“A” is for “Ask-for”

“I’d never imagined that improvisers would one day be asking for suggestions before every scene and enslaving themselves to the whim of aberrant individuals.”

Keith Johnstone, Impro for Storytellers. New York:  Routledge, 1999. p.26


The audience ask-for has become a tried and true tradition for most improv productions in both short- and long-form modalities. On one level, it operates as “proof” that the resulting action is legitimately spontaneous: I still, surprisingly, encounter audience members for whom this is an issue. On another level, it breaks the fourth wall that often separates performer and observer, and places the spectator in the role of co-creator, or perhaps at least as the inspirational muse, potentially connecting them more deeply to the action that will ensue.

While some improv companies and performance practices have moved away from the tradition of eliciting audience suggestions, feeling perhaps that it is a needless tyranny, the majority of improv troupes still utilize the tool of using an Ask-for as a way of jump-starting the improv action. Each troupe or format likely has a slightly different approach or philosophy when it comes to gathering inspiration. For example, in the long-form tradition, I’ve constructed formats that launched from one or two suggestions, while others have incorporated large (literal) slates of ideas and/or paused the action to elicit a new element to send the action reeling in an unexpected direction. And when I’m playing short-form, the way in which I interact with the audience also varies from show to show: I’m much more likely to sift through choices in Gorilla Theatre as a director than in Sak Comedy Lab‘s short-form competition Duel of Fools where we tend to take the first thing we hear.

That being said, I think there are certainly some best practices when seeking suggestions from the proverbial or literal darkness of the auditorium. If you’re a frequent player, I imagine most of these strategies are already in your tool belt.

Ways to Get the Most Out of Your Ask-For

1.) You get what you ask for (mostly). If your prompt is “Can I please have a small room in the house,” you shouldn’t be surprised if you’re met with a chorus of “Toilet” or “Bathroom.” If our ask is too narrow, we’re probably going to find ourselves getting similar results again and again, so find ways to provide a more open-ended question that’s likely to yield different results from audience to audience. “Where’s the last place you took a photo or selfie?” is still likely to result in a location but you will probably get a wider variety of responses. Similarly, if you’re playing a short-form show with a stock set of games and generally ask the same question every time, don’t be surprised when you get one of three variants as the answer. Creating a deeper array of prompts for yourself is likely to quickly pay dividends by opening up whole new scenic possibilities.

2.) Be careful of needless insider jargon in the ask. For a while I performed with a troupe where we’d often ask for a “non-geographic location” in an effort to avoid getting a bunch of different country names. On the page, this ask-for can make sense, but for your casual viewer, that particular phrase probably doesn’t hold too much meaning. We’d often have to provide a follow up question when we were predictably met with quiet consternation. Many of the locations where I perform are frequented by “regular” theatre goers, so we want to make sure our language isn’t needlessly opaque or appealing only to the returning aficionados. In some of my period-specific dramaturgical improv it’s also become clear that some launching information is better provided through other means such as a random draw or audience vote between pre-set options. For example, if I ask for a societal ill plaguing Prohibition America, it’s more than foreseeable I might get nothing, the same thing every night, or something so anachronistic that it might puncture the stylistic homage before it has even begun.

3.) Burn common responses in the set up. Some games or formats thrive or are designed with a very specific ask-for in mind: in the short-form game Crime Endowment you need to assemble reasonably predictable elements (an activity, object, location and accomplice are standards for us) so that the endowee has a road map for what they are trying to figure out. If you’re unable to craft a new angle into the ask-for on the fly, you can always burn prior or common responses as examples. I might ask, “Can I have an outdoor activity such as mowing the lawn or walking your dog?” This way, you’ve hopefully dismissed options that will have you improvising over all-too-familiar terrain again. Note that too many examples are likely to stump the audience by putting them in their heads, and that it’s not uncommon for someone to yell back the very thing you’ve just theoretically eliminated! It can also prove helpful to elicit a suggestion prior to explaining too much about the intended game or frame. In Crime Endowment, once the audience knows you’re piecing together a crime that may needlessly narrow their imaginations rather than assembling the random components and then revealing that these seemingly inane choices will now form the dastardly deed.

