improc comedy

May I Ask a Question?

By Amy Nolte, Mopco member and instructor

One of the basic “rules” you hear early in building your improv muscles is that if you want to be a good scene partner, then “don’t ask questions.” 

Wait a minute… Our mentors and improv instructors encourage us to think, “If this is true, what else is true?” which, I will point out, is a question. And isn’t there is an improv game where the point is to keep a conversation grounded in reality while only asking questions? To even get more meta, we ask questions in real life; why not in improv?  

So what is an improviser to do? 

Personally, I would encourage improvisers to think about improv as having not “rules” but rather some guidelines that can help us navigate our scene work successfully.  When we ask open-ended questions that don’t offer any information in our scenes, we put pressure on our partners to fill in the blanks.  There’s a huge difference between asking, “Why are you crying?” as opposed to, “Are you crying because you didn’t get the part of the tree in the school play, David?” Although questions legitimately exist in the real world, you’ll find that the ability to make stronger choices and gravitate away from open-ended questions in your improv really does happen the more you practice this skill. 

I recently gave a group of improvisers homework to think of ways to turn questions into statements, or take baby steps by asking questions that inform.  Over time, improvisers learn to make definitive statements like, “David, I’m sorry you didn’t get the part of the tree in the play. It’s okay to cry, honey.”  Can questions occur in that scene naturally?  Of course they can. The conversation could easily continue with the question, “That Jenkins’ kid didn’t get the part, did he?”… but it helps that we’ve established a base reality, a relationship, and some context already.  Taking a tip from Mopco’s “K.I.N.D.” improv (Know, Inform, Need, Delight), a question that defines a relationship and informs your scene partner certainly is a big “yes-and” to all of those components…and a good place to start. 

So, what do you think about questions in your improv work?