Glossary: Questions

I come from an improv background which advocated NO QUESTIONS. The core reasoning around this rule is based on very sound, scene building principles. A questions doesn’t usually add information to a scene. And what’s worse, a question typically demands that your partner supply additional, specific information.

A question is usually asked to avoid defining something or to avoid providing information. “What are you doing?” is a typical, blatant example. But more subtle examples can be easily found, such as: “Why did you do that?”; “Where are you taking that?”; and “How long have you been there?”. All of these accept the partner’s offer, but do not add anything to the scene. This is one form of wimping.

Instead of asking these questions, the performer should directly provide the answer. “What are you doing?” becomes “Please stop chopping down that tree!”. “Why did you do that?” becomes “I hate when you become so competitive”. “Where are you taking that?” can become “Mother needs that money, now”. And finally, “How long have you been there?” is stronger as “Please don’t tell anyone you saw me take the diamond”. Each of these statements add more to the scene, giving something to the partner to work with.

If you catch yourself asking a question during a scene, you can recover by immediately answering the question. Then it appears like a rhetorical question was asked. In the previous paragraph, each question could have been immediately followed by its strong statement counterpart, creating a 2 line, question/answer dialog that sounds natural.

As a final thought, keep in mind the reasoning behind the rule. It’s not that all questions are inherently bad. The real issue is whether a question adds information to a scene or requires the questioned player to add information. The question “When are you going to stop making a fool of yourself?” doesn’t really require an answer. It adds its own information to the scene. That’s the real test of whether a player has avoided wimping.

Glossary: Yes And

The term Yes And is a short hand reference to the concepts of Acceptance and Addition. These are core concepts of improv; actually the core concepts of improv.

In an improvised scene, the players are building everything from scratch: setting, plot, and characters. It is critical that when one player defines some component of a scene (mimes an object, performs an action, refers to an event, or endows another player with some attribute), all the other players immediately accept that component as a real part of the scene.

For example, if I mime placing a table on the stage, it’s important that any other players walk around the table rather than right through it. If my partners walk through the mimed table, then the audience can see there is a problem, but what do they believe as the scene goes forward – is there a table, or not?

Accepting that the table is now part of the scene is the YES.

Beyond just accepting the table, if my partner mimes adding a vase of flowers to the table, then the audience senses a more interesting environment. And there is a subtle expectation that this is an important table and worthy of attention.

Adding an object to the table is the AND.

I use the physical, mimed example to simplify the concept, but Yes And is even more important to endowments between the characters. If I say the line “you don’t pay enough attention to our kids” to my partner, and the response is “that’s because we don’t have kids!”, well that’s funny, but where do we go from there? Do we have kids? Do we not have kids? What does the audience understand?

Instead, the line “that’s because I’ve never liked our kids” accepts my original premise, and adds more information about the kids and the player’s feelings about them. Now we can keep building the scene together. A good example of Yes And.

There are a lot of “rules of thumb” for improv, and they cover a range of styles and methods for generating scenes. They’re not necessarily hard and fast rules, and most can be creatively broken from time to time. But the concept of Yes And is a core concept to all of improv. Few things can shut down a scene quicker than not accepting, and a scene without additon will often seem lost or random. I’ll talk about how Blocking and Denying – the opposite of Yes And – can drag down a scene in another post.