The Questions Question

Probably every mid-level group I have coached or taught asks, at some point, the same question.

“Can you ask questions?”

It’s a handy piece of advice, not asking questions, and it seems like it can serve a beginner well. But after a few classes, like many improv notes, the young student raises an internal objection. The teacher hasn’t done a good job of explaining why questions are so bad; they’ve only said not to do it. 

And I’ve seen more than my fair share of beginner improv scenes that consist mainly of one player interviewing the other, far more interesting character. We learn a lot about one character but nothing about the other, the question asker. This is not a scene. A scene reveals information about every principle character in it. Or there are those beginner scenes where one player starts with a little bit of business, some object work, and the other player enters and asks “What are you doing?” This delays believability, as humans rarely enter any space and ask for clarification on an action they can plainly see. It also effectively propels the scene towards being about the object, as the player must now explain it, and steers it away from being about the dynamic or character. And then there are beginner scenes where the potential for an active choice presents itself, and one player asks “What should we do?” They, in effect, delay action because they are afraid to make the choice of action.

Time and again, among beginners, questions become a way to put the onus of creation on to the other player for whatever reason. Perhaps they are afraid, unsure of the value of their own ideas, or honestly have no idea what to do next that they ask a question in order to buy time.

However, “don’t ask questions” doesn’t really teach the behavior we want. The real note is “make a statement.” Statements are stronger because they are more efficient. Every example above requires a response to confirm or answer the question in order to establish, yes, this information now exists. Only then can the question asker proceed with the rest of the information they were intimating. It’s another two extra lines to get to the idea we wanted to play with in the first place. Questions can contain much of the information that we ask for in a scene — who or what or where. “Where’s that twenty bucks you owe the loan shark, Julio?” “Why did you want to meet at this fancy restaurant, Becky?” “Captain Dan, did you hear that crunching noise?” But in each of these examples, we could easily rephrase what was asked into a statement.

“Sorry, Julio, Sharky wants me to break your thumbs on account of the twenty bucks back you owe him.”

“A fancy restaurant can only mean one thing, Becky: you’re breaking up with me.”

“Captain Dan, I'm afraid we just hit an iceberg.”

Clunky, perhaps, but they unequivocally communicate what we were hoping to add to the scene. There is now no uncertainty that there’s a threatening loan shark, a break-up, a sinking ship. Not only do we have the scenic details, we also have a sense of how that character feels. In the hands of any improvisor this is very powerful. A choice has been made, it has been communicated, and a foundation is being built that allows us a solid platform to play on. This is especially paramount for premise-based or short-form improv, and even a slow, patient improvised one act play benefits from bold particular choices.

Yes, sooner or later, we’re going to get to much smoother, much more natural ways of communicating. But until then, beginners must get in the habit of saying plainly their ideas for the scene in statements. That’s the note we give our students. “Make a statement.” “Say what that is.” “Label that.” “Name each other.” Give, give, give information.

I would even say, and I’m ruining this by even talking about it in the first place, don’t ever forward the idea of “no questions.” It’s unnecessary if we are already urging our players to make positive contributions to the scene. When we focus on the gifts and the value thereof, we will find our players prone to making gifts in many forms, questions included. We remove the stressor that the player is somehow “doing improv wrong” because the player knows, without a doubt, what is beneficial and additive. They have a simple to-do list, not a to-don’t list.

Any questions? Ask away.