Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Geeking Out with...The Harold (What Makes a Harold a Harold?)

By Pam Victor

[“Geeking Out with…” is a series of interviews with well-known, highly experienced improvisers. It’s a chance to talk about stuff that might interest hardcore, improv dorkwads like Pam. The series can be found in full frontal geek out version on My Nephew is a PoodleFor behind-the-scenes action, ‘like’ the “Geeking Out with…” Facebook page.]

I think Harold might have Harolded me right across the face on Friday night.

To be honest, I'm used to being jostled by Harold, and I haven’t yet come to a comfortable place with this foundational form. Perhaps the thorniness of my unfulfilling relationship with Harold stems from the stringency of the ABC - ABC - ABC structure, which I’m hopeless at keeping track of and don’t really want to anyway because it distracts me from the scenes occurring. I've been wondering lately if all of that alphabet juggling is necessary to do a Harold. Because it’s the higher level to Harold, the connection between the players, which resonates more with me. But does groupmind alone suffice to make a Harold? In the spirit of Curiosity, I’ve been posing a lot of questions to my teachers and friends, like: “What are the absolute minimum requirements a show needs to be considered a Harold? If you stripped Harold down to his bare bones, what must every Harold skeleton have? In short, what makes a Harold a Harold?”

I asked these questions of bunch of pretty remarkable people, and I’ll share all their super smart thoughts with you in a moment. But while I idly pondered Harold, his naked bones and all that, real life came along and swept me up in its ripe-tide. I got busy and stressed out and I forgot about Harold (which probably is the best headspace to be in to be schooled by him). On Friday night, I gobbled down a taco salad, and then I hurried out into the dark winter evening to teach a class.

It was the first class of Zen of Improv 2. Still relative newbies with a scant six improv classes warming their plump little bellies, my students performed a series of scenes focused on staying true to the first thirty seconds of the scene. I love my students with all my heart and soul, and even as they wobbled unsteadily on their newborn foal legs, they made me feel all the feels during their scenes. 

Later, while de-briefing, one student mentioned that a lot of the scenes seemed to revolve around the same subject matter. “Theme,” I couldn’t help but to whisper (because I’m a dork and I love improv verbiage maybe a little too much). Almost none of these smart and talented folks know about theme yet. Just as they don’t know about sweep edits or beats or any of the “rules” of improvisation. (Thankfully, in my eyes.) But as the class started to break down the scenes, we found that they had performed four different yet interconnected scenes revolving around the theme of disagreement and reconciliation. In fact, it almost seemed as though the scenes were the same two characters over various years during and after a major disagreement and reconciliation. So the first scene could have been the couple five years after the argument. The second scene time-jumped back to the big blow out itself. Then the fourth scene seemed to be about twenty years after the disagreement. The connection between these scenes was completely unintentional and only apparent after we looked back over our shoulders with our eyes squinted a little, and said, “Wait, you guys. Do you think those characters from the third scene could have been the same characters from the first scene, but five years earlier?” Crazy shit, right? 

And that’s when I whispered, “A Harold.”

Can four unrelated but magically connected scenes constitute a Harold? Had I been polling the biggest improv brains I know for the answer, when all that time my students, still blinking into the sunlight of new life, just showed me what makes a Harold a Harold? 
Quite literally THE book on
The Harold

Charna Halpern, who quite literally wrote the book on The Harold, answered it this way, “Listening, remembering, recycling, and connecting...those are the skills needed” for a Harold.

[By the way, since I have pulled together so many voices for this piece, all quotes by other people are in that pretty pink-purply color, in case there was any doubt that it wasn't me who says all that super smart stuff.]

The questions still tumble out: Is an opening absolutely required for a show to be a Harold? Or maybe it can’t be a Harold without at least a first beat of three scenes and maybe a second beat too? Is some sort of group game to call a show a Harold? Is a Harold beholden to the structure itself, or is it something beyond structure? Is a Harold a spirit bestowed upon a group who give themselves over to the patterns that play out between them? 

