IMPROV: No Questions (Out Loud)!

by Ben Whitehouse.

Thank You Robot member Matt Little shares his thoughts on making assumptions over asking question in improv.

It’s a common thing to do – when we’re presented with an idea that’s foreign to us, we request clarification. We ask what the person meant. We ask if we can do a thing. We ask what the rules are. We ask we ask we ask. In life, an inquisitive nature is fantastic, even encouraged (sometimes it even gets you a million dollars).

But when we’re on stage, that’s not the time for questions OUT LOUD. It’s the time for assumptions.

I watch a lot of very talented performers stop scenes dead in their tracks to ask questions. In essence, what we are doing when we ask questions on stage is asking permission to present the idea we have in our heads. But here’s a secret – you already have permission to present that idea by the very fact that you are on stage.

An improv audience is great because they ASSUME that you know what you’re doing when you step up. As such, you should ASSUME that you have the answers to any question you are about to ask. You may sound a little more forceful on stage than in IRL, but hell, if you can be a bit of an asshole anywhere it’s on stage, right? Also, by making an assumption, congratulations! You’ve also made a DECISION.

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6 Responses to IMPROV: No Questions (Out Loud)!

  1. Dan Richter says:

    I think questions aren’t questions. It depends on whether you (1) try to draw information from your partner or (2) provide information?
    Examples:
    (1) “What’s this?”
    would be a question out of fear. The improviser doesn’t want to define.
    (2) “Did you kill Mr. Robins with this hammer?”
    The improvisers provides info: He defines the object, a deed in the past, and a drive of the scene. (Assuming that the answer won’t be “No.” ;-)

    Questions are normal in conventional theater. Why try to eliminate them in improvisational theatre?
    Use them in a smart way.

  2. Ben Whitehouse says:

    Dan, I think questions can be a useful in improv as well, but as your example shows, if your partner says “No” to the question of “Did you kill Mr. Robins with this hammer?” you are in trouble. Yes you have added quite a lot of information to the scene, but it’s still not the most active choice. If you had instead accused your partner “Oh my god! You killed Mr. Robins with this hammer!” there is no room for a denial.

    For starting improvisers, I believe questions should be avoided. Once you and your partner understand the rules and have a grasp of how scenes work, I see nothing wrong with a good question.

  3. vinnyfrancois says:

    Hmm. I’d disagree that saying “No” to the “Did you kill…” question gets you into trouble. That exchange signals, to me at least, that you’re playing a detective game of some kind, where the murderer is trying to avoid being found out. The character can say “No.” so long as the actor is saying “Yes.”

    As always, it’s not only what you say, it’s how you say it.

  4. Ben Whitehouse says:

    Hey Vinny nice to see you’re still around. For a seasoned performer you’re absolutely right saying no to “Did you kill Mr. Robins with this hammer?” will not make them bat an eye, but take a new performer and you could have a very frustrating scene.

    As for myself, if someone were to say “Did you kill Mr. Robins with this hammer?” my reponse would probably be “No! Of course not! I wouldn’t use that hammer – that hammer’s filthy.” ;)

  5. vinnyfrancois says:

    Still kicking around. :) I’ve been hanging out at blog.montrealimprov.com these days.

    Yeah, you’re right, in the context of teaching newer performers saying no can definitely be trouble. As Dan mentions above, new performers typically ask questions when they don’t want to define. But I also like to teach “No, and” alongside the “Yes, and”.