There are a lot of improv “rules” floating around, typically designed to assist the novice improviser as they take their first steps on the stage. Some practitioners express an overt skepticism to such rules in general, noting that they don’t necessarily lead towards more successful improv but instead more in-you-head-improv. Overall, when taken with a grain of salt, I believe that such guidelines are more helpful than hurtful, offering up players some best practices to increase the likelihood that everyone is working together in a helpful fashion and in a similar direction. I think that there is also something to be said for the fact that most experienced improvisers can rattle off these inherited norms which provides some semblance of a foundational philosophy uniting improvisers when we get together for festival jams and all-plays. In the 1980’s, when I was first introduced to improvisation, Theatresports in New Zealand even formalized many of these nuggets of wisdom in its “Ten Commandments” that I still have in a dog-eared manual from my high school days.
One such rule (though interestingly not a commandment – I just checked) is the notion of “Don’t ask questions” in your scenic work. The rationale generally observes that this habit puts all the generative work on your scene partner, while the questioner essentially steals away the momentum and spark of the scene. As with most less-than-helpful improv habits, asking questions tends to emerge from fear: fear of not quite understanding what your partner was intending; fear of not coming up with the perfect addition to the scene; fear of being vulnerable or looking out of control for a moment.
I have frequently seen this type of fear-induced improv onstage and in the rehearsal hall. It usually takes the form of lackluster dialogue such as “What is that?” or “How are you?” or “What are you doing?” often at the top of a scene when little has been established. I imagine these moments are familiar to us all. And, generally, such moments don’t add energy or interest and do punt the ball back to the other player without any resonating potential or detail. While I agree that this type of question asking doesn’t typically lead to joyful scenic work, I would offer that the improv community doesn’t often talk about when questions in our scene work are helpful or perhaps even critical for our creative success. Yes, I agree that mundane questions generally lead nowhere, and furthermore that assumptions are typically more dynamic, but not all questions are created equal nor used in the same energy-draining way.
And so I offer six great times to ask a question:
1.) You didn’t understand your partner. I’ll start with perhaps the simplest scenario (and one that probably occurs with greater frequency for those of us teaching and playing online at the moment). If our partner has made a rich and grounded choice, and the acoustics, audience applause, internet connection, their accent or dialect, other onstage business, or perhaps even just our own inattentiveness, obscured this offer in such a way that we just didn’t receive it, I strongly believe a check in along the line of “What was that?” or “Would you mind repeating that?” is appropriate. A quick question strikes me as infinitely more helpful than making an ill-conceived assumption that might actually completely negate the intent or nuance of our partner’s choice. Sure, our response based on a misheard fragment might get a laugh, but especially in a long-form or narrative setting where we’re striving to more patiently build an arc, this will often be inferior to a more honest reaction stemming from what our partner was intending. We don’t hear each other at times in real life, so we can certainly have that happen to our characters onstage too. Here, I believe a question is an act of honoring our partner’s gift and making sure we are fully appreciating the intent behind it. As an improviser predominantly working in the United States who still very much has a New Zealand idiom, I’ve also included dialect and accent on my list of potential contributing factors as I’m aware that, despite my efforts to the contrary, I have been the source of miscommunications and I’d always rather have my fellow improviser (as their character rather than as the actor preferably) seek quick clarification so that the scene can then continue to dance forward.
2.) You immediately answer the question yourself. Though this perhaps isn’t a good reason to ask a question in the first place, it is a helpful strategy for those moments when a bland one slips out. If you inadvertently ask your partner, “What is that?” and then immediately follow up with “You found my missing engagement ring,” or “That is the answer sheet to our history test this afternoon,” or “We agreed that we weren’t going to bring home any more stray animals,” then you’ve quickly taken a dull choice and given it some added luster and specificity. If the initial dull question was primed with a strong emotion or point of view, then this works even better with the second choice adding content to the tension or dynamism of the first. Essentially you’re playing “yes, and…” with yourself at this point, noting that your “yes” wasn’t the most inspiring offer at first.
3.) You are playing a role that would usually ask questions. This is perhaps the most obvious exception in my mind, and while many would agree that we want to avoid transaction scenes and that questions are often at the core of these dynamics, some scenarios almost demand that we embrace our function at least initially as the questioner. A teacher calling in a student to a conference, a mechanic initially examining a car, a doctor giving a patient their annual exam — it is not unlikely that each of these scenes might take its first steps with some paradigmatic questions… “Did you get any help writing this paper?” or “Do you know where the clunking sound was coming from?” or “So what brings you into my office today?” I would suggest that we wouldn’t want the scene to typically consist only of one-sided open questions, but it is not unforeseeable nor unhelpful for this dynamic to emerge and help provide the platform or balance of our world. In this particular case it could also be a fun inversion to use questions but have them come from the unexpected character, so now the patient asks the doctor about their health issues. You could also apply the above strategy to up the heat so that “Did you get any help writing this paper?” is quickly followed by “Because I wrote one exactly like it when I was an undergrad.” Or, use the strategy below…
4.) You are asking a loaded question. In terms of question strategies, this is probably the approach I recommend most in my own classes. Acknowledging that questions will slip out and that we don’t want to get in our heads about it, I offer that it is the intensity of the question that is important. Most of us would agree that a “How are you?” is less likely to get creative juices going than “Have you been managing okay at home alone after your back surgery?” There is no reason that the question can’t in and of itself make nuanced assumptions about the world and relationship we are creating. The first question likely evolved from fear while the second clearly presents interesting opportunities for the partner and scene, especially if it is accompanied with a thoughtful physical action and perhaps justifies any previously established energies or circumstances.