What makes a Harold a Harold?

Mr. Del Close
Harold’s father – and a father of us all -  Del Close said in this video Brian Stack made in 1986 that Harold was created because “I wanted to really show that we could create art by committee” in an effort to display that the art we discover together is more beautiful than that which we create alone. On the requirements to perform a Harold, he said, "Basically, all you need is some traffic patterns and some game rules and some kind of image of what it is that you’re going to do.” He talked about the structure of the Harold and how the scenes eventually would begin to affect and mirror each other and “rhyme with each other in some sort of mad conceptual way.” And Mr. Close continued, “What the audience laughs at, and indeed will cheer at … are these moments of discovery, moments of connection where the art by committee or the group brain really does start functioning.” He went on to encourage people, “Rather than to become the ideal Harold performer, [we should] develop our own peculiarities” and bring that to stage. So I take it from Del Close’s words in this video, what makes a Harold a Harold are agreed-upon "traffic patterns" to form a common structure, discovered connections, groupmind, and your weirdnesses mixing with other people’s weirdnesses to create something new and beautiful.

UCB's Dyna Moe made this helpful
visual of the scenic breakdown
of a typical Harold.

According to Del Close and Charna Halpern’s seminal book on improvisation, Truth in Comedy, “Harolds are composed of three basic elements: scenes (involving two to four players), games (usually involving the full company) and one-person monologues.” Those were the basic structural elements in 1994, when the book was published, and even then the Mr. Close and Ms. Halpern concluded that Harold extended beyond the stage. “Improvisers have been trained to notice the connection in everything, which may be the answer. The connections are always there; they run through our work and through our lives. When you notice the richness of connections in a Harold on stage, then you can go out and live your own Harold. You will, too, you know. You can’t help it!”

Looking at Del Close’s words alone, let’s ask again: What is a Harold at its most basic? A structure but also a spirit, it seems. And as the years have worn on, with more and more people stepping into the shoes of Harold, the structural elements have shifted. As I believe they were meant to by Del Close’s very design.

I'm going to open up the floor now to a bunch of those pretty remarkable people I promised you earlier...

Alan Baranowski (Student of and assistant to Del Close in the late-70s at The Second City, Confessions of an Improvaholic)
"The Harold, as we worked on it [in the late-70s], was a free-form, large scale improvisation that could include any and all improvisational exercises and games. It was based on a suggestion from the audience in the form of a personal question, i.e. “Why do I (blank)?, Why must I (blank)?” etc. The members of the group would then re-ask the question of themselves and personalize it. We would started with a group exercise that would exchange the feelings, emotions and themes that the suggestion generated, and out of that exercise the first scene would explode and then anything was fair game. 

The beautiful thing was when elements from one scene, exercise or
Alan Baranowski, Improvaholic
game would show up and/or influence other scenes, exercises or games. It was in this series of workshop that Del made a strong effort to make us into a "synergistic" group. Synergism is the cooperative action of a discrete set of agencies whose total effect is greater than the sum of the effects taken by the agencies independently. In other words, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. The group was synergistic, but the Harold that we worked on also was a synergistic improvisational exercise. The Harold, as we performed it, was a synergistic improvisation because the total effect of the exercises used to build Harold were given greater, deeper, more layered meaning than the effect of the individual exercises if seen independent of Harold.  

Synergy and groupmind are along the same idea, but I'm not sure if they are interchangeable. I feel synergy would apply to the whole process (i.e. the group, the exercises, games, the audience and everything that goes into the piece); whereas, groupmind would only apply to the players and how they play." 

