Chicago’s iO Theater is the home of the Harold. It is perhaps the best-known longform improv piece. And it occurs to me that most people reading this blog may not have the time, money or proximity to learn the way I did – from the best iO has to offer. This blog post will be my attempt to distill the form so you, in Topeka, Kansas, can perform this on stage.
Del Close invented the Harold. You can read some of his notes on the form here. Unfortunately, those notes are extremely broad. So let’s try to narrow it down.
The traditional Harold involves a team of roughly seven players. (You can have more or less, but seven works very, very well.) It lasts about 25-30 minutes. The Harold follows a roadmap that looks like this: Opening, Scene 1, Scene 2, Scene 3, Group Game, 2nd Beat 1, 2nd Beat 2, 2nd Beat 3, Group Game, 3rd Beat 1, 3rd Beat 2, 3rd Beat 3, End.
What the hell does that mean?
Let’s start with the opening. The opening is intended to get your group on the same page. All of you should be on stage, trying to explore the idea of the suggestion. If your suggestion is “pony,” you could all form one giant pony and describe it. You could each have your own ponies and describe them. You could have a group scene set in a store that sells Pony shoes. You could sing a song about ponies. You could tell a story about one particular pony. You could describe the life of the average American pony. The only point of an opening is that you want to plug in to what’s called the “group mind.”
The individuals of your team have a wealth of knowledge. Your goal in the Harold (but especially in the opening) is to find common ground. For example, not everyone knows the man in charge of carving Mount Rushmore, so trying to get your team together on that bit of trivia may not work so well. But you can come to some kind of consensus about what Mount Rushmore means. When the team locks in to that group mind, it will make your Harold run more smoothly. If we decide Mount Rushmore is evil, the subsequent scenes may take other patriotic symbols and explore their dark sides. If we decide Mount Rushmore makes the other 40 presidents jealous, we might see a show about jealousy. The clearer you connect on a theme or an idea in your opening, the easier it will be to generate ideas later.
To recap: There are no real rules to an opening, but all of you should be on stage and you should be trying to come to a team consensus through agreement and support. When you’ve explored that theme and you feel like the whole team is locked together, it’s time to edit out of the opening to begin your scenes.
After the opening, you’ll perform three scenes. Three scenes comprise a “beat.” The first beat scenes should be influenced by some component of the opening. Here’s where you can use a phrase, an idea, a sound, a movement or anything else that intrigued you in the opening. Going back to the “pony” suggestion, if someone in the opening said, “Ponies are so pretty,” in a singsong voice, you could bring that back in one of these three scenes. Be a mom who says everything in that voice. Be a pre-teen girl infatuated with getting a pony. Be a gangster who insinuates threats by talking about how nice their possessions are. You can attack these scenes with any ammo you gain from the opening.
If you blank, that’s okay, too. By participating in the opening, your subconscious may pull in a reference to the opening. Trust that the opening affected you and jump into one of those three scenes.
The first three scenes do not need to be directly related to one another. It works better if they’re not. Just show us three solid scenes with good characters. They work best with two characters per scene – things get shaky when you add more than three. You want these scenes to be memorable. It will help later on.
After your “first beat” concludes, it’s time for a group game. Frustratingly, a group game can be anything. But that’s a positive, too. The idea of the group game is to take everything you’ve established so far (your opening and your three scenes) and plug them back into the group mind. Want to do a song? Cool. Want to do some sort of weird dance? Fine. Want to do a group scene? Go for it. Want to re-enact World War II? Do it. The group game should be a jolt of energy to your show. Really play and enjoy your teammates. All the members may not carry equal weight in a group game. Often, just a few members drive it while the rest support. But the important thing is that you all chip in. Be present and be affected. Examine what your show’s got going for it so far. Because things are about to get really interesting.
The second beat is much like the first. Another three scenes. And these scenes should be inspired by what has come before. The second beat should have some correlation to the first. If you had a couple falling in love in the first beat, we might do a “time dash” so we can see that couple at their wedding in the second beat. You might take the idea of falling in love and apply it to something else – finding a car or a pet you fall madly for. We could do the opposite of the first scene and see a couple divorcing.
A more advanced move is to do something called “mapping.” That’s where you take something from the first scene and apply it to a different situation. For example, if the infatuated lovers stood close to each other, you could simply take that physical proximity and apply it to any other scene. If the first scene had a pond, maybe the second beat callback of that scene also takes place at a pond, but has no other reference to its predecessor.
