When Is It Ok To Ask Questions In Improv?

30 Mar 2015

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a woman crossing a perilous rope-bridge

During improv training, as a beginner, you are taught not to ask questions. It’s a really tricky one as humans are naturally inquisitive so it’s instinctive to ask questions.

Additionally, when you’re in an unnerving situation (like participating in improv for the first time), you naturally feel nervous or fearful. This further feeds into the desire to ask questions. This happens a lot when you can’t think of anything to say (you’ll notice this outside of improv too, of course).

The thing is, telling people “don’t ask questions” is not quite right because there is another reason you might ask a question; it could be part of your character choice.

The next time you’re improvising and tempted to ask a question, think about whether you are being driven by fear or making a deliberate character choice.

On a recent Leadership Coaching course, I was reminded that there are different kinds of questions. It occured to me that there was some useful correlations for improv here.

The different types of questions can be identified as follows:

  • Open
  • Closed
  • Leading or Loaded
  • Repeated

Open questions

Where the improviser doesn’t have have a clue what to say. They ask the question out of fear usually. This puts pressure on their scene partner to come up with a response.

“What’s that?”

“Who are you?”

“What are we doing here?”

Closed questions

Where the improviser has some idea what’s going on but want to clarify or they are making a deliberate character choice.

“Are you the Priest?”

“This is good Pizza isn’t it?”

“Do you sell washing machines in this store?”

Leading / Loaded questions

These are a gift to your partner because you’re making an offer. This type of question adds detail to the story.

“Are you feeling nervous about your interview this afternoon?”

“You’ve had a rough day. Do you want me to give you a massage?”

“Did you send in your college application?”

One thing to watch out for with loaded questions is that some improvisers will use them as a way of pushing their idea forward. This is a problem if they expect/want a specific answer from their partner. Remember - when you ask a question, the offer is out there. You can’t control what comes back!

For example - an improviser wants their scene partner to be pregnant…

Leading question: “Are you going to the doctor about being sick this morning?”

Scene partner replies: “Nah, it was just those nachos Dad made”

Repeated question

A question that doesn’t add any detail to the scene but repeats back something that someone has just said. This can be used as a stalling tactic when an improviser doesn’t know what to say or is not sure how to move the scene forward.

“I’m going for a beer” - “Oh yeh, you’re gonna have a beer?”

“I’m feeling really unwell” - “You feel sick?”

“I’d like the designs for the new house?” - “You want the new designs?”

Key takeaway: If it makes sense for your character to ask this question in the reality you’ve established, go for it. Otherwise - avoid the question trap.

Next post: An Unexpected Way To Increase Emotional Intelligence

Previous post: A Leap Into The Unknown

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