Harold


Structure

A typical Harold is 25 to 40 minutes. Given three unrelated scenes A, B, and C, the structure follows:

  • Opening
  • Scenes A1, B1, C1
  • Group Game
  • Scenes A2, B2, C2
  • Group Game
  • Scenes A3, B3, C3 (Note: In the final set of scenes, not all three will always return. Players are encouraged to call back the most interesting scenes and characters from the Harold, and also to intertwine them.)

Close called this a 3×3 structure, using it to give improvisers a sense of organization to help them through their first Harolds. He was clear that the format was theirs to use. Departures were not only allowed but were considered important steps in developing a group’s ability to Harold. He expressed this in his book Truth in Comedy noting that “the first rule is: there are no rules.” In performing Harolds, content and the need to develop an organic commentary on the suggestion trump predetermined structures.

Various Harold structures use different sets of guidelines such as the 3×3 format. Another guideline might be whether you stay as the first character you create or can play multiple characters. Or, that the ending is a group scene. Or, that everyone knows each other and scene partnerships may change from the first to second and second to third layers.

The loose structure allows for the creative bursts necessary for the Harold. Using an audience suggestion, actors explore their relationship to the topic as a starting point. The scenes progressively evolve as the exploration continues to an ending point.


Opening

The basic form starts with an “opening.” After eliciting the audience’s suggestion, the ensemble explores it for a few minutes in either an unplanned or a predetermined structure. Textbook structures include:

  • A cocktail party that ebbs and flows between conversations.
  • Monologues that rotate among cast members.
  • Invocation of the suggestion in the style of an occult ritual (It is, you are, thou art, I am).
  • Organic involving morphing sound and movement exploration.
  • Pattern game where word association is used to generate ideas, often referred to as a clover leaf because the pattern arcs out with associated words and returns to the suggestion, and is repeated two additional times.
  • Source scene or scenes which are used to pull ideas and which might return in the 3rd Beat.

Rarely is the opening just about the literal suggestion. The suggestion serves a starting point to discover greater underlying themes. Del Close stated that a suggestion should be elevated from the commonplace to the extraordinary.


First Beat (A1, B1, C1)

Following the opening are three completely unrelated two-person scenes. Each may use such information from the opening as:

  • Details, such as location
  • Themes and patterns, such as troubled family life
  • Tangential information, such as a throwaway line

As the suggestion inspires the opening, the opening is a launching point for the first set of scenes.


Group Game

Following the third scene, multiple members of the cast return to stage, for a group game based on the opening. A group game is a palette cleanser and should not relate to the established sets of scenes.

In a scenic group game, the focus jumps between all the characters participating. A textbook structure is the Advertising Meeting, where the entire cast must come up with an ad campaign for a new product.

More abstract group games are called presentational, which focus less on individual characters and more on a concept, such as one improviser presents a slide show where each slide is recreated by improvisers. Types of Presentational group games are

  • Flocking – all the improvisers mirror each others actions
  • Simple game – rules are developed of a simple game during the game, like freeze tag.
  • Slide Show – Described above
  • Inanimate Objects – improvisers become inanimate objects and do a very short monologue describing their perspective then perform a scene based on the interpersonal relationships of the objects.


Second Beat (A2, B2, C2)

The second set of scenes heightens what was established in the first set. What it is heightening will differ from school to school. At the ImprovOlympic, the characters and relationships are heightened. A tool for this is a “Time Dash,” where the scene picks up at a different point in time than last left. A scene between a newly married couple with problems can take the second beat to show them on their tenth wedding anniversary.

At the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, when game is heightened, the second beat may also use an analogous situation to the first scene. A scene about a bad cop could be heightened through a scene about a bad priest.

After the second beat is another group game.


Third Beat (A3, B3, C3)

The final set of three scenes (the third beat) connects themes, characters, situations, and games from the whole piece. Often, scenes merge into each other, avoiding the need to return to all three. The third beat is usually the shortest.

More About Harold

The opening scene is usually followed by:

1) Three vignettes related to the theme.

2) A group theater game (involving some or all cast members).

3) Several more vignettes.

4) Another group theater game.

5) Two or three final scenes that pull together the various themes, characters, and ideas that have been developing throughout the performance.

Here’s an example of what might happen:

The Opener:
Moderator: (Speaking cheerfully to the audience.) For our next scene, we need a suggestion from the audience. Please name the first word that comes to mind.

Audience Member: Popsicle!

Moderator: The word is “popsicle.” Excellent. Thank you. You know, I don’t think I’ve eaten a popsicle since I was eleven years old… etc.

The moderator might then discuss memories connected with chasing the “ice cream man” down his neighborhood street and enjoying a sticky, melted popsicle on a hot summer day. Then, he/she segues to the first series of impromptu scenes.

