Did I pique your interest with that provocative title? Are you primed to splutter indignantly? Have I sold out and written deliberate clickbait? Am I desperate? Or am I blindly, insensitively universalising my own tastes? (But then, don’t we all?) I expect all of the above are true, but so is my genuine and longlasting love of the Harold. I sometimes joke that every class I teach is a Harold class in disguise. And then I wonder if I am joking. Let me share some of that love with you.
For those who do not know, the ‘Harold’ is a 20-30 minute improvisation format composed of scenes and ‘games’ created fresh each time it is played. Its three-part structure gives a sense of coherence and unity to a show, but it is also flexible enough to change with the team, the night and content created. It can contain anything. It is a sandpit to expand and improve your improvisational instincts. And once you know it, you will see elements of it everywhere in TV and film. Central Perk is a group game.
When you first learn it, the Harold seems both complex and difficult (which are different things). There are three distinct elements combined in a specific order. Making the thing work involves not just remembering that order, but remembering the scenes that happened today and what can be taken from them. I have stood in front of enough confused faces to know that, while it is now simple instinct to me, that instinct was a learned one. I can even just about remember being that confused face, staring at Tara DeFranciso and wondering (not asking aloud), ‘But why?’
Because there is no getting round the fact that the first time you encounter it, the Harold is a wriggling bear, a greased hydra that will elude you over and over when you think you have it. But few worthwhile things are easy.
So let me tell you why I think every improviser should do the Harold until they are at least pretty good at it.
Often, as you start to improvise, there is a desire to create stopries. After all, humans see narrative (and its sister, morality) as automatically and quickly as we see colour and shape. “What did we do?”, we say as it rains, searching both for a reason and who is to blame. Stories are a version of causality, a proto-science that binds and bonds us, creates cultures and shared meaning.
Now I love improvising stories (more on that, I am sure, in other blogs), but my advice to any improviser would be to wait as long as you possibly can before you start making them up, and be prepared for a rocky ride when you do. Improvised stories are like helicopters: extraordinary when they work, but prone to flipping and exploding at the first malfunction.
The Harold, on the other hand, remains flexible to the end. If we want to send a character on a quest where they face their demons and emerge a better and stronger person, we can. And if we just want to have them do the same thing over and over because it’s fun to do, we can do that too. And if an idea seems ‘done’, we can just drop it. In fact, if a scene seems janky and unredeemable, it might just disappear. No such flexibility in a story! The Harold a very forgiving form, a plane able to land with two engines on fire.
The different elements of the Harold mean it needs different skills and therefore different styles of players. A good team has the comedy nerd, the emotional player and the space cadet. It needs its editing wizard and genre technician. But it never restricts anyoine to their lane. In a Harold, you can find the bit that works as your mind does and gradually expand into the bits that seem as unfamiliar as your in-laws’ cooking. You relax into it all over time, and it too becomes part of home.
Because for me, the point of a Harold is the answer the worst question in improvisation: ‘What the hell do I do next?’ Once you get the flow of the structure, the suggestion leads to the opening, the opening leads to the first few scenes, that first beat to later ones and the scenes combine and cross-fertilise to make the ending feel inevitable and satisfying. The Harold leads you to see multiple opportunities in every scene, to always be inspired, to make connections. It gives you not just the thing to do next, but (which is better) options. It helps you build an attitude of flexibility and abundance. You shift from ‘What on earth do i do next?’ to ‘Which one of these ideas do I choose?’ And that you can take anywhere.