Howard Johnson (comedy historian, author of the terrific Del Close biography The Funniest One in the Room, editor of Truth in Comedy, early ImprovOlympic improviser, student of Del Close, and many other wonderful things):
“The original Harolds, as developed by The Committee [in the 1960s in San Francisco], were
Kim "Howard" Johnson (center bottom)
with the other members of Baron's Barracuda's,
one of the first ever Chicago Harold teams.
supposed to address a profound question asked by an audience member. When Del started focusing on them again in the early 80s, they were viewed as a vessel for virtually any and all types of scenes and games--in other words, a catch-all for some pretty excellent work. That changed again when we started to codify it [in the mid-80s], using the Time Dash as the basis for the scenes and an assortment of classic games as well as those we made up on the spot. All of this is really just a longwinded way of saying all improvisation--even other types of longform--is actually part of a Harold...”

Howard’s always insightful words allow me to understand how The Deconstruction was developed (by Del Close and The Family in the '90s) as a deconstruction of the essential scenic elements of The Harold. And we can see from this deconstruction, how Harold begot other forms, like The Armando, in addition to even the major schools of improvisational philosophy. No wonder it's so hard to figure out what makes a Harold a Harold. From where we stand today in 2015,  everything we step into onstage has roots in The Harold.

If The Harold is ever-evolving, could it be that the 3x3 structural elements are not among the bones in Harold’s skeleton? Some people are would adamantly say no, the structure is an absolute requirement for a Harold to be a Harold. As
Jane Morris
Jane Morris (co-founder of Second City ETC, Fanatic Salon Theater, All Girl Revue) succinctly told me, a Harold is “Three scenes, three times, moved in time and space.” Yet other people open the Harold umbrella still wider. And in its shade, I’m sure you will notice some words never fail to pop up: Connections. Patterns. Groupmind.

Piero Procaccini (Second City, soon-to-be-author, someone every improviser in the world should study with):
“What I see as particularly characteristic of Harold (and how it's advent influenced the work that followed) is the idea of Connections. The textbook structure of: 
Scene 1A 
Scene 2A 
Piero Procaccini

Scene 3A 
Group Game 
Scene 1B 
Scene 2B 
Scene 3B 
Group Game 
Scene 1C 
Scene 2C 
Scene 3C 
and the use of time dashes is a very effective way to establish an infrastructure that leads to connections, which is why it is so useful as a teaching tool for students. But once you are more comfortable with the territory, there are many ways to get to this idea of connectivity.”

Craig Uhlir (iO Theater, The Second City, Deep Schwa, The Boys, most playful improviser on the stage, ya' dinkle):
“Group gets suggestion. Group finds deeper meaning and explores deeper meaning through scenes. Elements of any part will and should influence the moments, moves and scenes going forward. 

Craig Uhlir
I find that connecting parts or scenes becomes as simple as just having any component or character show up in later scenes, rather by intentional or accidental collision, and most improvisors can justify quickly such combinations. Sooo it seems like the real skill of the Harold in this day and age for me is, 'Can a group of six to ten improvisors find a deeper meaning and agree on what it is BY using it and exploring it?'

I also feel the opening and games have more influence and are less a separate part or piece of the show. Everything feeds everything now.”

Kevin Mullaney (Co-founder Under the Gun Theater, Improv Resource Center, improv fount of knowledge):
“A Harold has several threads (scenes with multiple beats) that start out separate and are woven together by the end of the show. 

A Harold has at least some elements (opening, group games) that involve all the performers and not just scenes with two or three people.
Kevin Mullaney

A Harold is a collage of scenes, characters and ideas where the meaning (if there is any) comes from the juxtaposition of these elements.

A Harold is concerned with patterns, not story. If a story happens, that's fine, but one should follow the pattern of what is happening and not try to tell a story.

Oh! And Harold eats everything. In other words, you can have dance, music, acrobatics, poetry, mime, or anything else you can imagine can be a part of the form. It's not just scenes or group scenes. It should have a little performance art in it.” 

And, true enough, Del Close said in Brian Stack’s video, “I suspect that what we’re doing here is some sort of performance art, but I sure as hell wouldn’t want to say that in public. It goes over a lot better as a sport.”

