Game Library: “Questions Only”

Also known as just Questions, this language dynamic can work as a challenging short-form scenic game, a fun character overlay, or as a fast-paced decider. This entry assumes the latter focus: take a glance at my earlier entry on this game’s funhouse mirror partner, Scene Without Questions here, for pertinent tips on a more scenic approach if that’s your preference or need.

The Basics

Can you imagine a game where characters can only speak in the form of questions? Would it surprise you that failing to do so would result in your elimination from the scene? Who will ultimately remain to represent their team after the battle of questions and emerge as the victor? Is this definition clear or do you need more information? Did you see what I did there? Is this amusing anyone anymore at this stage?

Example

Opposing teams (or perhaps a handful of representatives if you’re playing with a larger cast) receive “Kindergarten” as their suggestion. Player A and B represent the first team, with Player C and D playing for the second. Player A and C begin as an overwhelmed teacher and overstimulated child respectively.

Player A: “Weeraya, can you please put the chalk away?”

Player C: “What are you going to do if I don’t?!”

Player A: “Do I need you call your parents again? Don’t you remember that they were very unhappy with you last time?”

Player C thinks about this for a second…

Player C: “Is threatening a child really appropriate?”

Player A: “Can’t you see all the other children have gone outside for play time?”

Player C: (starting to draw on the walls) “Why can’t I just play in here with the chalk? Can’t you see I want to stay inside?”

Player A: “Do I have to count to three…?”

Player C: “Can you?”

Player A: “I don’t get paid enough for this!”

Caller: (in response to audience reactions, cueing the elimination) “Teacher.”

Player A, as the flustered teacher, leaves the scene in character. Their teammate enters in their stead (but as a new character.)

Player B: (as the supervisor) “Haven’t we talked about this, Weeraya?”

Player C: “Please, can’t I just play inside?”

Player B: “Are you going to apologize to Ms. Riley…?”

The Focus

There are some mental gymnastics at the core of the game as players must quickly respond in the form of a question while also keeping some forward scenic momentum. Doing both at the same time with finesse is no small task! When used as a decider, avoid having teammates playing opposite each other in the scene for any protracted period of time, and a caller should clearly announce infractions (the audience can also assist in this regard by being cued to groan or make a game show buzzer sound.) Vignettes needn’t consist strictly of pairs but I find this tightened focus helpful and energizing.

Traps and Tips

1.) Does every offer need to be a question? In short, yes. This doesn’t mean that players can’t and shouldn’t also deploy vibrant physical and emotional choices, but when they speak every sentence needs to function clearly as a question. (It follows that if you provide two sentences in a row that both must function independently as questions as well.) Using loaded or detailed questions that include strong offers will serve you and the scene better than vague musings. Just as is the case in any improv scene, “Are you eating the red playdough again?” offers more potential than “What are you doing?” Verbal restriction games can easily become talking head scenes so strive to keep other story telling elements dynamically in play as well as this just adds to the impressiveness!

2.) Can I remain silent if I don’t know what to say? As a decider it’s typically good form to bounce back and forth between speakers with some predictable regularity, hence the tradition of treating the scene primarily as a two-person exchange until someone is eliminated. A brief moment of strategic silence can add some tension and playfulness, but prolonged silence should be noted by the caller and result in expulsion, especially if the scenic spark is petering out to little more than an ember. If you’re really lost for words, it can serve the scene to just boldly say anything in character and take the resulting elimination with relief and good humor.

3.) Are there cheats or wimps that I should avoid? When I serve as the caller or facilitator there are a handful of habits that I issue warnings for and ultimately use to eliminate players, especially if the decider is going long or one team or player is dominating. Repeating the same form of question or sentence structure dulls the challenge: “Can you go outside?” followed by “Can you leave me alone?” followed by “Can you follow instructions?” followed by “Can you be a better teacher?” By the third or fourth “can,” it can start to feel like a cop out particularly if this has been occurring a lot in the scene thus far. Tag questions can also prove problematic (or just provide an opportunity to expel players as needed): “This isn’t a very nice way to talk to your teacher now, is it?” Non sequiturs that don’t add or strongly connect to the current action also degrade the story arc. Similarly, just throwing on an upward inflection to the end of a line, while often clever, is worth calling out usually as well?!

4.) How about any strategies to raise the level of attack? I find this dynamic infinitely more accessible and enjoyable when I have quickly established my deal and objective as a character. Once you know your want, then most of your questions can serve as tactics fighting to move you towards this goal. To prevent a stalling tempo, it helps to just launch into your sentences with a brave leap rather than attempting to solve each language riddle before making a sound. Grabbing at a question word – who, how, what, where, which, why, is, do, could, will… – and then seeing where it takes you is a great user-friendly way to commit. If you end up running dry before the end of the sentence, then so be it… Just take the elimination with grace and embrace your exit. Unquestionably if you play to lose by jumping headfirst into each speech act with complete abandon, you and the audience will have more fun.

5.) Does this game work differently when played as a scene rather than a decider? As a decider you’ll typically have one representative from each team facing off against each other and then shuffling through the remaining players. I prefer playing this continuously as one long scene with multiple eliminations and entrances but others like discrete vignettes that restart anew, perhaps grabbing a different ask-for each time along the way. The former style allows for a more impressive and cohesive story while the latter provides an opportunity for more fast-paced variety. While I’ve mainly seen and utilized this dynamic as a decider, with playfully adept improvisers there’s no reason you couldn’t successfully slate it in a show as a scene. My Scene Without Questions post here offers helpful pointers for ways to structure infraction penalties.

In Performance

Is it a challenge to move a scene forward only through the use of questions? Could such an experience helpfully reduce the stigma of asking questions on the improv stage while simultaneously reinforcing the import of assumptions and acceptance? Will audiences delight in watching players reveling in verbal virtuosity? Are you already using this as a short-form decider or scenic handle? Do you have any lingering… questions?

Cheers, David Charles.
www.improvdr.com
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Photo Credit: Tony Firriolo
© 2022 David Charles/ImprovDr

Connected Concept: 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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