When you start learning improv you learn not to ask questions. Some places call this “whimping”. The name makes sense because you are essentially throwing the pressure onto your partner to decide what is going to happen next rather than doing it yourself. Questions are also a way to stall scenes. Sometimes this is done intentionally by more experienced improvisers and other times unintentionally by newer improvisers. It’s amazing to me that we can continue to explore advanced concepts and deeper meanings with our work and yet some of the best workshops come from revisiting basic beginner ideas. The originators got improv at its core. It’s a nice humbling feeling to be reminded of this.
During a workshop we decided to play the game Statements Only. We played this similar to how you play Questions Only but with the reverse idea. If a player says a question during the scene the audience buzzes them out and they have a new player rotate in for them. Right away we noticed that the scenes started to move along much more quickly. We started to get to the heart of the scene way faster than normal. The emotions and the who/what/where were decided at a much more rapid pace. By removing the questions, each improviser had to do their own work first. They were not able to rely on their partner as much. (The idea of looking after yourself first so that you can take better care of your partner is something I have talked about before.) So what we had were two improvisers always having to advance the scene because all they could do was make statements. It was also nice because it didn’t allow them to block ideas with questions. Making clear, confident statements made them say yes and move the action forward. It also seemed to allow better endowment to happen. You couldn’t ask your partner how they felt. You had to tell them.
It also forced action. Each line of dialogue was either followed by an action, or it forced the improviser to create action rather than talk because they were stuck searching for the next statement. This helps find silence and power in a scene. To me, a confident action is much the same as a confident statement. It is a good offer either way.
Status also became a focus without questions. High status was taken easily by a player who took control and endowed their scene partner. The status then would have a nice back and forth as they made confident statement after confident statement. Playing a low status character that couldn’t ask questions added a cool dynamic. Usual traits for a low status character are no eye contact, need for reassurance and repeatedly asking and needing recognition. Not only was it easier to play high status, but it also seemed to give the improvisers an air of confidence in their choices. The offers they made were much more concrete.
In scenes where only one of the improvisers is practicing these ideas (only using statements) it could easily turn into a bulldozer scene, which is a scene driven by one improviser while the other just hangs on and cleans up the mess. The beauty in this exercise came from both improvisers equally investing and pushing back and forth together. If one were to buckle and ask questions, it would unbalance the scene.
In discussion after the workshop we talked about how we are too polite. We would almost use the questions to see if it was okay that we make choices in the scene. Almost to say “Is it okay if I tell you do this?” “Do you like this offer?” This is much the same way that we are always saying sorry for no reason. We are so worried about stepping on someone’s toes or hurting their feelings that we won’t make a choice. It’s like dipping our toes into the pool rather than jumping in. So we were using these questions as a feeler and filler. The questions are the fat, and the meat of the scene is the statements.
Now understand that there is a place for filler. I was just blown away by how clean and tight these scenes were without the questions stopping it from moving forward. They were some of the tightest scenes I had ever seen. No BS. It was like eating a Double Down from KFC. A meat sandwich made with meat buns and meat inside the meat with bacon and cheese. Mmmmm.