“A” is for “Assumption”

“The best initiations make assumptions, usually about their relationship, roles, or locations.”

Charna Halpern et al, Truth in Comedy. The Manual of Improvisation. Colorado Springs: Meriwether, 1994. p. 57


There is unavoidable overlap when it comes to improvisational terms that describe the small units through which we build our scenes together. Offers, initiations and endowing all share terrain with the currently featured idea of making assumptions. Each, in one way of another, refers to a singular idea, detail or “move” that provides specifics to the unfolding scenario. For the purposes of this entry, I would like to contemplate the concept of assumptions as it relates to asking questions in improv – something that is typically considered a no no (although I complicate this stance in my earlier post here). Through this more narrow lens, the concept of Assumptions promotes providing scenic answers and context rather than pushing this burden onto your scene partner by asking vague or empty questions.


Option 1:

Player A takes great care in setting up a garden, obtaining a shovel, making sure that no one is looking, and then making the first few efforts to break the ground.

Player B enters nonchalantly and with little energy.

Player B: “What are you doing?”

Option 2:

Player A takes great care in setting up a garden, obtaining a shovel, making sure that no one is looking, and then making the first few efforts to break the ground.

Player B slowly enters, with great effort, apparently lugging a heavy object behind them. They pause for a moment, clearly winded, and turn to look at Player A’s progress:

Player B: “I don’t know how I’m ever going to be able to repay you for this…”

Some Additional Analysis

In “Option 1,” Player A is literally and figuratively doing all the work, and Player B’s contribution is almost negligible. In “Option 2,” Player B has now assessed Player A’s actions and made some assumptions as to what might be happening. Rather than seeking permission, in this second example, Player B is making an additive choice, providing new information that is inspired by and supports the energy and details already established.

Variations of “Option 1” are surprisingly prevalent and pernicious, especially with improvisers who are still finding their footing in the craft. “What are you doing?” and choices of its ilk are often the result of fear: fear of making a big move, fear of getting it “wrong,” fear of not making the “best” of all choices in a sea of almost endless possibilities. As a teacher and coach, I often see a style of play that I would describe as a tyranny of deferring politeness. Players are so wary of stepping on each other’s toes or upending another player’s idea, that they hang back anxiously and add little to nothing. Meanwhile their partner, who often only began with the most tentative seed of an idea, similarly lingers in a state of deferment for fear of bulldozing or not leaving sufficient room for their partner to contribute. A perpetual loop of deferring politeness rarely results in joyous play and dynamic scenes.

What can we do as improvisers as we’re walking into a scene and face a sea of questions?

Techniques to Turn Your Questions into Assumptions

1.) Take a breath. When we’re not sure what to do or what’s going on we can quickly slip into “performer time” that makes three seconds feel like an eternity but that has little relation to the real “stage time” that steadily ticks forward. Taking an extra few moments, a deep breath, and really observing what is happening is more likely to set you up for success that racing into the fray without having the time to process the nuances of your partner’s actions. If you need an extra few seconds to understand what has been established, it’s likely that the audience may be in the same boat. And frankly, part of the fun of improv is watching players squirm just a little if something isn’t immediately transparent, so don’t rob the audience of this fun.

2.) Start small. You don’t need to understand everything that is intended (assuming that your partner has, in fact, a clear intent in mind) in order to provide the gift of your entrance or addition when it’s needed. If you’re unsure as to the specifics of the bigger picture, concentrate instead on a smaller facet. Can you define a piece of the environment, add a new related prop, assist in the creation of the mood or style? Choose one piece of the puzzle that intrigues and inspires you and make this the focus of your assumption. Also keep in mind that your initial assumption need not be expressed verbally and that your thoughtful physical choices are just as likely to enrich the emerging world.

3.) Lean into character. If you’re unsure as to your partner’s choices or intent, you can still provide confidence and strength by sharply defining your own character, relationship and point of view. In the above example, Player A is preparing the ground or burying something. If you want to allow some ambiguity or give some room for this to develop organically, you can still leap to a very specific emotional energy. If I’m excited, or nervous, or regretful, or amused, that color will provide a new interesting tone and help steer the scene into new or newly-defined territory. I like this strategy in particular as a character’s point of view will rarely upend a partner’s trajectory if they do have something loaded and ready to go.

4.) If in doubt, join. I’ve written about parallel actions elsewhere and will explore this concept in more detail in a future post, but if your mind is flooded with questions, throw yourself into the established action. Grab another mimed prop and start digging, or start grabbing clumps of dirt with your hands, or moving rocks aside and out of the way. Find your own way of doing what you believe your partner is doing while adding energy, emotion and nuance. Such an approach of mirroring has manifold benefits. It gets you off the sidelines and into the field of play where you’re more likely to have your creativity sparked. It gives your partner the gift of your presence and energy which in and of itself might open up new doors and options. And it is likely to push your own fear or misgivings to the side as your focus moves out from yourself and into the stage action.

Final Thought

My theory is that while we believe our deferring politeness is an act of kindness to our partners on stage, in reality it is our fear getting the better of us and that our partners would nearly always prefer us to just take the risk of adding our idea even if we’re not 100% sure it’s what they had in mind. Making assumptions as a strategy isn’t predicated on the notion that these assumptions will always line up perfectly with what our partner tentatively intended. As I noted above, our partner may, in fact, have nothing specific in mind. Rather, making an assumption acknowledges that many of the questions rattling around in our head may be simultaneously rattling around in the heads of our scene partners and audience, so why not just leap in and define what we see with richer context when we can rather than hiding in the shadows of the improv unknown?

Related Entries: Bulldozing, Endowing, Specificity Antonyms: Fear, Questions Synonyms: Initiation, Offer

Cheers, David Charles.
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© 2020 David Charles/ImprovDr

Connected Game: Scene Without Questions

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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