A warning with loaded questions that is somewhat embedded in the surgery example above: improvisers should pay as much attention to how they are saying their question as to the details of the question itself or it can start to feel as if you are “cartooning” or announcing choices rather than giving them full emotional weight. In this way our inquiry about recovery could be showing great care for our partner, frustration that they keep calling for us to come around, or a more sinister hope that our plan to off our rival is finally working. Emotion and subtext here make all the difference. In short-form interview games where questions are central to the premise and structure, loaded questions are also an excellent way to give the interviewer a little more dynamism and weight as a character in their own right rather than merely a facilitator for the fun of the expert.
5.) You are using questions to heighten a game. Some scenes thrive on questions. The short-form game Questions Only or any of the multiple Expert variants serve as obvious examples, but there are many other situations where questions might add to the style or finesse of a scene. A cascade of questions can be thoroughly successful in a Shakespeare or period-specific scenario when they escalate and create tension or playfulness between characters. I can’t imagine Private Lies: Improvised Film Noir (pictured above) without a good dose of detective questions, for example, as that’s part of the gumshoe’s raison d’être. If a scene is exploring a more complex dynamic, such as in a mapping scene (where one scenario is played with the intensity and tropes of another) questions especially of a vaguer variety can help prolong the game and fun. If we’re playing a scene in which a parent has discovered a comic book but is mapping this moment with the energy of a parent discovering illicit drugs, a carefully pitched “What is this?” along with a suitable gesture will likely serve the scene well. Here the audience and players alike know the identity of the “this” so there’s nothing problematic about the choice. We often play a version of Old Job, New Job in our Gorilla Theatre show at SAK Comedy Lab which similarly deploys this mapping concept, and I could certainly happily watch a whole scene-full of questions coming from a doctor who used to be a mechanic: “Do you know where the clunking sound was coming from?”
6.) You are checking in with your scene partner. I’ve worked with many companies that deal with this issue in different ways but there are times on stage (stage violence, intimacy, or potentially triggering or sensitive material) when I would argue it is not only appropriate to ask a question, but it is critical that we do so. We’re improvising, and especially if you’re playing in a context where “mature” or “adult” themes might emerge, we need to keep the safety of our partners at front of mind. I think it’s important to note that I don’t really mean racy when I say “mature” or “adult”, although sadly I think that’s what a lot of improv inclines towards when it says it’s pushing the boundaries or is edgy. What I mean by these terms is that we’re dealing with material with sincerity and nuance in such a way that it might resonate deeply with our partners or audience. This is the type of edgy improv I’m personally most interested in. In these instances, a careful question can be an important way to check in with our scene partner, especially if this is someone we don’t know particularly well yet. If I ask, “Do you want to fight me?” in a heated exchange then my partner can have me take that action offstage if that is what they need to do. If I ask, “Would you mind if I kissed you?” then my partner can frame a response that can honor the energy of the scene while maintaining their personal boundaries: “I desperately want to kiss you, but let’s do it inside so the neighbors won’t see…” If I nudge into material that I can see is stirring my partner I can ask “Do you need me to leave now?” and then can honor their response while maintaining the integrity of the scene. I’ve found this to be a less commonly needed tool in troupes that have developed deep rapport and know a lot about each others’ comfort zones, but I think this is an important strategy to have in our pockets to maintain a safe and playful stage. It’s worth noting that this approach should also be applied to potentially racy material if the company hasn’t previously agreed upon performance parameters prior to the show.
A side note that, yes, with some mental wrangling many of the questions illustrated in the above examples could be wordsmithed into statements, but I’m not sure that is a good use of our energy and concentration as improvisers; and furthermore, modeling consent on the improv stage strikes me as an important result of not needlessly demonizing the act of asking a question in and of itself.
So these are my six notable exceptions to the “no questions” rule that many of us utilize in our classes and ensembles. All too often it strikes me that the “problem” is not so much that a question was asked, but rather the under-committed and non-specific way in which it was asked. Any questions? Have you found other situations in which questions are the best approach in your own scene work?