Three tips for Responding to Questions in Scenes

Man in an improv scene addressing a group of seated people

Three tips for Responding to Questions in Scenes

There’s something I’ve felt quite conflicted about in improv: I am of the opinion that questions are an integral part of language and, when you think about them that way, it seems odd to avoid them in improv scenes.

However, it is no secret that asking questions in scenes is one of the fastest ways to make your scene unnecessarily difficult. And questions, in particular, are a stumbling block that I’ve struggled with for some time. And it’s the same stumbling I see in improv shows all over the place, even from experienced teams. But why do we stumble at all if it is also integral to how we communicate?

So… let’s talk about that! And then, if you struggle with asking or being asked questions in scenes as I did, I’ve got 3 Tips and 1 Exercise for you to take home.

When we begin improv classes, we tend to be offered rules to help guide us toward functional improv (for a lack of a better term). We say ‘Yes, And’ to everything, we establish the ‘who, what, where’ as soon as we can, and we try to speak in statements instead of asking questions. As we proceed through our respective improv journeys, these guidelines probably become less hard-line rules as our understanding of them grows, but some remain more concrete than others. And when starting out, these guidelines are super important to drill in the spirit of collaboration and world-building, and all the fun things we love about improv. But one ‘rule’ that might endure for longer than most is that last one: ‘Don’t ask questions.’ In Del Close and Charna Halpern’s book ‘Truth in Comedy’, they equate asking questions to stealing and given their incredible influence in the methodology of improv, we can see how ‘Don’t ask questions’ has found its fortitude as an improv rule. More likely, however, is this: the effect that asking questions has on scenes puts people off from using them.

If you ask a question in a scene, you are essentially putting pressure on your scene partner, not only to answer it but to do so in an enlightening, entertaining and informative way. It places the responsibility for the scene on the other person, not taking it for yourself. Rather than sharing the creation of a scene; you are requesting that your scene partner do the work for you. However, though there is no doubt that this makes the scene more difficult for your scene partner (and therefore yourself), it doesn’t actually break the scene, does it? Rather, as I heard Scott Adsit put it once, it’s just a bit of a rude thing to do. Maybe
even selfish or lazy.  See how the Whose Liners do it here.

A close up of a pressure gaugeBut sometimes these things just happen by accident. And it feels rotten to be on the spot like that or to feel you’ve put someone else on the spot. So, over the years I’ve learned ways around the overwhelming pressure that descends upon you when someone asks you a question in the middle of your scene. And better yet, I like to think I’ve learned how to ask questions in scenes ‘the right way’.

First, let’s talk about how to neutralise that sinking feeling when someone asks a question that does put you on the spot. For starters, here’s some advice that I am given time and time again, for my sins. It’s a good improv note, and it especially applies to moments like this. Slow down! There’s no rush to respond. Take a moment. And breathe. It’s amazing the way adrenaline fogs the mind. So, hit the brakes, take a breath and just watch as the world clarifies around you. It’s like going from Viking berserker to Jedi knight (the latter is definitely a better mindset, by the way).

Then, while you are stopping, take that time to consider why that person is asking you a question. Is it because they are not sure where the scene is going? Are they, themselves, panicking and grasping at straws? Maybe they are just being indecisive? Are they trying to play in the world in some way? Or are they trying to signal something to you? Are they trying to show you something unusual that just happened in the scene (e.g., a fact about the world, a character behaviour) and flag the game to you? Depending on the school of thought, some improvisers like to ‘Yes, And’ right up until they spot something that could be the game of the scene, and then they will question that thing to signal that they want to play with that idea. Once you slow down and breathe, you can be mindful of the intention of your scene partner, and that will help you know exactly where you stand.

Two actors in a scene

And once you’ve found your footing in that moment, respond. Here are three choices you could make of varying degrees of helpfulness:
A little defensive as a manoeuvre, this one, but sometimes questions just get in the way. One response to them can be to just answer the question with anything at all and get back to speaking in statements and saying ‘yes, and’ to your scene partner. Though it’s not a great move if your scene partner is proposing an idea or a game to you through their question. You are effectively dismissing what your scene partner just said. However, sometimes the best thing to do is to protect yourself. Slowing down and thinking about your scene partner’s intention is a good way to gauge whether this is a good move.

