Eric Muller, an improviser since 2005, is well versed in the Harold format as he has trained with Houston’s Massive improv, iO Chicago, the Second City and the Annoyance Theater. Since Eric will be lending his expertise on the organic opening in his workshop “Organic Groupwork: Improv at Its Best” we though it fitting to have him talk a bit specifically about the opening as a function of the format. (Click on that face to hear the audio)
How would you describe the Harold in the most basic way you can?
Well, putting aside the “textbook” definition laid out in Truth In Comedy, and also the possibly-true-but-definitely-not-helpful “Everything is a Harold!” philosophy, I’m going to go with the following:
“A Harold is an improvised piece wherein – through a combination of an opening, scenes, and groupwork (scenic or otherwise) – a troupe of improvisers explore the literal, thematic, and metaphorical implications of a given audience suggestion.”
I think this accurately captures the intention of the piece, while also rightly glossing over the useful but not truly important details of how many scenes are in a beat, or how the characters tie together, etc.
What attracts you to the format?
Well, I think what I like about Harold is that it gives the promise of actually saying something as a team. A montage can have strong themes, a “Close Quarters” can have a strong opinion as a piece, but the Harold – starting with the opening – definitely requires that the team first come to a thesis statement about a suggestion, and then through the course of the piece work towards exploring that, refuting it, heightening it, etc.
A lot of schools use this format as their staple show – do you think there is any merit to having knowledge of the format as a kind of baseline for improvisers?
I think precisely because so many schools throughout the country use Harold as their staple show that it gives an excellent baseline for improvisers. While not every school approaches it in the same way, I think that enough schools have enough overlap in how they teach it that it will be useful for the improviser who travels looking to learn and perform around the country. Anywhere you go improvisers will have either learned it or at least heard about it, and they’ll have an opinion about it one way or the other. It’s something to talk about while you’re engaging in the other great hobby of improvisers: getting drunk.
I think it is important that everyone starting (or continuing) in improv should at least be familiar with a basic “opening/3scenes/game/3 scenes/etc.” style Harold. If you liken improv to jazz, then Harold is one of our standards: “Body and Soul” or “I Got Rhythm”. It’s one of those things you just have to learn, if for no other reason then you might be at a jam sometime and someone will call the tune “Harold”; how embarrassing if you didn’t know the chords?
Occasionally I will hear someone say how they “hate Harolds” or that “openings are stupid”. And to them I would say : If you don’t like it, it’s probably because you suck at it. Rare is the truly experienced improviser who actively hates a form, the same way you don’t frequently hear about musicians who refuse to play in a certain key. Work harder and give it some time. The first time you do a really excellent Harold, where the oft-spoken-of-but-rarely-achieved “group mind” makes an appearance and the improv heavens open up and Del Close smiles down upon you, then you can come back to me and tell me that you don’t want to do Harolds anymore. Until then, shut up and eat your vegetables, they’re good for you.
That having been said, I also think it’s important that Harold’s “classic” form not be slavishly adhered to, because there is ultimately nothing special about the “3×3” structure or exactly how many performers are in each scene in the first beat. I think a group or scene doing nothing but textbook Harold structure is a perfect recipe for engendering feelings of boredom and ill-will towards the form. In the same way that you have to know the rules before you can break them. we should learn the “right way”, and then, definitely, feel free to start exploring. Pablo Picasso’s initial training for years and years was in classic Renaissance-style painting, wherein the goal was photo-realism. That’s not what ultimately ended up interesting him, and it’s not what he’s known for, but it gave him a place to start. While I believe it can be much more, if nothing else treat Harold as a great and well-known place to start.
For the record I think having an opening IS a sine qua non – but the number of scenes, the placement of group activities, following theme vs. game vs. character, etc. – that can ALL easily be tinkered with and still maintain the piece’s “Haroldness”… whatever that means. And, in the course of your tinkerings, you find yourself straying further from Harold, then name what you invented as new form. You can say it was “based on the Harold”, if that works better for you. I doubt Del Close would give a shit.