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Christmas – or at least, Halloween – came early this year when these photos arrived in our inbox, along with a note from Tom Vest:

“I took the Harold course at Second City in 2003 with David Shore. After doing six years of short form, this new, ‘long form’ instantly felt right. When the course was done I went down to the admin office and asked to put on a Harold show using our class. They said ‘We don’t do that sort of thing.’

I decided to take the course again immediately, and at the end of it simply tell this class we were now a team and going to put on shows. So that’s what we did.

I named it ‘Dude, What’s A Harold?’ and we played at Bad Dog and the Blue Moon, every other week. It was the only show of its kind, and as far as I had heard, the first Harold show in the city. Yes, there had been other long-form shows, but I believe Dude was the first ‘classic’ style Harold. And it was great fun.

When students finished the course with David Shore they could come and play at Dude, and that gave us a large, rotating cast. It lasted for over a year until I moved on to another show.”

“A team of improvisers fully explore a suggestion through scenes and games creating disparate stories, themes and characters that eventually weave together seamlessly.”

Dude, What’s A Harold? Halloween show

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Photos © Tom Vest

And how about that slogan, ladies?  Thanks Tom!

“Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone” – Joni Mitchell

For the last six months I’ve been studying Harold with Alex Tindal.

I signed up because (a) it’s Alex Fucking Tindal, and (b) I was tired of doing montage-style sets, and wanted to challenge myself. It had been years since I last did a Harold, and I was excited to be part of an ensemble again.

The course was thorough, taking us back to basics with scene work, group mind, physicality and point of view, culminating in the classic “training wheels” structure.

After our grad show, we decided we’d like to keep performing as a team. Someone suggested we enter a festival, and a teammate replied:

“We’re the only true Harold team in the city so we definitely offer something unique…”

I’m sorry…what?

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I stopped and re-read what I’d obviously misread.

Then re-read it again.

Improvisers, amiright? I mean, phhhhht, c’mon. There’s gotta be at least…uh…well…let me see now…there’s…uhhhhhhhh…hmmmmmm…

Now, before I get banned from every long-form show in Toronto, let me just say there are lots of great teams doing great long-form shows. But I couldn’t think of a single group who identifies as “a Harold team,” performing what they’d call “a Harold” on a regular basis.

Back when Cameron and I first learned long-form, The Harold was so revered that several schools had entire nights devoted to it. Teams performed for 25 minutes. Each.

So what happened???

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Come with me now, as we travel back to the year 2007.

Guitar Hero was cool, The Colbert Report was just hitting its stride, and the world was about to discover what “subprime” really means.

Cameron and I had completed Level E at Second City, plus a teaser class called Intro to Harold. That was all the long-form they offered, and we were jonesing for more.

Matt Folliott told us about a place called Impatient Theatre Company, whose sole emphasis was on teaching The Harold. Cameron and I enrolled the next day, and from the very first class, we were hooked.

Long-form seemed like the answer to our prayers: a way to expand and explore the skills we’d learned at Second City.

Image © nobodyssweetheart.com

Image © Dyna Moe

It took me about a year to wrap my head around openings, beats, tag-outs, group games, tangents, connections, and callbacks. (And don’t get me started on game of the scene.)

But once I had the Harold down, a whole new world opened up.

Suddenly I was writing scripts – something I’d been doing for years as a copywriter – faster, better, and funnier. I saw patterns and connections in everyday life, and ruined TV shows and films by analysing their structure out the wazoo.

ITC wasn’t the only place teaching long form. Bad Dog Theatre had a thriving Harold program, and Vanguard Comedy Theatre offered classes as well. Different theatres had different styles, and there were heated debates on the merits of organic versus premise-based.

Every week we’d watch other Harold teams, inspired by the sheer variety on stage. There were physical teams, cerebral teams, teams that used the whole theatre as their stage, teams who did ghosting, teams with no chemistry, and teams who thought and moved as one.

It was fun and inspiring as hell. But after a few years of doing opening/first beats/group game/seconds beats/group game/third beats, the structure that had brought so much joy started to feel like handcuffs.

When Charna Halpern visited Toronto in 2008, she taught a workshop on Cat’s Cradle. It’s a form where all the performers are onstage all of the time. There’s an opening, but no set beats or group games, and the structure can be anything you want.