Whatever the question and for whatever reason; the ball is in your court. There’s an opportunity to be found here! And this is a prime opportunity to give yourself or your scene partner a gift. Answer the question that has been asked of you and justify with a reason why you are responding that way. You could make it a deeply seated belief that defines your whole character, and then the whole scene has a road map to follow! Let’s say, for example, your scene partner asks you what you want to eat for supper. Your response could be anything you like. Potatoes, for instance. And then you justify with a comment about your scene partner, or about yourself. Even if they are giving you an arbitrary multiple-choice question like that, answer with anything at all and follow it up with why you have answered that way. Give yourself a point of view. Or a belief. Or a dream! Something you like and are enthusiastic about. I bet you and your scene partner will find out something about one of those characters that can be the basis for a scene. Maybe they love potatoes! Maybe they are potato crazy! Maybe they make sculptures out of potatoes! Who the fuck knows? But I bet you’ll talk about it.

This is my response of choice. When a question brings your scene or your brain to a screaming halt, here is my lifeboat: make it about them. A great response in improv is one that continues the relationship and/or dynamic between the characters. So, if your scene partner asks you a question, make it a reflection of them. As with the previous point, you can justify your choice of potatoes because your scene partner LOVES potatoes. What a gift! But if you can make your justification something in response or connection with your scene partner, then the scene was never about potatoes, it was about how you and your scene partner relate to each other. You’re just viewing your relationship through a potato-shaped filter within that moment.

You can even respond with a question of your own. ‘Why do you always make me choose? You are incapable of making a decision.’ Now they have a character that is indecisive. You put anything in front of them, no matter how trivial, and they will never make a decision. And if you respond emotionally to that character quirk, as you did just now, they have a button to press that can make you flip out in delight or despair any time they want to. They just have to mention potatoes! That can be all the fun. I love the fact
that it turns something as potentially unhelpful as a question into something of use in the scene. And this gives us little reason to avoid them.

By way of example, here’s a catch-all ‘why would you ask me that?’. For some reason, your scene partner’s question is an old wound between you, and a reflection of your relationship dynamic. However, this response is also quite aggressive and can lead to
argument scenes, which can themselves become a bad habit. Also, answering a question with another question can end up being an evasive crutch that puts your scene partner on the spot in just the same way you just were. So be careful not to perpetuate the deadlock. If you do, follow it up with a justification. This is also something I like to do when I catch myself asking a question in a scene. You can take your scene partner off the spot simply by justifying the question you just asked and turning it into a statement. ‘Why would you ask me that? You know I’ve just spent three hours preparing the Christmas turkey.’

Now, it’s easy to say these things, but with the adrenaline pumping in the midst of live theatre, you can still find yourself stumped in the middle of a scene. And if you are in a team where asking questions in scenes is a particularly unhelpful habit, these tips could feel more like a temporary salve rather than a true solution. If your team is still asking questions this way, or if you continue to find that you get hit with brain freeze in the middle of scenes as a result of questions, there is a handy exercise to work on it.

Fans of Whose Line Is It Anyway may remember a short-form game they play on that show called Questions Only. Almost more a competitive parlour game than improv game, pairs of improvisers play short scenes and as soon as they speak in statements rather than questions, they get tagged out and someone else has a go. It’s a very fun game to watch and it is extremely hard to play because, as mentioned before, questions are a bugger. But this game began as an educational exercise (as so many of them do) from the Keith Johnston’s Impro For Storytellers.

a jigsaw of a question mark

Start the scene with two players. They speak only in questions. If they don’t, they are not tagged out. Instead, they take a breath and reframe what they just said as a question. The scene will not break. If the players can be disciplined about it, it will continue like a normal scene.

When I was in rehearsal with Theatre Sports troupe, Story Kitchen Impro, I watched Liam Brennan and Julia Mitelman perform this exercise. The penny dropped for me so hard it sounded like a car crash in my head. With no tag outs, the questions themselves began to change. The function of the questions became less about catching each other out as they were in the short-form game and instead, the scene probed deeply into the characters and their feelings. The questions didn’t trip them up at all! In fact, the scene became (arguably) more direct and incisive than if they had been making straight statements. The result was a very affecting scene and it was almost alarming to me that the dialogue was exclusively questions. ‘Are you really leaving me?’ ‘Wouldn’t you, in my position?’ I was amazed.

Seeing this scene in action made me realise there was absolutely no reason to fear asking or being asked questions in scenes as long as you can be disciplined in the way you ask the questions and how you responded to them. The sting was removed from the tail of that particular scorpion. Now I don’t worry about it at all. To me, it’s just part of the language. Rushing it and babbling doesn’t help but speaking with care creates all kinds of opportunities.

So, if you are finding that questions are getting in the way of your improv, try using one of these options. And if you really want to drill away at it, this exercise can be a real eye-opener. It was for me. The next time you see me, come chat to me about questions. I would be interested to see if we can find the answers.

by Ed Fargher