Enough with the questions already?
So, I teach an improv workshop with a very edgy and cool name, “Enough with the f*cking questions already” (I know, right?).
The main point of the workshop is that we, as improvisers, tend to ask a lot of questions instead of making active choices, and how this sometimes forces our scene partner to make the choices for us or stops the scene from moving forward.
Asking questions can also be the best thing ever! Usually when adding to the scene, what’s already been established, or used to clarify what’s going on (especially if the performers are confused. If they are, so is the audience).
When are questions good and when are they bad?
Questions are good when they service your partner, the scene you’re in and the audience. They’re bad when they’re a disservice to them.
A question can be a disservice to your partner when you’re forcing him or her to make choices for you by not making them yourself. Asking “What is that?” forces your partner to define what “that” is. Instead you could take care of yourself and your partner by telling them what “it” is.
“Did you get a new tie?” is an offer as good as any, but you might be forcing your partner to make another choice for you, because now she or he have to decide whether it’s true or not.
A question can be a disservice to your scene when they’re stopping things from happening or moving forward. There’s a difference between “Should we make the pizza?” and “Let’s make the pizza” (or just start making it using object work). All three are valid offers, but the question might be stalling the action or activity.
A question can be a disservice to an audience because it can cause confusement. The audience contract dictates that everything we create on stage is real, if only for a short time. If the performers don’t know or trust the the world they’re in neither does the audience. They stop caring about the scene and why wouldn’t they? The more real we can make it the better: “Is that a bird?” vs. “Hey, a bird”. Specificity can make it even more real: “Hey, a massive bald eagle!”.
Why are we doing this to our self and our partner?
I think there’s two main reasons we ask questions that are disservicing: Fear and unawareness.
Improv is a powerful tool, we can do and create anything! But to do that we have to show our ideas to the world and let other people sneak a peek into our mind. In front of an audience. What if THEY don’t like what they see? It’s terrifying! And the consequences are huge (relatively speaking). THEY might think of us as boring, weird, perverted, anything but normal and THEY might judge us based on that. Even though it’s make believe. Pretend. So we ask for permission from our partner to show our idea by asking questions, when we are free to give ourselves permission any given moment.
The fear is real. I’ve seen improvisers struggle like crazy just to define what day it is in the scene. Defining things, making active choices are scary because if we let one idea out, more ‘dangerous’ ideas might follow. More potential judgement. And stuff might happen because of it, causing us to lose control. So our brain fights it because it’s there to protect and take care of us, and asking questions are safer than the opposite.
Or, we just don’t know that we’re doing it. We all have our quirks and habits, some we know and others we are blissfully unaware of.
How to approach this?
One of the easiest tools from the workshop is to turn any question into a statement. It takes no effort other than awareness. “Would you like a coffee” could be turned into “Here, I got you a coffee”. Even if you just realized that you’ve already asked a question, just turn it into a statement: “Would you like a coffee? Here, I got you a coffee”.
Another tool is what I call The Great Why. If you want to know more about a statement made by your partner odds are the audience wants to know more as well.
“I like kittens” — Why? “Because we had a cat growing up”. Cool, we already know more about the character. The Great Why can be used ad nauseam: Why? “I grew up on a farm and didn’t have many friends” — Why? “My parents were very protective because of the neighbors” and so on. Just a few simple Why’s and we got the characters backstory and more. Feel free to mix it up with Why not and maybe ask those questions we fear to ask in real life.
But aren’t those questions, you say? Yes. And they service the scene adding to what’s already there. The Great Why character exercise gives us permission to be boring, weird and perverse in a safe way, getting rid of some of the fear.
Should you stop asking questions? No. You might discover something new.
Should you tell your fellow players to stop asking questions? No, let them have their own improv journey (unless they ask you for feedback).
Should you figure out what works for you through trial and error, lead by example, trust that whatever your brain gives you is good enough and commit to that idea? It might just make life on and off easier for you. So please stop asking for permission and start giving it to yourself instead.
Thank you for reading!