Keep Asking Why

If you’ve been a student of improv, you’ve probably heard the idea that asking questions onstage is bad. It’s not a theory I personally subscribe to. You may choose to play by those rules, but I implore you not extend that idea offstage. Asking questions of your improv teachers, coaches and other players you respect is not only how you learn, it’s how you grow as an artist and maintain those ideas to pass on to the next generation of improvisors. All questions are good questions, but one question can help you grow faster than perhaps any other question, and it’s the question that’s asked too infrequently; WHY?

The Compass Players – 1955

Modern North American improv has been around for a just about six decades now and it’s still largely passed on as an oral tradition. In the primordial days with Viola Spolin, people were experimenting and making choices that were amazing successes or colossal failures and then they got back up and tried something new. Improv was exciting and dangerous. They learned what worked and what didn’t work through experimentation and trial.

But let’s be honest. These people weren’t big on writing text books. These ideas were shared through doing. The performers that followed them emulated and expanded on their work and eventually these people were asked to talk and share those ideas. Many great teachers have passed on these forms and theories in the decades that followed, but inevitably, things get lost to vain repetition. Things get taken for granted and never challenged until we go through the motions without  question simply because that’s how it’s always been done.

But that’s not how it had always been done. Improv isn’t always dangerous anymore. Sometimes it’s very very safe. If we – as a community – get too comfortable, we’ll not only stagnate, but we’ll degrade as we continue to go through the actions of things we don’t understand. Instead, we should be constantly questioning and re-evaluating our work, as individuals, as ensembles and as theatres. We don’t do this because what came before was bad, but because we want to know how it can still be good. If we keep asking why, we’ll start filling our knowledge in with two kinds of answers, great answers and terrible answers.

The Foundation – 2011

Great Answers

Sometimes we, as instructors, have lived with concepts for so long we forget that our students haven’t been exposed to them. Sometimes we run exercises or scenes without remembering to explain the reasons behind them; without explaining how this exercise helps us grow as performers. If an exercise is unclear to you, ask (in an appropriate manner). The purpose of an exercise is far more important than the logistics. I wish I could say that coaches and directors never overlook the reasons for things, but we do. And when we do, we risk those reasons being lost forever. Don’t let that happen. It’s not disrespectful to request a proper education. When you do, you’ll understand the tools to create art instead of the tools to recreate a product.

Terrible Answers

When we don’t understand the reasons for doing  things, we don’t understand the reasons for not doing them. Different improvisors have existed in different environments and with different goals. Something may have made a lot of sense in 1963 San Francisco, but that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily the right choice for your ensemble today. Dig deep to find out why the conventions of your performances were created and perhaps you’ll find that they’re not applicable – or even harmful to your show.

Improv Unit ʎ – 2067

Don’t be a Jerk-Face

I keep encouraging you to ask questions, but not simply to be contrary. Treat your instructors and directors with respect. They usually know what they’re talking about. Different instructors foster different levels of discourse in their classes. Respect the environment your teacher has created. Almost any instructor is happy to provide a clarification of a note in class, but constant discussion can detract from everyone’s learning experience. A good instructor will be more than willing to answer questions or provide additional materials outside of class if you respect the discussions they’ve chosen in your limited time together in class.

I’ve spoken in generalities. Here are a few things that are often accepted without question. Some are still great ideas. Some are not. I encourage to find your own answer to these questions and then ask more of your own.

Sets are 20-25 minutes
Why? Scheduling a venue can be much simpler if shows are of a consistent length. Logistics can be important when running a theatre. We can all respect that. But don’t let that scheduling protocol override your willingness to build a show that does not conform to that time frame. Operas are not designed to fit into an exact number of minutes, why should your show? If a show truly flourishes at a different length,  find a way to perform it that way.

Asking questions, saying “no”, teaching and transacting are bad for scenes
Why? What about them makes them bad? Don’t these things happen in good scenes as well? Is it really these specific things, or something deeper? Mick Napier didn’t accept these truths and he founded The Annoyance Theatre to play without them.

Harold has nine scenes broken up by two group games
Why? Why not eight scenes? Why not four group games? Is there a relationship between these scenes? If this form has been venerated for so many decades, there must be more to it than doing nine scenes. Even “Truth in Comedy“, the great tome on the form has very little discussion on the reason for the structure.

Shows have openings – but not closings
Why? Why must every show have an opening? What does an opening really accomplish?* How does it relate to the rest of your show? Does it match the voice and tone of your ensemble? How are you using it to build ideas? Why is it important to visit themes at the beginning of a show, but not the end? Certainly, in 2012, the end of a show is typically determined by someone in the tech booth, but must it be that way?

* If you answered this question with “To mine ideas for our show”, then congratulations; you’ve memorized the standardized response. Now the real question becomes what does that actually mean? How precisely does your ensemble do that? Are you really using your opening as a tool to build themes, or are you going through the actions of doing something organic that may result in a surface level idea to be thrown into one of your scenes if you remember?

We need to explain our show to our audience
Why? When I go to a play – if I’m early – I read the program. Sometimes there is some interesting background on the show’s creation, the actors’ Meisner training or the plays non-traditional structure. That’s interesting enough to keep me occupied before the show starts. I rarely feel that information is vital to my appreciation of the show. Why then is it necessary to explain your form? Is it to enhance the experience for the audience, to stroke your ego, or simply because you were told you must explain your form? By extension, do we need to explain that our show is longform or shortform? Do we – in fact – need to explain that the show is unscripted? Perhaps we do, but why?

Improv is about comedy, not tragedy
Why? A lot of lip service is done to the idea of honest emotional reactions. Must those always be towards the end of comedy? Do we not have serious emotional reactions? Is that not also theatre? For general audiences, improv is almost always associated with comedy. That’s all they’ve usually be exposed to. Does that dictate that improv can not create a truly dramatic performance?

Longform and shortform are different
Why? Structurally these two flavors of improv have obvious superficial differences. Beneath those structures what parts of their theories are different? What parts of their theories are the same? What ideas in one could be helpful in the other? What ideas in one could be harmful in the other? If they’re so different, why do they share a name? What are their origins? If you perform both, how do you mentally prepare for them differently? There is a lot of animosity between forms and not a lot of questions as to what they actually are.

Why do we do improv?
Over and over again I hear students say they thought improv was one thing before they started doing it, and now realize it’s something else. Usually, they’re thrilled to be a part of it. That’s awesome. But when those students first decided to try improv, they thought they were getting into something else for reasons that no longer apply. Now that we’re having fun and have momentum, isn’t a good idea to question why exactly we’re doing this strange art form? For many people, the unscripted performance is treated like a detriment to be overcome, an obstacle to be overcome. For them, a good show is where they dodge and weave in spite of the improvised nature. Egos are satisfied. For others, improv is freedom, something we choose to do because it gives us the permissions to have emotionally honest reactions on stage and be truly moved by discovery rather than invention.

Why do you choose to go to class? to perform? to practice? to read this blog? Why do you improvise? There’s no right or wrong answer for you, but I think you’ll create things far greater if you understand why you’ve given yourself to this cruel mistress we call improv.

Posted in Improv Theory
One comment on “Keep Asking Why
  1. whbinder says:

    More than usual, I encourage comments here. What are some other questions that we need to be asking?

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