“Cat’s Cradle,” Charna told us, “is a Harold.”

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It was like finding out your old toy truck was actually Optimus Prime.

Other improv legends came to teach: Joe Bill and Mark Sutton, David Razowsky, Susan Messing, Todd Stashwick, Jet Eveleth, and TJ and Dave.

Their organic, be-in-the-moment approach fired our imaginations.

The idea of not thinking or pre-planning moves was very appealing. Many improvisers also attended festivals, where they saw long-form teams doing sets without openings (gasp!).

More and more teams started trying what they’d learned on stage. But – and this is a huge but – they already had the Harold training as foundation. Subconsciously or not, they were able to fuck around without structure in a way that still made sense. Like a pianist who learns scales before playing jazz, the improvisation was still connected to skill.

People began producing shows independently, experimenting with their own styles of long-form. Performers from different schools of thought started coming together, and new teams were formed.

Fast forward to 2013.

After years of struggling financially, ITC closed its doors. Vanguard had already ceased to operate, while Bad Dog was forced to close when their lease expired.

It was a dark time for improv in Toronto.

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Some teams, like Mantown or Standards & Practices, still drew regular crowds at Comedy Bar. But for less-skilled performers, the road was much rockier.

Players took whatever slots they could. With so few theatres and so many people vying for stage time, sets shrank to 15 minutes, 10, even 5. And since no one was attempting a Harold, it didn’t seem to matter.

Teams stopped rehearsing. After all, why rehearse every week when your only show this month (if you’re lucky) is a jam, or a 10-minute montage?

Sets deteriorated into free-form fuckfests, with players going meta and no stakes whatsoever. Audiences felt the lack of commitment, or simply couldn’t understand all the inside jokes. There were often more people on stage than in the house.

Without new students to fill the seats, even long-running shows failed, and many teams (my own included) called it quits.

But then, somewhere on the horizon, hope appeared.

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Today Second City has a comprehensive long-form program, led by improv impresario Rob Norman. The course teaches Harold, but also encourages students to develop their own forms.

Ralph MacLeod and Carmine Lucarelli created a new place to play and take risks, with the Social Capital Theatre. Their repertory program teaches Harold, and also gives ensembles a dedicated coach. And…(drumroll)…they’re bringing back Harold Nights in early 2016.

Bad Dog Theatre re-opened, first at Comedy Bar’s Cabaret space, then their own home just down the street. When they asked Alex Tindal what he’d like to teach, he told them, “A classic Harold.”

And so, like the Harold, things have come full circle.

Thanks to Alex and my talented teammates, I’ve rekindled my passion for the form.

And while the training wheels format may not be the only “true” Harold, it was only when it went away that I realised how important it is.

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Image © David Kantrowitz

If you’ve ever got a note you didn’t know what to do with, this is for you.

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Camp

Meatball

Like Me

Harsh Improv Notes is a blog by Kory Mathewson, of real notes given by and for real improvisers. It’s fascinating reading the range of feedback, from passive-aggressive to sexist to just plain whack.

According to Kory, it was born from the idea that we often give and receive notes in improvisation, and more often than not we take the negative ones to heart, stewing on them and thinking them over long after the note was given.

Seen in this new context, the notes become something else: something to be laughed at, allowing us to shake our heads and move on. (And if it helps instructors become more mindful about how they’re speaking, that’d be awesome too.)

A reader commented: “Some of those notes seem to be shared by people who needed to hear them. Is it really a harsh thing to tell someone they need to get over themselves, or do they just need to get over themselves?”

Some of the notes do appear to be constructive. For us, the problem is when personal notes are given in front of classmates or peers – often to get a laugh. It’s easy then for constructive to become destructive. Like a boss who chews out an employee in front of co-workers, the humiliation is what will be remembered, not the note.

Image © Harsh Improv Notes/Kory Mathewson

Image © Harsh Improv Notes

Ely Henry is a Canadian actor/improviser/musician living and working in L.A  He wrote this post for Canadians, but most of it applies whether you’re living in Winnipeg, Manitoba or Little Rock, Arkansas. You can follow him on twitter @ElyHenry

Photo © Ely Henry

Photo © Ely Henry

Every year I get a ton of people asking questions about moving to Los Angeles from Canada for acting. I usually go through the same list every time so I figured it would just make more sense to put it all in one easy-to-check note.