Stage One:
Next, the first set of three brief scenes begins. Ideally, they might all touch upon the theme of popsicles. However, the actors may choose to draw out other ideas mentioned in the moderator’s monologue (childhood nostalgia, dealing with grown-ups, sticky food, etc).

  • Scene A1: Hyperactive children stalk their neighborhood ice cream man.
  • Scene A2: Two more kid characters argue over which popsicle flavor is better.
  • Scene A3: A trainee experiences her first day at the Popsicle Factory.

Stage Two:
The moderator then presents a group improv game. More suggestions from the audience can be received. Or, if the moderator chooses, the actors can continue to develop the present theme of popsicles.

Stage Three:
The group game is followed by another series of vignettes. The moderator may choose to broaden or narrow the theme. For example, each scene might explore “The History of Popsicles.”

  • Scene B1: Popsicles during Cavemen Times
  • Scene B2: Popsicles during the Middle Ages.
  • Scene B3: Popsicles during the Old West.

Stage Four:
Another game is in order, preferably involving the entire cast. This one should be very lively. An improvisational musical number might be the perfect choice.

Stage Five:
Finally, the Harold concludes with several more vignettes. Sticking with the popsicle theme, the cast members might do something very different from the childhood scenes. The moderator could instead announce that the audience is witnessing the not-too-distant future, a world in which popsicles have been outlawed!

  • Scene C1: Futurists Fugitives with Popsicles
  • Scene C2: Robot Police Capturing Popsicle Rebels
  • Scene C3: Fugitive in a Scary, futuristic Courtroom (Good place for a melodramatic speech!)

If the cast members are clever, which I am sure they are, they could tie the ending with material from the beginning. Perhaps the Popsicle Rebel finds a way to travel back in time, warning the children and the ice cream man of the dangers of the future. Or perhaps something less ridiculous can be improvised!

Remember, any improv game can be changed to suit the needs of the cast and the audience. Have fun with the Harold!

Even More…

The Harold is a multi-scene game that lasts about half an hour. A textbook Harold has a rigid structure. It consists of “Group Games” followed by Three Beats, performed 3 times. That means:

Opening

Scene 1A

Scene 1B

Scene 1C

Group Game

Scene 2A

Scene 2B

Scene 2C

Group Game

Scene 3A

Scene 3B

Scene 3C

The Harold is usually performed with 5 to 7 players. More can get chaotic, fewer can strain the players.

Group Games

When you start, you ask the audience for a word. The players go out and jam off the word and a group. Their goal is to expand on the word and show all connections you can get from it. This information will be used as the starting point for ensuing scenes.

The way the group jams off the word may be determined ahead of time, or arrived at spontaneously. They can deliver monologues, use word associations, or just start doing something and expect the rest of the group to pick up on what you’re doing.

Group games should be about flow. Keep monologues short and punchy. One sentence is often excellent. Ten sentences is probably the very upper limit. Since you’re mining for inspiration, be 100% concrete: “The first day I showed up for work at McDonald’s, my bright blue uniform had a huge spot where my cat had been sucking on it just before I left home,” not “My McDonald’s days were filled with sadness and humiliation. Many times, I had problems with my uniform…”

First Beat

In the First Beat, you play three Open Scenes that use elements from the monologues. The scenes should be as far apart and unrelated as possible. This creates the possibility of forming surprising and interesting connections later. The scenes do not need to be in chronological sequence.

Players off-stage (or even on-stage) can end a scene whenever they like by entering and tapping players on the shoulder to indicate that they should leave the stage for a new scene. See Cuts. You can toss a flashback into a scene without it counting as a new scene.

During the First Beat, let your scenes run long enough to establish characters, locations, themes, relationships. The more reality you establish now, the more material you’ll have to mix up later. Two minutes for a scene is fine.

Example: playing off the monologues from before, the first scene might be a guy’s first day working at a McDonald’s. One of the customers wants a Filet-O-Fish without tartar sauce. The new employee fouls up the order and gives him a Big Mac instead. The second scene might be a mad scientist, bent on taking over the world, feeding exotic fish to his cat. The third scene might be a salesman teaching his son how to tie his tie so he’ll be “well-liked”, and explaining that being well-liked is the most important thing in the world.

What themes can you spot emerging in those scenes?

Second Beat

In the Second Beat, characters from the First Beat come back, in new scenes at new times. Perhaps characters from different scenes meet each other in new circumstances. Perhaps you see a character at a much earlier or later time in his life.

Your objective in the Second Beat is to develop actions and themes that have emerged earlier. Imagine that the seeds that have been planted now sprout tendrils. Whatever has been explored a little, explore more. Scenes in this beat can be much shorter, with lots of cuts back and forth.

