building upon it, contributing new information and points of view, until something grand is realized.
I’m heartened that in one of our first unconventional interactions with the staff of the MIA, most folks accepted our gift and are now creating something spectacular with it. At this rate, we will learn a great deal from one another, blending the ideas and philosophies of improvisational theater into the museum world. Now it’s only a question of whether we can distill that exuberant openness and fit it in a jar.
PS: The brilliant Jill Bernard is an excellent teacher on the subject of gifts. I learned from her to accept virtually anything in a scene as a gift. If everyone does this, we almost certainly create the best possible improv scenes together.