So. Here’s my thoughts.

Where are you at in your career?

First off, you need to see if this move makes any sense. If you’re coming down for acting and entertainment purposes, you need to see if there’s any interest in you down here.

If you’ve got an agent and you’re getting a lot of work or you’re doing a ton of live shows then you’re in a good spot to try and get out to L.A. However, if you don’t have an agent and aren’t doing a ton of live performance and just think L.A. might be a better chance…it’s going to be a lot harder. Not impossible, mind you, but much harder.

Visit first.

No sense moving to a place you’ve never been. Take a week or two and come down to Los Angeles to scope it out. You want to know what you’re going to get yourself into.

You also want to meet with as many managers and/or agents as you can to see if there’s even a point in you moving down from a business perspective.

Meetings

This is the part that makes people the most uncomfortable, but it has to be done. If you’re serious about really trying to make L.A. work out, then you’ve got to ask for some help. Before your trip down to L.A., call everyone you know who might be able to help you set up meetings.

If you’ve got an agent, tell them you’re going down and ask them to hook you up with any managers they have down in L.A. Email any casting directors who’ve hired you before or who you’ve developed a good rapport with. Just a friendly email telling them you’re going down and asking for any advice they might have and if they know anyone that might be looking for a client like you. Simple. Best case, they have a friend who you can meet or you get some solid advice. Worst case, no response. No harm, no foul.

Ask any and all friends who’ve had success in L.A. for advice. Everyone’s got a unique experience and they might be able to help. Also, see if they’ve got anyone that would meet with you too.

It’s really important to have this set up before you come down. Otherwise, you spend the first six months to a year (at least) looking for representation. And that’s exhausting.

When to visit?

This, to me, is the most important part and the thing people get wrong most often.

If you’re coming to L.A. for the first time, don’t come down for Pilot Season. Literally one million people come to L.A. for Pilot Season. It’s madness. If you’re looking for an agent or manager during that time you’re going to be shit out of luck. They’re all busy pumping the clients they already have into as many rooms as possible. They won’t have time to meet with you.

Pilot Season is kind of all over the place but it’s safely from January to April.

When I first came down it was in May. Everything’s settled down by that time and it’s easier to get a meeting because everyone’s working on getting ready for the upcoming season of shows.

When to move?

Provided you’ve got adequate representation and you’re willing to leave behind socialized medicine, you’re ready to move.

Again, avoid Pilot Season.

Personally, I had great success coming down at the end of the summer. I came down August 29th and it was the perfect warm up before the insanity. All the pilots that are going forward have been picked up and beginning production. This means they’re all starting to audition for guest stars, co-stars and recurring parts. And since you’re not there with the throng of Pilot Season hopefuls you’ve got a better shot at the rooms and the gigs.

Resumés

This is a really good tip I got from a friend after I got here: resumés in Canada are different than in the U.S.

In Canada roles are called “Principal” or “Lead” or “Actor”.

In the U.S. TV roles are referred to as “Guest Star,” “Co-Star” or “Lead,” and in films as either “Lead” or “Supporting.”

If you’re coming to the States then you want to make sure to redraft your resumé to fit these. Casting Directors out here don’t know what any of the Canadian terms mean, and it might make you miss out on some gigs as a result.

Here’s the basic breakdown: “Guest Star” is a character who’s integral to the plot of the episode. “Co-Star” appears in the episode in a non integral capacity. “Lead” is pretty self explanatory. Also note, by the way, that both “Guest Star” and “Co-Star” can be recurring. So if you’ve been on something for three episodes or more just put down “Recurring” in front of whichever you are.

Be generous with your “Guest Stars” and “Leads” (but don’t lie).

Visas and Citizenship

Honestly, I’m not the best person to talk to about this. I’m a dual citizen from birth. My mom is from the States so I was able to move down with no problems.

I’ve got lots of friends that came down on visas and that’s a whole different bag. If you can afford it, find an immigration lawyer and talk to them. This is one of those things that’s easier with money. Unfortunately.