4.) Don’t let the over-eager monopolize. This is probably more of an issue in the short-form tradition where you might find yourself seeking ask-fors multiple times throughout the evening, but performances can become dominated by an individual or smaller group during these pauses in the action. It could be a large group booking of preteens taking up the front rows and inadvertently serving as a barrier for the rest of the house with their excitement, current improv students trying to “help” by filling silences with well-worn offers in a particularly quiet audience, a rowdy guest who has had a few too many drinks and has mistaken the stage for a television set, or someone who isn’t reading the room well and is offering up inappropriate, vulgar or demeaning ideas. I’ll often let such a person or party get something into the mix but will then clearly move to other sections of the audience with a comment such as “Let’s get this starting point from the back of the house.” If truly disruptive behavior continues, that’s when a host or member of house management should step in.

5.) Don’t be afraid of the raised hand. I’ve played in venues with huge floor plans, poor acoustics or sight-lines, or thousands of guests. In these instances it was almost unavoidable to ask for raised hands to make sure we could really hear the intended suggestion. This technique can also help if an audience has an unruly faction in its midst as many people are less inclined to yell out that inappropriate thought if they are in full focus. A little loss of anonymity can go a long way in these cases! This is also a simple and helpful approach if you’re looking for a slightly more complex or specific element, you’re amassing a slate of many suggestions and you want to be sure you’re getting to various parts of the room, or would like to hear a few ideas before committing to one. A connected caution: sometimes I’ll see fellow players select a “random” audience member who has not self-nominated, to offer up a prompt. While this certainly can work (especially if the particular person has been clearly excited and participatory), I’ve also seen audience members squirm when they’re the recipient of such focused and unwanted attention, so I tend to opt for letting folks opt in with a raised hand instead.

6.) Establish clear expectations. If you note at the top of the show that you are going to take the first thing that you hear, that’s your contract and it’ll take a little more wiggling to adjust if things inadvertently go awry. If you note that you’re looking for something that you particularly like or find inspiring, then you’ve given yourself permission to sift through what you get. If you acknowledge that you have children in the audience and want a suggestion that is appropriate under these circumstances, then ignoring the racy option has already been justified. Or to the contrary, if you’ve noted that this is a late-night show intended for adults where children shouldn’t be present, you’ve warned any parents in the house that they might have some explaining to do after the show. Each company will operate under different expectations and parameters, but it’s helpful to let the audience know those in advance, especially if you’re working in a space that might house a wide variety of styles and formats.

Final Thought

At the end of the day, as Johnstone notes above, we need to give ourselves permission (if we haven’t already) to take the suggestion that will best set us up for joy and success, or perhaps even leap into the unknown without a suggestion at all if that’s our whim. There is no prize in nirvana for the improviser who always takes the first offer regardless of its helpfulness. Nor is there punishment in purgatory for quickly recognizing that an elicited ask-for might be problematic at best, or divisive and mean-spirited at worst. If you sense that the proffered idea won’t suit, make the call, decline the gift (perhaps with a little humor or edge depending on your persona and what is warranted) and quickly move on to someone else. Yes, we want to honor our audience and allow them to feel connected and responsible for the resulting play, but we also want to enable scene work that excites and inspires us as players as this will ultimately best serve everyone in attendance.

Related Entries: Audience, Hosting, Initiation Synonyms: Get, Prompt, Suggestion

Cheers, David Charles.
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© 2020 David Charles/ImprovDr

Connected Game: Options

Published by improvdr

A professional improvisational practitioner with over thirty years experience devising, directing, performing, teaching and consulting on the craft of spontaneous (and scripted) theatre and performance.

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