Creativity comes from trust. Trust your instincts. And never hope more than you work.
-Rita Mae Brown

Creativity requires the courage to let go of certainties.
-Erich Fromm

Most of us have heard and are probably sick of that rather threadbare cliche, “thinking outside the box.” When people say that, they’re usually referring to thinking in a creative and unconventional way and they usually prompt me to intone in my best Zen-master fashion, “There is no box.”

This essay is about creativity and unconventional thinking but I’m going to encourage you to think inside the box, albeit in a very specific way.

There is an improv exercise called “The Box.” I can’t even remember where or from whom I learned it but over the years I have found it to be very useful in many ways.

There are two players in The Box; I call one the explorer and one the guide. The premise is that the explorer is standing in front of an imaginary box (or container of any sort, be it a closet, car trunk, bathtub, or whatever), exploring the contents of the box while the guide asks questions.

The guide may ask what the box is made of and the explorer answers. What’s in the box? What does it smell and taste like? What sounds are coming from the box? Maybe the guide can suggest an animal is in the box and ask the explorer what it is. Perhaps the animal is singing a song, what song?

As is the case with most improv activities, there is only one wrong answer: “I don’t know.” Why? Because it’s the explorer’s box and it doesn’t really exist, so the explorer can make it anything.

This exercise develops creativity for the participants as individuals and as a team. Ideally, the guide and explorer work together, feeding off one another. At times the guide is leading the explorer but the guide is also following the explorer, building off the explorer’s ideas.

Again, as is the case with most improv, you’re looking to maximize the yeses and minimize the nos. If the explorer says there’s a rubber ball in the box, the guide shouldn’t say, “No, it’s not a rubber ball.” The ball’s there; explore it. Maybe after that the guide can suggest that the ball is changing into another object or that there’s something else in the box. The guide should try not to assert his/her agenda.

The explorer should likewise play nice. If the explorer discovers a dirty sock and the guide instructs him/her to smell it, the explorer should just go ahead and smell it. After all, it isn’t real. The guide can even make this more palatable by suggesting, “It smells like something wonderful.”

I’ve had explorers tell me there’s no way they’re going to touch, smell, or taste some ostensibly offensive imaginary object. That’d be crazy! But who’s the crazy one? Why not taste an imaginary mouse turd? Or maybe the explorers are so committed to what they’re doing that it becomes real. That’s cool too, I suppose.

This game is deceptively difficult, particularly for beginners. Usually it is the novice guide who has the most difficulty because all the explorer has to do is answer questions. The struggling guide will say s/he can’t think of any questions to ask, especially about the contents of the box.

Frustrated, the guide then often has the explorer leave the box behind and soon the explorer is wandering around inside a house or a forest, dealing with environments instead of objects. That’s not a terrible thing but it’s not The Box. Other times, the guide asks the explorer how things in the box came to be they way they are, creating a narrative, which, again, is not The Box.

You see, The Box demands a certain discipline. The players are challenged to explore fully the premise they have. You can always find something else in the box. Or if all you’ve got left to explore is a tiny stone, it can be explored through all the senses and, because it’s all imaginary, magical things can happen. The stone can come to life or maybe something happens when it is thrown on the floor. The possibilities are limited only by the players’ imaginations, which is to say that they’re not limited at all.

But in order for the magic to happen, the players have to stay focused and keep digging instead of abandoning what they have and looking for an easier way. At the risk of sounding like the aforementioned Zen master, the way is through The Box, not outside of it. That way may be difficult and even scary but it’s all this that makes The Box so valuable as an exercise.

The best theatrical improvisers can make a scene out of just about anything because they pay attention to everything and can see the potential — pedestrian or sublime — in just about anything. A fellow player’s gesture or the mention of a seemingly minor detail can be the foundation of a scene because everything in a scene is potentially significant. The players must simply commit to the significance.

Improvisers struggle when they abandon what they’ve established, looking outside of it for the scene. The classic example of this that I have seen many, many times is when players decide to leave the location of a scene. “Let’s go to the store” a player might suggest (and it always seems to be the store, not sure why). The character may want to go the store but that desire merely reflects the actor’s desire to get the hell out of the scene, to be anywhere other than where s/he is.

Usually there is a certain amount of desperation because no one wants to be stuck in a situation and have no idea of what to do next. The unknown can be frightening. Rather than calmly observing what’s happening and ascribing significance to it, players get all left-brained and start trying to invent their way out of their pickle. Pickles don’t scare good improvisers.

This digging and exploring, striving to be aware of and to exploit potential exists outside of improvisational theater. The great tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins springs to mind. Here’s a guy who can find so many ways to render a simple tune that it can take him up to 20 minutes to get all the juice out of a melody. Honestly, that’s a little extreme for me but I’m trying to make a point here.

Beyond arts, scientists, for instance, can’t just walk away from research because they don’t know where it’s going. They’re not there to know anyway; they’re there to observe and learn. I think this is what Einstein, a scientist you may have heard of, meant when he stated “Imagination is more important than knowledge.”

My thesis statement, I guess, is that creativity (and its children, including innovation, adaptation, and problem solving) requires that you pay attention, work together, be brave and focused, and trust that something will eventually come from the unknown.

Getting back to The Box, I think that some people put a boundary around their own creative potential. They give up too quickly when their imaginations are challenged. So maybe that box needs to be escaped or just enlarged. The best way of doing that, as always, is by finding ways to practice using your imagination, strengthening your creative muscles.

You can’t develop your imagination without exercising it any more than you can develop your muscles without exercising them.

Try doing The Box, whether it’s at a theater rehearsal or in a staff meeting. You might be surprised at what comes from it. Just remember; when you don’t know where to go, go deeper into the box.

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