Health Insurance

This country is confusing when it comes to health stuff. Here’s what I did when I first came down. In Ontario there’s a way to get a travel extension on your OHIP for two years (at least, there was when I left, maybe it changed). This allows you to still return to Ontario for any medical treatment for two years. I’m sure other provinces have something similar.

Getting that and travel insurance for when you’re in L.A. is your best bet right away. The travel insurance will cover your ass in the event of emergency and if anything major happens, just hop on a flight back to Ontario and you’re all set.

After you’ve been here for a while…well, that’s its own thing. Thank god for Obamacare because it makes everything a lot easier and cheaper. When you’re ready for full insurance go to www.CoveredCalifornia.com and look around.

Do I need a car?

Short answer: yes.

Long answer: strongly recommend it. You can get around without one, but the transit here is pretty bad and takes a looooong time. You can get everywhere you need to but it’ll take a very long time. So if you’re trying to get to an audition or something…best to avoid public transport.

Where to live?

This is all dependant on what you’re into. I live in Los Feliz which is great because I can walk around. Lots of bars and restaurants within walking distance. Also a couple movie theatres. It’s great.

If you’re used to Toronto or any other big city with great walkability my neighbourhood suggestions are as follows:

Los Feliz

Silverlake

Echo Park

Little Armenia

K-Town

Hollywood

West Hollywood

If you’re more into the suburban vibe:

NoHo

Burbank

Studio City

…basically anywhere in the valley.

Beach:

Santa Monica or Marina Del Ray. But you’ll be far from everyone who loves you or cares about you.

Other Stuff

L.A. is not for everyone. It’s a strange place. I hated it when I first got here. It took me a good year and a half to really settle in. But some people love it right away. You just have to find a solid group of people to explore it with and you’re in good shape.

Don’t overthink the city. Yes, tons of people come here to fulfill dreams and whatever, but at the end of the day it’s a city like any other. People, food, bars…whatever. Just look at it like you would any other place and don’t get caught up in the “HOOOOOLLLLYWOOOOOD” mentality.

This is hands-down the best description of organic openings we’ve ever found. It was originally published in 2011 on USSRocknRoll and is reprinted with permission. You can follow Erik at vossprov.tumbr.com

In the time I’ve been doing long-form improv in Los Angeles, I’ve picked up on a apprehension to Harold openings that ranges from closeted mistrust to outright hate. Many view them as a burden, like some imposing obstacle we must clear before we get to the good stuff. Saying you enjoy openings is like confessing a creepy fetish, like the guy who gets off on dental work: “You can enjoy it all you want, man, but I can barely tolerate it.”

Maybe it’s a symptom of doing artsy Harold work in a laugh-driven town like LA, where big characters and quick cleverness reign supreme over patient, thematic-centered improv. I remember hearing about debates among teachers at iO West over whether Harolds even needed openings. At UCB, organic openings are taught as a more unwieldy alternative to the much more practical Pattern Game or Documentary-style opening. No one has time for any openings whatsoever in the indie community – why waste a third of your 15-minute set on an opening?

“I think we forget that people are coming to watch us do comedy,” someone on my first Harold team declared at our first rehearsal. “We don’t want to turn them off.”

One of the big problems I have, and that I suspect many other LA performers have, is that we don’t have a very clear picture of what a good Harold opening should look like. Yes, at some point when we were students we saw King Ten or Bangarang do a great opening, but we could never figure out how to make it work for ourselves. Every coach and teacher offered a different metaphor. Time after time, we leapt into the abyss, fell on our faces, and watched our numbers decline and our teams get cut. The occasional good opening? Surely a fluke. Eventually, we started avoiding “organic openings” – now a misunderstood pejorative term – and simply gave up, settling for a much more practical Pattern Game, Documentary, Scene Paint, Living Room, etc. … something we decide beforehand.

While at the movies recently I stumbled across a new way of looking at Harold openings that has helped me, at least, give a face to this ambiguous beast. I am probably not the first person to have this idea. And yes, it’s just another metaphor. But if it made sense to me, it might make sense to someone else.