So a Harold could be almost anything? Is a Harold just really well-performed improvisation? I’m a visual gal, so I still find myself digging in the sand to find where is the line drawn between “This is a Harold” and “This is not a Harold.” Perhaps the answer is merely a matter of arcane linguistics?

Rachel Klein (Co-founder Fine Line Comedy, author of the blog The House That Del Built, longtime member of the ImprovBoston community, big thinker):
Rachel Klein
“The execution rarely follows the exact Harold ‘plan’ (actually the Harolds that ‘execute’ perfectly are often the most boring/least dynamic). For me to consider a show a Harold beforehand, I'd have to know that the team is committed to the form and begins with a somewhat recognizable first beat, even if everything goes off the rails after that. But there are so many shows that don't plan to be a Harold and then you look back and go ‘That was a Harold, wasn't it?’ And that's because of how tripartite structures are woven into the fabric of our experience. We gravitate to them to make sense of information, so often a show that's supposed to be ‘free form’ ends up with three plotlines or three chunks of scenes with ‘games’ in between. It's just a natural form, like iambic pentameter. Now I'm getting into questions of prescriptivism vs. descriptivism. Calling something a Harold doesn't always make it so, and not calling it one doesn't mean it won't be.

Prescriptively, if someone said they were setting out to do a Harold, I'd want to see some sort of tripartite first beat, a group check in of some sort, a second beat that explores the themes and content of the first beat, some sort of second check in, and a satisfying conclusion that integrates the theme and content of what came before. The requirement for threes up top would only be in order to ensure there was a pattern to explore rather than just some constantly forward-moving, linear experience. The pleasure of the Harold is its folding in on itself, and an early pattern of three (the simplest pattern possible) sets you up for that experience. It might break down as early as the second beat, but if it's been set as the foundation even the "break down" will be a response to the pattern at the very least. Also I'm partial to openings, but I could imagine a first beat without one if it still achieved the goal of setting a theme and tone and generating a baseline of content that could be explored throughout the show.

Descriptively it's another matter. How do I know if I've seen a Harold, after the fact? I'd tend to be more liberal in my definition there. Was there pattern-making? Was it "about" something? Did it feel like watching disparate elements being sewn together through the course of the show by a common idea or energy or tone? When it was over did I feel satisfied, full? I'd probably call that a Harold.  In any event, I'm of the opinion that many people doing Harold today have become much too rigid about its execution — what scenes go where and what you're allowed to do in each beat and how they interact…

An artform that doesn't continue to evolve and respond to other art forms is dead, and I'd like to see the Harold live on as one of the great theatrical forms.” 

Bill Arnett (Founder Chicago Improv Studio, iO Theater, beloved teacher and brain, 3033): 
“I've waved the ‘Harold is too narrowly defined’ banner for a long time. So what is it? Difficult to say since so many branches have been sawn off, Giving Tree-style, to make other forms. What makes Harold content-wise different from a montage? The scenes converge on a single
Bill Arnett
theme or emphasis. How is it different form-wise from a montage? The best Harolds I've been in created unique patterns, inspired by the content. Historically, Harold has included non-scenic group improv (openings, games, rituals, etc...) giving it a unique style which, with so much strictly scenic improv around, is essentially exclusive to Harold. I think that's it. Content, structure and style.”

Lori Strauss (ImprovBoston teacher and performer, very thoughtful improviser):
Lori Strauss
“I think if you're intentionally performing a Harold you need an Opening, First Beat (3 scenes), Group Game, Second Beat (3 Scenes), Group Game, and Third Beat (Undefined Scene Number). If you have a show that's Harold-like, you probably want to think of it in terms of threes but not necessarily following the structure.

I tend to think of it more abstractly as a structure that lends itself to callbacks and connections (through game -- however you define it), and those things are the building blocks for comedy … I've seen MANY great sets, but I think I've only seen a 'true' Harold a few times and have been part of it maybe only once. But, I don't think there's one standard 'This is Harold' out there aside from the (uninterpreted) structure alone.”

