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Useful Lie: “Don’t Ask Questions”

"Don’t ask questions" is one of those supposed improv rules that has a good reason behind it but I would never just say that in a class I’m teaching and leave it as is. If improv is to reflect our reality in any way, questions must exist. We all ask questions in day to day life and so onstage, we must be able to ask questions. But there’s a kind of question that should be avoided.

As Marc noted in the comments to Jill’s post on Monday, questions like “How are you doing?” and “What’s that?” are boring. But as improv teachers we always hear these questions and its ilk. “What are we doing today?” “What’s happening?” These are the questions we must avoid. Don’t ask these questions. Let’s take a look at why they get asked and why they should be avoided.

When I ask a question in a scene like, “What’s that?” I am stalling. I’m scared of making a bad choice so I offload that responsibility to my scene partner. Essentially, I’m saying, “I don’t have an idea right now and I don’t have the time or calmness to make a perfect/funny/interesting choice. So can you take charge of this? Thanks.” As an improviser my whole job is to make things up. But if we’re nervous, forget it. I don’t want to make a mistake. I don’t want to say something and have no one laugh.

Nuts to that. Don’t worry about being funny with every single line. Just build a scene. My advice to beat this habit is always to answer the question you’re about to ask.

  • Don’t say, “What’s that?” Instead say, “That’s a cool model ship!” 
  • Don’t say, “What are we doing today?” Say, “Let’s go to the movies today.”
  • Lazy improviser: “How are you doing?” Amazing improviser: “You look sad.”

Don’t make your scene partner do your work for you. You have to be responsible and do half of the work. It’s scary making choices. We risk getting judged and people will hide in a cave for years before putting themselves in that position. Improv requires bold moves and bold choices. Even a simple endowment of, “You look sad,” can be a bold choice in an improv scene depending on how nervous you are.

And there are questions that add huge details or are great offers in and of themselves:

  • So, did you finally break up with Patty?
  • Who put this Lego piece in my time-reversalator?
  • What do you think you’re doing with that gun, Jameson?

So, it’s true: “Don’t ask questions.” But the full version is “Don’t ask questions that add nothing or make your partner do the work.”

The title of this post, however, contains “Useful Lie.” Because even though it can be useful to people who are learning improv (and I avoid the word “rule” assiduously when I teach), this “rule” is a lie. Ask any question you like, even the ones I tell you not to say a few paragraphs above. Because those are real things real people say. “What’s that?” is a perfectly valid statement and you could probably have a really fun scene with just two people saying that back and forth in different ways. The key is to ask questions from a place of control and not a place of nervousness. Once you do improv long enough (and even more so if you teach it), you can tell the difference between someone asking “What’s that?” because they don’t want to make a choice and someone asking the very same question because it adds to the scene.

In conclusion: Don’t ask questions. Unless you want to ask questions.

- vinny

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Guest Writer: Jill Bernard (Minneapolis)

Jill Bernard has been performing with ComedySportz-Twin Cities since 1993, and is a founding member of HUGE Theater in Uptown Minneapolis. Her one-woman improv piece, Drum Machine, has been featured in over forty improv festivals. She has taught and performed improv in Norway, Canada, and over thirty of the United States; and also on an episode of MTV “Made.” She is one-half of the duo SCRAM with Joe Bill of the Annoyance Theater. An Artistic Associate of the Chicago Improv Festival, she has studied at the Annoyance Theater, Improv Olympic, the Brave New Workshop and other organizations.

Rules from the Inside

There’s debate always! ALWAYS! about whether to teach the rules of improv. A friend linked to another blog about it recently. I’m curious about it myself. I never sit down with a class and have a formal discussion about them, that’s not how I want the adventure of improv learning to go. It feels like it makes people’s math brains go “if-I-follow-these-rules-the-improv-will-be-always-be-good” which is simply not true. Some scenes follow all the rules of improv and are just okay. Some scenes break practically all the rules and are killer. It’s also a mistaken path to put all your energy into the mechanics and none into the heart of this matter.

On the first night of class I explain something that it took me years to learn and acknowledge. I am not a useful teacher for everyone. There are two types of travelers: some people make a minute-by-minute itinerary and extensively research and collect a billion brochures. Others like to land with just a map and a smile and take off in any direction that seems intriguing. For the former I am unsatisfying. For the latter I am a joy.

I prefer to discover the rules - “invent” them new for every class so that they BELONG to that class. “Wasn’t that a great scene? What did you notice? What I liked about it was the way Joe took Rachel’s idea and added on to it…” Or if there’s something I’d like to inspire: “Let’s try it again and see what happens if Mike adds details and specifics… Hey that was neat, right? What do you think?” I don’t want to teach you the rules of improv, I want them to happen to you. 

This relates to one of the ways in which yoga has changed me. I used to be very disappointed when students took a ten-week class and didn’t come out the other side knowing everything about improv. In yoga, you have a “practice.” You’re not pushing toward something every day, you’re having your practice. One day you’ll do a great job at Starfish Pose and the next day you’ll topple; it’s not straight upward progress you can make a bar graph about. I can relax and be happy when I think about every improv class as part of a practice, where progress is made incrementally and we’re collecting this knowledge like some Katamari Damacy of improv.

I’ve developed a funny little tic where I occasionally stop and say, “Other improv teachers would want me to tell you X” and I spit out a rule. I would feel bad if someone goes to audition for Second City and gets kicked down the stairs because I never told them “Don’t ask questions.”

When I was a younger hothead I would say “@#%& the rules!” and my friend Stevie Ray would patiently explain that I have the luxury to say that because I learned the rules and now they’re automatic. I think I’m working the same angle but from the backside. I want them to become subconscious. It’s interesting, I just taught ten weeks with a group that instinctively yes-anded. No one told them that rule of improv, it was in them. I felt my job was to point it out and cultivate it, let it grow from the inside.

Previous guests: Andrea Del CampoEtan MuskatRick AndrewsKristen SchierAndy EningerJeroen Van DyckRemy BertrandCaspar ShjelbredSean MichaelsKareem BadrRobYn SladeIan ParizotRachel KleinDave MorrisAlex WlasenkoFrom the old blog

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