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Questions

"Don't ask questions." Improvisation teachers often say this to their students. They aren't trying to discourage inquiry in class; they're trying to discourage it in scenes.

The reason? If you ask a question of another person in a scene, it frequently has the effect of soliciting a response in the form of an explanation (as this paragraph illustrates). This, in turn, may result in compelling the other person to invent, to manufacture material.

If, say, you ask your scene partner Denise, "How did you happen to get a scar in the shape of a giraffe," you seem to be obliging her to make up a story out of whole cloth that will somehow justify both the scar and its shape. In the meantime, you don't have to exert yourself much, just sit back and watch her struggle within the limitations you have imposed on her. ("Well, uh, I went to the zoo when I was four and ... ") Denise may indeed have the resources, if given a little time, to come up with an amusing justification for what you have stuck her with standing on stage with you, however, she doesn't have a little time. This is improv; she has to come up with some kind of goods now or be held accountable for lack of invention by the audience. So yes, according to some improv masters, questioning another performer in such a way as to compel an explanatory response is, well ... rude.

I think dramatists should also be wary of questions in scripts. In scripts, too, questions tend to lead to answers, and the answers tend to consist of explanations.

What's so terrible about explanations? (Sigh. Another question demanding a response. Well, OK:) Explanations are by definition explicit statements.

Now, the explicit is appropriate in some arenas—in the classroom, as part of a debate, in the body of a news story, or as part of an essay such as this one. In writing this piece, I am trying to make a point. I state my thesis and then come up with arguments and information to support it. I am giving you reasons why I think you should believe as I do. I am explaining as clearly as I am able in the hope of persuading you that what I believe is correct.

But it is my opinion, however, that the stage isn't the proper platform for the explicit. Plays that overtly try to persuade you to believe the author's opinions are often dismissed as propaganda pieces; audiences understandably tend to resist them.

Rather, I think drama is, by nature, implicit. I think we who generate action on stage do so trying to stimulate those in the audience to theorize about the causes of the characters' behavior. We want them to watch the characters with curiosity, sensitive to the clues we've planted as to the nature of motives, and drawing their own conclusions about the likely workings of the characters' minds. When as writers we force our characters to stop the action to explain these things ("Let me tell you how I decided to become an artist"), we rob the audience of much of their function in a theatrical encounter. Certainly we frustrate a lot of their fun.

Notice, though, I say dramatists should "be wary" of questions, not renounce their use utterly. There are times when questions may be very effective.

Take the case of Harold Pinter's play, "The Collection." In the middle of the night, an older man named Harry Kane responds to the ringing of his phone. The caller asks to speak to Bill. Harry informs him that Bill is in bed.

"Who is this?" Harry asks.

"What's he doing in bed?" the caller asks.

"Do you know it's four o'clock in the morning?" says an irritated Harry.

The caller blithely responds, "Well, give him a nudge. Tell him I want a word with him."

Harry demands again, "Who is this?"

The caller, without identifying himself, evades other requests for information, and ends by telling Harry to tell Bill that he'll "be in touch."

Harry has asked questions. None of them have been answered in what might be called a forthright manner. He is left to wonder: Who is the caller? Why is he calling in the middle of the night? What relationship might he have with Bill? What does the caller hope to accomplish by leaving a message that he'll be in touch without telling who he is?

Harry isn't alone in wondering these things. So are we in the audience. In addition to what Harry wonders about, we wonder about Harry and the nature of his relationship with Bill. The play is less than a minute old and Pinter already has us trying to figure things out.

"The Collection" is filled with such unanswered questions. Questions that remain unanswered are like little bombs that have been set to ticking on the stage. But then, I think it is questions (not answers) that compel the attention of the audience. The constant dramatic question—the thing that keeps us watching that stage rather than reading the program—is: what are the characters going to do next? This, in turn, raises the question: what does what we witness mean?

As the action of "The Collection" continues, we learn that the caller is named James. His wife Stella has told him that, while she was staying in a hotel on a business trip, she had a one-night stand with Bill. James wants to know what Bill has to say about all of this.

Bill has a lot of things to say. Initially, he denies having met Stella. Then he confesses to having impulsively kissed her in the elevator. Then he confirms the account James got from her, though he suggests that she was a less unwilling partner than she has apparently represented to James. Still later, Bill says that this isn't true either; he and Stella actually only sat in the hotel's lobby and talked about what they would do if they were to go to her room. They did nothing, he says, just talked about it. For two hours.

James has asked Bill questions. Bill has given him answers, all right. Too many of them, most of which James knows (and we in the audience know) have to be false. Getting false answers is no more satisfying than getting no answers. It increases the level of tension on stage, which is certainly one way of keeping an audience attentive.

The morning after James intrudes on Bill and demands his version of the hotel story, Harry (who was out when James came by and who suspects that Bill has been entertaining others in his absence) asks Bill about who else was in the house last night. Bill denies anyone visited. Harry insists that someone did—a man who wore a mask and had a wooden leg. "I couldn't help seeing it myself when he came to the front door because he stood on the top step stark naked. Didn't seem very cold though. He had a water bottle under his arm instead of a hat."

The picture Harry paints is patently absurd, too absurd even to call a lie. The energy Harry puts into his whimsy is an index of his upset. Finally he demands, "Who is this man and what does he want?" Bill doesn't respond to the question, saying instead, "Will you excuse me? I really think it's about time I was dressed, don't you?"

So, though "The Collection" is filled with questions, the questions rarely elicit anything that can be reliably tagged as a fact. Some of the replies are non-responsive, some are facetious, some are lies.

Questions are essential to a narrative. In a sense, at the beginning of each play, a question is posed, and the audience watches in hopes of figuring out the answer. We wait and watch to discover who will be cast in "A Chorus Line," or whether Iago will succeed in his plot against Othello, or, in "Six Degrees of Separation," what effect Paul will have on the couple whose lives he's invaded.

What I am suggesting is that it is a central part of the craft of the dramatist to know which questions need to be asked, how they should be phrased, and how they should be answered, if at all. And, of course, which questions should be left to offer the audience a pleasurable evening of torture.

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