This entry explores a stock Theatresports game that I remember first playing during my youth in New Zealand. As I consider the importance of Assumptions this week, it’s almost too obvious to pair it with Scene Without Questions, but being obvious is also a foundational improv concept (to be discussed in a later post!) so here we go…
This can be played as a Decider or standard scenic game: I’m primarily dealing with the latter here. A premise is obtained – it can be fun to deliberately elicit a scenario in which a lot of questions would naturally occur. A scene is created in which characters cannot ask questions. If they do so they must leave the scene immediately typically after quickly justifying their exit. The scene continues until an ending is found, or the entire team is eliminated (depending on how you elect to deal with infractions).
The audience suggestion is a department store service counter. Player A establishes a counter and starts to work behind it as Player B enters with a large mimed prop in their hand.
Player A: “Next”
Player B: “I’d like to return this microwave. It isn’t working properly.” B places the box on the counter.
Player A: (Passively examining the box) “I’ll need to see your receipt.”
Player B: “And I’ll need to see your manager if you keep talking to me in that tone.”
Player A: “Sir, this box appears to be empty. Are you trying to pull one over on me?”
A question has been asked and the audience groans.
Player A: “I think you should see my manager.” Exits as Player C now enters as the manager.
Player C: “I see you’re back again with the microwave box…”
Player A: “And I see that you haven’t been returning my phone calls, Rhea…”
This game is certainly about avoiding questions, as the title makes clear, but it is also about attacking the scene even with the knowledge that a question might slip out. If you play the game too tentatively or scrutinizing every word before you say it, the scene will quickly lose it’s energy and momentum. Play to “win” but don’t be afraid to “lose” and make sure the dynamism of the scene comes first. Take the risk to speak before you think!
Traps and Tips
1.) Establish a quick and clear method for determining infractions. There are several possibilities that you can set up as you’re introducing the game for the audience. My preference is to instruct the audience to groan or make a buzzer sound if they hear a player asking a question. This reaction can be further heightened by a light or sound cue from the booth if you have that at your disposal (although it’s generally good form for the booth to wait to make this adjustment until it’s been noticed by the audience or their proxy). If you’re using an emcee or judges for the show, I think it’s also helpful to empower them to quickly make the call. Sometimes players might use a questioning inflection, or ask a question and then quickly tag it with a statement, or just mumble or fade out as they realize what they are about to say. Some audiences can be a little wary to initially make these difficult calls, and it’s also helpful to just have someone who can quickly make the decision as needed as you don’t want to have to pause the scene for lengthy discussions or petitions!
2.) Establish the penalty for breaking the rules. Depending on the experience and skill of the players and your goals as a company, there are several penalties that can be deployed. In ascending order of difficulty: players who ask questions must leave the scene for a set period of time (generally 30 to 60 seconds) but can then return as their original character; offenders must leave the scene but can then return only as non-speaking inanimate objects or the like; or players guilty of infractions must leave the stage for the remainder of the scene. In rehearsal or if you’re working with student performers I think it’s kind to begin at the first level of difficulty otherwise you can end up with a scene that suddenly dissipates and ends in an anticlimactic fashion. If you’re working on a team that has a strong grasp of the requisite skill-set, the third iteration certainly maximizes the risk and stakes for the audience. But if you set the bar too high too early, players are likely to perform with fear rather than abandon. If you’re playing on a smaller team, the game also benefits from leaving a little wiggle room for players to reappear.
3.) Attack, attack, attack. Don’t fall into the trap of proofing every line of dialogue in your head before saying it out loud. You (and the audience) will have more fun if you take the risk of having a question pop out of your mouth at any given moment. It’s certainly good improv etiquette to establish a strong environment and to engage in interesting staging and activities, but don’t avoid language for long periods of time if this is purely a tactic to avoid asking a question. If you are eliminated for asking a question, don’t forget to justify your exit (this final moment can provide a helpful gift to keep the scene going for those who remain) and be sure to accept the call with good humor and grace. A little “heat” or performed disappointment can add an interesting dynamic, but the audience can quickly sense if your frustration or anger is real, and this can put a negative cloud on the game.
4.) Pace your entrances and don’t crowd the stage. This is sound advice for any improv scene, but it’s particularly important in Scene Without Questions. You’ll never know who might end up carrying the weight of the scene due to eliminations and it’ll help the story if you can strategically make those characters who survive important to the action. In the example above, Player A could (should) have become more closely known to Player B if they had remained together in the scene longer. With an earlier exit, it becomes increasingly important to invest in the remaining available character combinations. Scenes populated by strangers are uniquely problematic in this form and also innately increase the likelihood of early questions! (“Do I know you,” “Have we met before,” “What’s your name?”) If someone in your team or company generally does well with this challenge, it can be helpful to have them in the starting combination just to increase the likelihood that a protagonist can emerge and make it through the majority of the scene. (If you’re playing this as a Decider, on the other hand, I’d encourage a ringer to wait and go later so as to help ramp up the finesse and skill.)
5.) This dynamic works well as a decider. The basics of the scene remain the same, although it’s a given that eliminated players can’t return so that you can whittle down the players to a “winner.” A clear method for acknowledging infractions becomes more critical, and it tends to work best essentially as a pair game with one representative from each opposing team. Avoid having teammates play against each other as it undermines the conceit of the decider competition. You can also play the scene continuously or discretely. In the continuous version, the scene just continues uninterrupted with disqualified players being replaced by teammates as new entering characters until only one player or team remains. In the discrete version, a new unrelated vignette begins after each question which may be inspired by the original or a newly elicited suggestion. Depending on the cast size and skill, the successful player can either remain and take on a new challenger, or two new players can start afresh with the successful playing earning a point or similar for their team.
This is a dynamic game or decider in front of an audience, especially if everyone joyfully attacks the scene. If you are working with improvisers who unhelpfully default to asking a lot of bland questions, it’s also a great workshop exercise that can diagnose and hopefully provide a step in the right direction towards breaking this habit.
Connected Concept: Assumptions