Your second beat has three scenes, just like the first beat. Unlike the first beat, the three second beat scenes should have some sort of inspiration from the preceding scenes. Yes, you can carry characters forward (or backward) in time if you want to make it clear which scene you’re echoing. But I encourage you to go wider. Take inspiration from the large pool of ideas you’ve already created. Explore a theme or a phrase or one line of dialogue. Make it echo the first beat somehow and you’ve done your job. Remember, the audience doesn’t want to see those first three scenes over again. But they would like to see siblings and children and distant cousins of the first scenes.
After the three second beat scenes, we’re back to another group game. Same rules apply here as to the first group game. Try to get everyone involved and figure out some way to explore what’s already happened in your show. You’re lining up for the final push of your show, so now is not the time to add some crazy new idea. Think of this as your opportunity to focus what’s come before. Take all those little beams of light and turn them into a mighty laser. If your show has been about death, acknowledge that somehow. If it’s been about wanting to belong, make sure your game reflects that. If your show has a recurring theme of celebrations, see how you can amplify and focus that idea with your entire team.
After the second group game, it’s time for the elusive third beat. Here’s where you want to bring things together. Let’s see the worlds you’ve created collide. You can do this with three average-length scenes… or a tag-out run if you choose. The length of the third beat varies, but usually, you want to make it last as long as it takes to make connections between and among as many scenes as you can.
Is the mom from the first beat the same person as the little girl in the second beat? Do the people from the prior six scenes know each other? Are they related? The best teams have a way of wrapping these individual strands together so they make sense. When the lights fall, hopefully you’ve had a thematically coherent group exploration of an idea or two.
In reality, a good Harold is very hard to pull off. Openings go too long. First beat scenes are unmemorable, so the second beat scenes stall out for lack of inspiration. People hesitate to start group games. Scenes have nothing in common with one another. Too many new ideas are introduced too late in the piece. When those things happen, the Harold looks very, very messy.
Your audience craves connections. The human mind is wired to seek them out, even when they don’t exist. So that actually works in your favor. The audience will do its best to connect the dots. But it’s cool if you can connect them, too. You’ve created this world. What does it say about your theme? Use the third beat to drive home the ideas you’ve explored. The cleaner and tidier your ending, the better the crowd will react. Don’t go crazy and construct an elaborate scheme to connect everything as elements of a guy’s dream or something. But where you find connections, connect. Where you don’t or can’t, leave them alone. It’s okay to have a few spare parts left over when the lights fall. But if you can make some puzzle pieces fit, do it!
Holly Laurent and others have described the Harold like this…
Think of a long hallway where there’s a party going on. Off the hallway are rooms, but only a few people are allowed in the rooms. The hallway party continues to rage. The hallway is your opening and group games. It’s where you come to celebrate and vibe off each other. And when you want to change the mood, you step into a room. The room is your scene. It’s connected to the big hallway party, but it’s more intimate and nuanced. When you’ve had your moment in the room, you head back into the hallway.
Using that analogy, the Harold structure would be: hallway, room, room, room, hallway, room, room, room, hallway, room, room, room.
The Harold is demanding because it depends on your ability to remember what’s come before and make progress in the moment. It’s like one of those memory card games where you’ll need to remember that at the start of a game, Jenny flipped over a banana card. Your goal is to find the corresponding banana card later in the game, then remember where the first banana card was and flip that, too. Make a match and you score points.
The best Harold I’ve ever been a part of came as the result of the suggestion “dirty laundry.” At the time, we were doing a two-person scene before the opening. (Yes, you can bend the structure of the Harold if your team agrees.)
I had a scene with a teammate about secrets – the metaphorical “dirty laundry.” It evolved into a McCarthy-era communist witch-hunt.
When the scene ended, my team began its official opening. All of us made the Sputnik beeping noise. Then we talked about other aspects of the 1950s and how everything was perfect back in the “good ol’ days.”
It was clear from our opening that we were taking a sarcastic, high-gloss look at the 50s. And over the next half-hour, we had several more scenes that fractured the facade of nostalgia. Throughout the show, we’d occasionally hear Sputnik beeping overhead, reminding us of the threats, real and imagined, that surrounded the 1950s United States.
That show was a clear case of the team finding its tone and theme early, then following it through to completion. Most Harold are nowhere near that clean.
The teams I admire are those who don’t leave loose threads at the end of a show. They start with a clear, unified opening, and then they cast the net really wide in their scenes. They trust that they will remember and reincorporate the big elements of the show later on. When the group games hit, it’s obvious they enjoy playing together. And in the third beat, they show connections you couldn’t imagine.
I invite you to try the Harold yourself. Surround yourself with a team of caring, funny, talented, big-hearted people and focus your individual strengths into a group mind. Enjoy the challenge. And most importantly, have fun.
If you have questions about the Harold, feel free to ask in a comment below.