What We Talk About When We Talk About Questions

Every so often I get into a conversation with someone about improv, or I read a blog post, or overhear a rant about how much someone dislikes the rule “Don’t ask questions/Do make statements” in improv.  The argument usually goes the same.  Life has questions, why shouldn’t our scenes?  People don’t always know everything.  Go ahead and ask me questions, I can handle it.  I hear this so often and said so matter-of-factly that I would like to take a moment to unpack it.

First, no one is denying you of your right to ask questions in a scene.  In fact, no one is saying that you should never ask questions in the first place, other than perhaps enthusiastic level 2 students who are just beginning to understand that the techniques they are being taught are more of a guide than a mandate.  Level 1 students are often told not to ask questions, and for good reasons.  Letting go of this as an iron clad rule and understanding the real meaning behind it is an important step in the growth and development of every improviser.

Why are beginning improvisers told not to ask questions?

Telling a student not to ask questions is a quick way to begin to cultivate behaviors and instincts that lead to the students improving.  There are several reasons we tell beginning improvisers not to ask questions:

1.  Questions are not an effective way to figure out what the scene is about.

In real life, questions are how we get information, they are an incredibly effective method of figuring out something unknown.  If I don’t know where I am, I might ask someone, “Where are we?”  If I don’t know who someone is, I might ask them, “Who are you?”  If I don’t know what someone is doing, I might ask, “What are you doing?”  All of these are great ways of assessing a situation.  In improv though, they are not at all effective.

If improviser A walks out on stage and sees improviser B doing something with her arms, but since there is nothing there, improviser A might be inclined to ask, “What are you doing?”  Improviser B then looks and sees a person she does not know, so naturally she asks, “Who are you?”

The problem is, improviser A doesn’t know who he is, and improviser B doesn’t know what she’s doing.  That hasn’t been established yet, so we are left with two people who are trying to figure out what the other knows, but since they were both birthed into existence the moment the scene started, neither of them knows anything.  They have to build this new world that they’ve just stepped into, and if each is relying solely on the other for information than they won’t get anywhere.

As students get better and understand that this isn’t an effective way to get information, they can turn a vague and content free question into something interesting.  If improviser A walks into a scene, sees improviser B doing something with her hands, he might ask, “What are you doing?”  Improviser B, then armed with the knowledge that she has to make choices to build the world might respond, “Elliot, if you aren’t even going to pay attention this is the last time I’ll help you with your science fair project,” or something like that.  Now we have enough information to move forward into an interesting scene.

2.  Politeness

New improvisers have an idea, but they don’t want to step on what they think their scene partner thinks the scene should be about, so they ask permission.

If improviser A again walks into the scene and sees improviser B sitting pretending to read a newspaper.  Improviser A might think that improviser B is his father, because he sees him in a fatherly position.  Improviser A might ask, “Are you my father?”  Improviser A has an idea but thinks that improviser B might have a better idea so doesn’t want to step on improviser B’s toes.  But improviser B has already executed her idea, reading the newspaper, which was a great idea, it gave enough information for improviser A to make a decision about their relationship, but improviser A was too polite to add that piece of information into the scene, and instead asked permission for his idea to be used.

The response from a scene like this from an improv teacher is usually to turn it into a statement.  “Are you my father?” becomes “Father we need to talk,” or something like that.  Rather than asking permission it is declaring the relationship so we can move forward.  Far from being imposed upon, this is a gift to improviser B.  Now she knows who she is, she is father.  That can inform everything she does, instead of a nameless person sitting reading a newspaper, she is a father, with a child and a shared history that can be explored as the scene goes on.

If we have the suggestion of “office” and improviser A walks in and asks, “Are you my employee?” this is problematic for several reasons.  First, the actor isn’t committing to their choice, and second, no one would ever ask that.  The actor isn’t playing the reality of the scene.

I believe it was Jill Bernard who told me don’t act like everyone has a script but you.  They don’t.  We’re all just making it up as we go along.

(I realize a scene starting with “Are you my father?” could be gold and a scene starting with “Are you my employee?” might work in the hands of experienced improvisers.  The problem comes in when this initiation is made by a player over and over again. I hope you take the underlying meaning behind these examples.)

3.  Fear

This is probably the simplest reason, but also the most problematic.  Most people are terrified of being in front of a group.  When you experience fear, your higher brain functions start to shut down, the ability to reason in the abstract, compare multiple ideas, and think creatively are all greatly hampered.

When a student enters a scene and get the suggestion of “beach” their first line might be “Why are we at the beach?”  I have seen this a thousand times.  Taking away the students ability to ask questions takes away their safety blanket of not having to come up with anything.  They are now forced to make a decision about what they want the scene to about.  Usually in my experience I have to tell students who are suffering from fear many, many times to take those questions and turn them into statements (Don’t ask her why you’re at the beach, tell her why you’re at the beach).

Types of Questions I Love

Loaded Questions

Any time the question itself provides more information than the answer would necessitate.  I was judging a college improv tournament several years ago and two women came out to center stage.  One started mixing something in a bowl and said to the other in a thick Minnesota accent, “So Mary, you making your snicker doodles for the bake sale again?”  It was a question, but it had so much information in it.  I got a great sense of who these women were and what they were doing out of this question.  Regardless of what the answer was it provided the start for a potentially great scene.

“Straight Man” Questions

Often we see a character who we would consider “normal” interacting with a character who is “crazy” or thrown into a bizarre situation.  If we have a scene where a young man walks in on his sister practicing satanic rituals, it would be perfectly natural for that young man to look on in shock and ask, “What are you doing?”  The actor knows what’s going on, and isn’t asking the question out of fear or vagueness, but is reacting exactly as someone would when confronted with a totally bizarre situation.  These kinds of questions can be a great way to raise the stakes because it makes it clear to the audience that this is not the status quo and what we are seeing is new and unexpected to the character.

Pimping Questions

Some of my fondest improv memories are from people asking me a totally unexpected question that forced me to perform at the edge of my ability.  Questions like, “Can you sing me that song you always sang me when I couldn’t sleep as a child?”  or “I love the game ‘Worm in the Apple’ but can you refresh me on the rules?”

Clarification Questions

Didn’t hear what your scene partner said?  Ask them to repeat it.  You hear your scene partner say, “Pass me the hmmmr…” Ask for clarification and it becomes, “Pass me the hammer.”  Now you know what they were trying to say and you can move forward.  Asking for clarification means that you’re listening, and if you didn’t hear it, I guarantee you the audience didn’t hear it either.

Everyone who has taken an introductory improv classes has been told not to ask questions at some point.  This is good advice for the time, but what is actually important is the reasoning behind it.  To blindly dismiss this advice it to forget what it was like to learn improv in the first place and lose touch with the basics.