Will Luera (Director of Improvisation at Florida Studio Theatre - Sarasota, Artistic Director Emeritus of ImprovBoston, "Freeform" innovator, physics nerd and fan of cute baby bears):
"With the ImprovBoston Harold team Spector, who performed a 'freeform Harold,' we found that the recognition and heightening of a pattern was more important than the framework of a traditional Harold. We would almost always still execute in the same format as a Harold - opening, ABC, game, ABC, game, run. But every now and then, you might see Opening, ABCDE, game, ABCD, game, ABCD. Or Opening, AB, game, AB, game, AB, or whatever other structure was inspired by the tone and flavor of the opening.

When I teach the Harold, the main three aspects I focus on are scenework, group games and patterns, which I think are all essential to a Harold.

Scenework is, of course, the foundation of any improv show whether it's long-form, short-form, free-form or whatever. I am looking for strong emotions engaging in a believable way. 

I have a liberal definition of what constitutes a group game, and I think the group games that open the Harold and break up the beats serve several important roles for me. As an opening, it not only explores the suggestion but also sets the tone and voice of that night's show. If the opening is fast and frenetic, then maybe that's what our Harold will look like. If our opening is slow and deliberate, then maybe that's what the Harold will be. The tone, voice and theme is further explored (and heightened) when the group games are revisited throughout the show. 

Also, the group game doesn't necessarily mean that all players are onstage, BUT all players are still actively participating. A standard group game might have all players onstage in a scene or mirrored activity; however, if a group game started with one person onstage and all other players were making an active decision to not participate, that is still a group game. And that group decision is informing us as to what the Harold might be about. For example, in the opening of a Spector show, an actor started on stage, acting out scared and alone...so the rest of the cast stayed offstage and didn't join, reinforcing loneliness as a theme understood by the group. It wasn't a traditional "group" game, but the group was involved.

The Pattern recognition and exploration is the most important part of Harold for me. It, ultimately, tells us the shape of the show. When I teach the Harold, I try to enforce a Lattice-like awareness of the form. I want my players to be aware of patterns that transcend across the group games, that connect the three (or more) beats of a thread of scenes, or that exist across the scenes in a single beat...I know crazy. But I do believe that this awareness of the multiple types of patterns being created will inform the cast of what the shape of the Harold wants to be. If you're paying attention to how the opening leads into the first beat and to how the scenes within the beat relate to each other, you might have a Harold that looks like a standard ABC Harold, one that looks like monoscene, or one that is truly unique for that night."

Colleen Doyle (iO Theater-LA, Dummy, astoundingly talented improviser-actress):
Colleen Doyle
"Harold, to me, is group mind in action. The opening is our shared/discovered thesis, and the rest of the show (whatever that looks like structurally) is our defense of that. Defense, in this instance, meaning both underscoring our ideas and exploring them. Echoing Charna, it's recycling ideas/using everything up/making connections."

Lyndsay Hailey (iO Theater-LA, Chance of Hailey, gorgeous woman and soul):
“Harold is its own living, breathing organism, its own entity, a theme channeled by a collective and then further mined by the individuals within that collective. I recognize Harold to be a study of the human condition, a structure that mirrors our need to come together for support (open and games) and for individual experiences (scenes) to further the truth. If we aim for presence...Harold just happens, with all the appropriate callbacks. Our inherent nature seeks to ascribe definition, pattern and meaning to the human experience, that natural instinct creates callbacks, patterns and games. Sure, there is a biblical transcription, a "formula," but I heard Del would say "piece before form," and I take that to mean let Harold do Harold. Here is the spinal column, but let him breathe." 

The last word here on The Harold must go to Charna Halpern (co-founder of iO Theater, co-author of Truth in Comedy and Art By Committee, improv high priestess):
Charna Halpern
“Oh, the form has totally changed. It’s all about listening, remembering and recycling nowadays. Just search for thesis statement or theme out of the opening, so you are saying something to the audience. Keep recognizing connections and patterns. Harold is ever-changing. There can be no plan. It’s improv.”

