That old chestnut of questions in theatrical improvisation scenes has popped up a number of times over the years, and seems to be doing the rounds of our local community yet again. Like many theatrical improvisation techniques, it’s either taught wrong in early levels for whatever reason, or it’s not taught at all, both of which lead to students questioning (sic) it after completing their level training. Explanations of questions in improv scenes usually suggest that asking questions in a scene is generally bad, and they often suggest workarounds or logic we can use in a scene when there are questions.
The Improv Contract
One of the reasons why “questions” isn’t always taught in class, is because questions are on that huge list of things that you certainly can do in a scene — a list that would take hours to redundantly run through in an improv class. Things like acting and speaking are also on that list, as is using nouns, verbs and statements etc. Questions are no different to anything else in a scene.
At its core, the “improv contract” we have with our fellow players when we go on stage, simply states that every actor in the scene listens, supports and contributes information to the scene, and pretty much anything that does that is free game, including asking questions. In fact a scene consisting of just questions is fine, so long as those questions contribute information to the scene.
The Published History of Don’t Ask Questions
The myth of “Don’t ask questions” was first addressed in print by Keith Johnstone with his exercise “Questions Only Game” in his 1999 book Impro For Storytellers, which teaches students to ask questions while progressing a scene, and to be able to perform scenes made up completely of questions. A later 2008 book titled The Improv Handbook: The Ultimate Guide to Improvising Comedy, Theatre, and Beyond, by Johnstone aficionados Tom Salinsky and Deborah Frances–White, discusses this exercise in detail, as well as the often misunderstood opposite “No Questions Game”, and the myth of not asking questions.
On the Chicago method side, Del Close, Sharna Halpern and Kim Johnson’s classic 1994 book Truth in Comedy states that asking questions is the same as asking other players for information, and that this is theft. An awesomely bold statement, but like a lot of the information in Truth in Comedy, things aren’t as black and white as written. Because as we know, questions can certainly be used for characters — not just actors — to give information to each other, which is the point of Johnstone, Salinsky and Frances–White. Mick Napier finally clarifies some of this in the Chicago method in his landmark 2004 book Improvise: Scene from the Inside Out, stating quite clearly that “Don’t ask questions” is one of those irrelevant rules for making good scenes.
Rules, Logic and Cognition
So we know some questions are fine in scenes and some aren’t so much. So the obvious conclusion of some teachers is to make a set of rules that decide which questions are good and which ones are bad, and what to do when someone else asks these bad questions. While this seems helpful at first, it actually avoids the problem, and usually makes the problem worse. Any kind of rule about what to do or not do in a scene, just adds to a player’s cognitive load — their conscious thinking and working memory. And the more cognitive load, the worse the improvising process becomes. We don’t want to be thinking about the “question asking” flow chart while improvising a scene, or even once that flow chart has become part of our unconscious motor memory. It’s all unnecessary overload.
Instead of looking at the problem — bad questions in scenes — let’s look at the cause, and why some players ask questions that carry little information in scenes. Beginner improvisors tend to start asking questions when they don’t know what is happening, or how they should respond. Instead of contributing to the scene, they pull back and ask questions designed to offload that work onto their scene partner. Truth in Comedy also states that improvisors ask questions because they already know the answer that they want to come out in a scene, but these days this is a much less common reason outside Chicago, New York or L.A.
Thus the problem isn’t that questions need to be carefully constructed and worked into a scene, the problem is really that the improvisors in early levels don’t know how to progress an improvised scene very well. This usually comes down to not enough focus on listening, as well as not having enough practical scene time under their belt in class, all of which is amplified when fear kicks in from not knowing what to do on stage. They deflect their not knowing what to do, by asking questions of their scene partner — “I don’t know, what do you think about it?”. These are issues completely unrelated to questions, so advice on “questions” logic is like saying we should teach people who can’t swim, how to yell in a perfectly constructed way for someone to come and help them, instead of teaching them… you know… how to swim.
Questions Are Life
For yet another approach, let’s turn to Bill Arnett. In his 2016 book The Complete Improviser, Arnett talks about scenes being slices of life, that anything that happens in life can also happen in a scene. In real life we ask questions all the time, most are for good reasons, and rarely does anyone do so thinking about question construction and what logic to follow when asking questions. Our natural inquisitive nature takes care of all that.
Questions in real life are a part of what we call the interactional or conversational frame, or what happens when people interact with each other in real life. This idea was popularised by Mikhail Bakhtin in his 1975 book The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays, and Erving Goffman in his 1974 book Frame Analysis, both of which highlight how conversations work. When people ask questions, they are looking to the future, they are considering options that lie just ahead of the conversation, and are seeking information about those options. Questions and answers are an inherent part of advancing a conversation, and rarely — except perhaps at a party where conversation has ended in an uncomfortable silence — about not knowing what to do. Once you know what you want ahead of you (driving a conversation or improv scene forward), you formulate questions (getting information) that support that goal. It’s often the same in an improv scene, and similar to what Truth in Comedy was referring to regarding questions.
In improv, this is what questions should represent for the character, the way questions are asked in real life, instead of being a way for the actor to state that they don’t know what to do.
The “Don’t ask questions” myth continues because it is still useful to discuss it every few years for newer players. By understanding the arguments about questions and some of the formulated workarounds, we can better understand the issues at hand, which gives us a much better understanding of improvisation, making us much better improvisors. And as we understand improv better, we no longer have to worry about rules about questions, and anything in a scene is free game.
My book Inside Improvisation: The Science Behind Theatrical Improvisation and How To Get Better, discusses many of these ideas, including cognitive load, conversational frames, the unconscious, and questions in scenes, and how it all relates back to improv and becoming a better improvisor. Likewise Academy of Improvisation’s corporate and public improvisation workshops provide much deeper dives into many of these ideas, as well as techniques for businesses and teams.