Consider, if you will, the opening title sequence of David Fincher’s film The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

This sequence is the work of Tim Miller, a talented filmmaker and visual effects artist at Blur Studio. It’s an awesome moment to watch unfold on a film screen. There are also a number of elements to this sequence that I think make it an excellent analogy for a great Harold opening:

It’s a full sensory experience. It begins with close-up shots of inky black textures – water, scales, leather, tar, skin, metal, fire. Then we start to see flashes of faces, hands, insects, birds, plants, wire, rope. It all builds up to a cacophony of violence: a woman’s face exploding as she’s struck by a man’s fist, wires snaking up to a person and strangling him, a drowning man, a mouth coughing up wasps and metal objects, a jagged needle poking through skin, a fiery head melting down to a skull, men’s fingers burying a woman’s face and peeling it off. The music – Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” with the lead singer of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs on vocals – surrounds us and complements the violent imagery. You have an emotional and physiological response to experiencing this. It makes your flesh crawl.

It’s exciting. Despite how uncomfortable and disturbing the images become, you can’t look away. It says to the audience – “Hey! Look at me! This is going to be very interesting!” It opens the piece.

It’s abstract, and comfortable with being abstract. It knows that the following two hours will be nothing but scenes, so it embraces the opportunity to be something completely different and weird for a moment. In fact, we barely see any human forms at all – just a variety of textures and close-ups of body parts. This isn’t two minutes of logic – it’s raw emotion. Fincher called it “primordial sort of tar and ooze of the subconscious… sort of her [Lisbeth’s] nightmare.” In a way, this sequence tells us exactly the kind of person Lisbeth Salander is.

Unlike the rest of the show, but specific to the show. Aesthetically speaking, the sequence looks and sounds nothing like the rest of the movie. As a movie, Dragon Tattoo is slow, muted, and icy. There’s a lot of people sitting in frozen cabins and flipping through old pictures. Led Zeppelin permitted the use of “Immigrant Song” only for the trailer and the opening titles – the most memorable song in the movie itself is Enya’s “Sail Away.” Yet the opening sequence’s images and music complement the film’s story, characters, and subject matter perfectly. Only this story could have followed that opening sequence. (Interesting note: like the prototypical Harold structure, Dragon Tattoo has three major storylines that cohere thematically and converge by the end.)

Never abandons its pattern. Despite the variety in texture and imagery, it all feels part of the same pattern. The music doesn’t suddenly switch to a Beach Boys song and the imagery to a warm sunset because Fincher worried the audience would tire of two minutes of the same stuff. Instead, he doubled down, dug deeper, and made his first choice rich with detail. Eventually, we make some interesting connections as a result.

Does not explicitly say a thesis statement; merely suggests a subject matter. The objective here is not to lecture us on human nature, or how the world should be. That won’t be clear until we meet the characters and see how their actions affect the world around them. For now, this title sequence merely sets the tone: we know this film will explore subjects of violence, violence against women, sex, female empowerment, the power of technology, etc. We know everything will have a dark, sexy, S&M kind of vibe to it. It makes that promise to the audience, and the following two hours deliver spectacularly.

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Now, obviously films and Harolds are two completely different art forms that are judged by very different criteria. Not all films require thematic opening title sequences. And sometimes, thematic opening title sequences are a little off-putting. (Many Bond films come to mind – if the title of the movie isn’t self-explanatory enough, here’s Tina Turner or Sheryl Crowe with a theme song that hits us over the head with it.)

But really good opening title sequences, like the one for Dragon Tattoo, at the very least give us a tactile model of something to strive for. It’s an example of something artsy, abstract, and uncomfortable, but also something we can all agree is fucking awesome. So why are we so afraid of it? Is your Pattern Game that much more interesting to watch?

If we don’t shy away from attempting to improvise Oscar-worthy scenes with Pulitzer-worthy dialogue, we ought to set the bar high for Harold openings as well.

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You can read more about different types of Harold openings here.

Photo © Steve Hobbs

Photo © Steve Hobbs

 

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Confession time: I love The B-52s. So it’s no surprise that Hey Fred Schneider, What Are You Doing? is one of my favourite warm-ups (second only to Beastie Boys Rap).

And now Thomas Middleditch has both explained and immortalised it for us on Conan.

For the record, my all-time favourite answer was from my friend and teammate, Matt Wolodarsky. His response?

“I’m filling out crosswords like Pamela Anderson!”

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