So were my students' four, magically connected scenes on Friday night an accidental Harold? No, not in form alone. But in spirit, I would dip my toe into the "Yes" waters. 

I suspect that Harold is not just the skeleton but also its breath, like Lyndsay says. And there is the crux of my struggle to define The Harold. You can’t hold breath in your hand or find it drawn in the sand or diagram it. Breath only exists in the moment here in now. The absolute and ultimate present. The connection between our physical and spiritual selves. Like our bodies, Harold seems to be constantly changing and evolving. And like our breath, it always stays the same and connects us all.

Like all the best elements of improvisation, The Harold is so simple, it will take me the rest of my life to understand what makes a Harold a Harold. And for that, I am most grateful.

Thanks, Del.

 * * *
Catch up on past improv geek-a-thons:
Geeking Out with...Jazz Freddy
...Tara DeFranscico
...Charna Halpern, co-founder of iO Theatre

and many more!

Read Geeking Out with...Charna Halpern (Part Two)
in which she said,
"I’m the type of person who wants to help everyone. Most people don’t know me well enough and some fear me. I also have a great sense of humor and sometimes the kids don’t expect that. So they don’t know I might be doing a bit, and they take something I said seriously. I like to goof around. That would surprise people."

If you like groovy stuff, you might enjoy
The Zen of Improv series, 
which contemplates improvisation and 
mind-expanding ideas like non-judgment, joy, and curiosity. 

And "like" the "Geeking Out with..." FACEBOOK PAGE please.

Pam Victor is the founding member of The Ha-Ha’s, and she produces The Happier Valley Comedy Show in Western Massachusetts. Pam performs a "Geeking Out with: The TALK SHOW," a live version of this series, at comedy festivals throughout the land. Pam writes mostly humorous, mostly true essays and reviews of books, movies, and tea on her blog, "My Nephew is a Poodle." Pam is the co-author of "Improvisation at the Speed of Life: The TJ & Dave Book" with TJ Jagodowski and David Pasquesi, which is due out Spring, 2015. You can get all her nonsense at www.pamvictor.com. 


  1. Great blog, Pam. For historical accuracy I'd like to point out that Time Dash is an event from David Shepherd's Improv Olympics, which made its first appearance at Homemade Theatre's Improv Festival in 1974 (Toronto). Del became aware of the event after David brought the Improv Olympics to Chicago in 1981, which he co-produced with Charna Halpern.

    1. Thank you, as always, Michael, for holding down a huge tent pole in improv history. And thank you for keeping me honest. You're a treasure, to me and the community.


  2. What exactly is the Time Dash?

    and also... can you clarify what type of group games should be played in between the series of scenes as Piero describes it?

    While training at UCB I never had an instructor specifically explain how the Harold worked, and I've sense figured that it is all just about connecting a string of thought or series of strings throughout the scenes... which I think what was pretty much said in this blog.

    1. Hi Chris,

      Thanks for reading and for your questions. As I understand it, a Time Dash is simply when the next beat picks up the scene at a different point in time, whether it's five minutes later or five years later or whatever. Aside from structure that specifically omit them, like a Monoscene, Time Dashes have become so commonplace that we don't even define them anymore, it seems to me.

      For a comprehensive look at the basics of The Harold, I recommend checking out the Improv Resource Center Improv Wiki, which is pretty much the best thing since improvised sliced bread. http://wiki.improvresourcecenter.com/index.php/Harold

      Thanks again,


    2. From Piero:

      "Well, in my mind, a group game is anything that we all participate in together. Sometimes it's a group scene, sometimes (as was common in 4 Square transitions) it's simply an unexplained movement or sound piece that we all do together (kind of like a machine). The intent is to reconnect the team, use additional info from the opening, and serve as a marker that the first beats are over. Again, I am not the history expert on this - so I defer to others who were around at the time but I believe in the early days, the games were more set (e.g. 3 scenes, then we'll play musical option, etc.) but now it is very open."