Example: developing the ideas from the First Beat, you might have a scene where the mad scientist’s father is teaching him how to mix chemicals. “The most important thing to know in life, son, is to never mix acids and bases.” Next scene: the McDonald’s employee is now the manager. He’s getting enraged with new employees who are operating the deep fryer incorrectly, getting grease all over the floor, creating a hazard. Next scene: the exotic fish are in a tank, plotting a rebellion against the mad scientist and his cat.

Now what themes can you spot emerging?

Third Beat

In the Third Beat, you may find a unifying theme and reach a scene that brings that theme out as clearly as possible. Or not. Connections should arrive organically, never forced.

Example: The theme I notice looking over the previous examples is “parents preparing their kids for adulthood”. So now perhaps the McDonald’s manager and his wife bring their kid to a Montessori school and interview the headmaster to see if the school is good enough for them. The kid is four years old but recites calculus equations whenever he’s asked a question. Next scene: The kid is at college, dissecting fish in biology class. He complains to the professor that fish are not put together as efficiently as they could be. The professor warns him that people won’t listen to those sorts of ideas unless he dresses them up in a socially appropriate manner. It’s all about who you know, how you dress. Better that you learn that now, kid. Next scene: the kid has become the mad scientist, and he’s building an underground laboratory. His slaves labor mightily to drill deeply enough into the Earth that he will never have to talk to another person ever again. Final scene: the exotic fish in his aquarium teach their children how to avoid getting caught by mad scientists. The fish parents act as decoys and get caught by the mad scientist so their baby fish can get away and seek a new life in the ocean. The Harold ends as the fish parents get eaten by the cat, happy to have saved their children.

There is no need to tie plotlines together. That might or might not happen, but usually it doesn’t. (Notice that the salesman and his son never came back, and that’s fine.) The magic happens when the theme that was already there comes out. A better name for Harold might have been “Variations and Theme” (since the theme is clearest at the end).

You don’t need to invent a theme, you just discover it in the material that’s come so far. All the improv tips and techniques help create the kind of richness where a theme just spontaneously builds without anyone seeing it in advance. The theme and final scene will always be a surprise, and they will always be natural in that amazing and satisfying way.

Ultimately, the Harold is about discovering a truth and seeing it from many angles.

Technique

The Harold requires skill, otherwise it can degenerate into incoherency. All the improv tips and techniques apply, but here are some that make an especially big difference:

Listen! Be hyperaware of everything that is going on. The more things that other people have said that you can remember, the more ways you can create connections.
Be concrete. Concrete things are filled with possibilities of connection, while vague or abstract ideas usually aren’t. For example, “I feel bad because my life isn’t interesting enough” doesn’t give your scene partners a whole lot to connect to. “My cellphone battery is almost out” gives lots: communication devices, the need to communicate, electricity, engineering, time running out. With any of those, you can think of a completely different way to continue it: Captain Kirk’s communicator, chat rooms, a prisoner who wants someone to believe that he’s innocent, stealing a car battery so you can start your own car in a rainy night, procrastinating before the April 15 tax deadline.
Continue the Game. The cellphone example illustrates the “continue the game” mentality to have. Whatever theme someone develops, you move it further. For example, if someone follows up the cellphone by bringing in a prisoner who wants someone to believe he’s innocent, you can continue that with a Jesus Freak trying to persuade people on the street that they’ve got to get right with God, and if only they’d listen to God, they’d see the light. And someone could follow that with a mother who wants her daughter to learn that “exciting” men will mistreat you, hopefully sparing the daughter from learning that the hard way. But the daughter disregards her mother’s advice and in another scene her boyfriend won’t pay any attention to her. With 5-7 people all playing this way off each other, deeply truthful themes will emerge, in ways that no one can predict or control.

Cocktail Party is a good exercise to practice both the kinds of responses that let themes emerge, and attunement to an emerging theme so you can bring it out even more clearly at the end.

Small techniques

If someone taps you out and you thought your scene had more to explore, you always have the option of continuing your scene as soon as their scene is done. You don’t have to exercise this option–you may change your mind after their scene–but it’s always an option. When you come back, you can pick up several minutes or an hour later, somewhat like Cocktail Party.

Why is it called “Harold”?

From Truth in Comedy, pg. 7:

[Del Close’s improv troupe The Committee] came up with one of the most sophisticated, rewarding forms of pure improv ever developed.

And then they had to name it.

A few years earlier, in A Hard Day’s Night, a reporter asks George Harrison what he called his haircut. “Arthur,” he responds.

So when Del asked his group what this exciting new form of improv should be called, one of his actors, Bill Mathieu, answered “Harold.”

It has always been a minor annoyance for Del that his life’s work has been saddled with such an inane, silly title. But the name stuck.

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