“Why the Want” – A Good Improv Question

Leeann Dearing

Phoenix improv classes are essential to becoming a successful local actor in Arizona.

Owning an acting studio in Arizona

I own and operate a phoenix based Acting Studio. Which, to be honest, every time I say out loud sounds just as crazy to me as it does to you. One of my favorite subjects to teach is improv because I enjoy the challenge of not knowing. Improv classes are about helping people find confidence and much of that comes from listening and learning to ask good questions.

Good Improv Questions

As an owner I consistently leave the studio approaching each team member asking… “How’s the day going, is there anything I can help you with before I leave?”  The team knows that I trust them completely and this question is more of a polite goodbye rather than an open invitation to talk.  Of course I do want to know about their lives and would genuinely like to help if they are struggling.  However they appreciate that for the most part I’m on a ‘need to know’ basis and most of the time I don’t need to know.  So today I’m walking out of the building having just given a lesson and as I always do I check in with each employee asking my leading question expecting a quick farewell.  I have my bag back strapped to my shoulder while balancing keys, a water and coffee.  Reaching for the door, I ask Rachel (Instructor and member of our teaching program), “How’s the day going, is there anything I can help with before I leave?”  She took a breath, shifted in her seat and replied… “Actually I do have a question for you”.  “What’s up” I say.  She glances at her notebook, adjusts her posture while looking down clearly thinking of the right words and then asks “Why the Want?”  Surprised by the question my hand moves from the door and she clarifies.  “When we add the ‘want’ in an improv scene… Who, What, Where… Want what is the purpose?”  At this I silently turn around to the couch behind me and putting my water, keys and coffee down.  This is a GOOD QUESTION.  From a studio perspective if one of my teachers doesn’t quite understand the purpose of an exercise that definitely falls into the ‘I need to know’ category.

Trying to hide my excitement, because intuition tells me she must have been working diligently on her lesson plans for this month’s Improv Classes or the question wouldn’t have come up,  I ask her back “Well… good question, why do you think?”  She responds “I guess the ‘want’ gets us to a place where we can talk about more interesting things?”  Her statement is just as much a question as it is an answer.  “Ok” I say.  “It’s true that more interesting things will be talked about, but that is a result and not the actual ‘why’ behind the exercise.”  She ponders… and I explain the following.

Life and Acting are Parallel… And in Life we Always Have a Want

Let’s break down the conversation we are currently having to prove my point.

Rachel – “Actually I do have a question for you”.  The phrasing of the question is an acklowedgement that she knows I am expecting to leave.  Her body language has informed me that she is sorry to interrupt me from leaving but her ‘want’ is stronger than her desire to be polite.

Rachel’s ‘Want’: To understand a concept so that she can intelligently teach her students this week.

Matt – “What’s up?”  The phrasing of my response is open without committing to an unnecessary conversation.  By moving my hand off the door my body language shows that I’m open and listening.

My ‘Want’: To leave.  Or more specifically… to go home, eat lunch with my wife, jump on the trampoline with my son and play dolls with my daughter.

Rachel then goes on to ask me just the right question and what happens?  I get so excited that my ‘want’ to leave the studio is overpowered by the desire for my teacher to understand a concept.  I still have a ‘want’ it has just shifted.  Notice the next move… the emotion of excitement caused me to move and therefore I silently turned to place the water, keys and coffee down on the sofa.  This non-verbal behavioral movement indicated for Rachel that I was interested and she had my full attention.  I was excited to help her.  It’s important to recognize that I didn’t jump up and down screaming and yet I was excited.  Excited enough to forget about going home completely.  And all this happens instinctually without thinking.  Life is Acting.  Acting is Life.  We as actors are simply trying to recreate truthful moments under imaginary circumstances.  You don’t need a huge character choice or to over emote in life if you trust the other person is perceptive enough to pick up on your point of view.  Therefore those choices are unnecessary in acting as well, as long as the actors are Listening.  In this life scenario we were each sensitive to each other’s ‘wants’ and listened to the subtext under the dialogue to create our conversation.  Of course we have acquired this skill in our studio through daily training, we do not take Listening for granted.

‘Wants’ Provide a Point of View and Add Subtext

Rachel nods in clear understanding but wants to know more about subtext.  “Let’s use an imaginary example”.

I give the following scenario…

Rachel is sitting at the front desk of our studio and a man walks in.  He says “Hi my name is Phil, I wonder if you might help me grab something heavy out of my car”.  I add “If I told you his ‘want’ was to kidnap you”… at this Rachel holds her breath gripping her chair.  “Exactly!”  I go on.  “In this scenario your response might very well be non-verbal.  As in life, if you discovered his ‘want’, the most probable response would be to immediately think of what objects are around you to use as weapons and a possible escape plan.  Your ‘want’ is to survive.  You might mask your terror with politeness as you casually grab the scissors from the desk and discreetly dial 911.  The issue we run into and WHY we do this exercise, is that it is difficult on stage to listen deep enough that your response is an instinctual reaction to the other person’s subtext.  By saying the ‘want’ out loud it forces us to understand subtext which causes us to feel real emotion and then yes… we begin talking about more interesting things in our scenes.”

Rachel now pulls her head up from taking copious notes and smiles with an aura of self-assuredness.  “Thank you” she says.  Her non-verbal language giving me the subtext that she truly understands and my work here is done.  I then nod, silently turn back to the couch and pick up my water, keys and coffee.  Knowing the answer I confidently ask… “Is there anything else I can help you with before I leave”.  She replies.. “That’s it.  Have a great day!”

Learn to Trust, Listen and Stay Curious

*Business training and phoenix Improv classes are the perfect fit.

I left my conversation with Rachel feeling great because she opened my eyes to a new way of teaching this concept.  I considered that if one person in the teacher program was confused, they might all be and that our students most definitely would need clarification.  You see… My excitement didn’t come from having the answer but from realizing I had failed to communicate, figured out a better way and now had a plan to share what I had learned.  I was excited because I experienced growth.  Rachel’s curiosity paired with my willingness to listen and our combined trust in each other created a better way to teach the Improv Program.  Our ability within the organization to Trust, Listen and Stay Curious led to overall growth and confidence.  It’s what we call The Dearing Concept and it’s the way we run our Classes, Improv Shows and Corporate Training Sessions.  Understanding and mastering these concepts will transform your Acting, Life and Business relationships.