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Posts from the Openings & Monologues Category

“No one who grew up watching comedy says, ‘One day I hope to do openings.’” – Matt Besser

Whether you agree with Besser or not, openings are a fact of longform life. If you’ve been on a Harold team for any length of time, you’ve probably grappled with what form your opening should take, how long it should be, and what (if anything) to take from it.

We’ve all seen – and God knows I’ve been in – plenty of terrible openings. They’re instantly identifiable by:

• “whooshing” sounds

• players standing in a semi-circle, waiting for someone else to make a move

• one player making a move while everyone else watches

If you find yourself struggling with openings, here are some tips to help you get more out of them. Whatever you do, it’ll be exponentially better if you commit to whatever is happening right now.

Standards & Practices are known for their high energy, character-driven openings. They start with a word and quickly generate ideas, characters and situations using physicality and soundscapes. These may or may not come back later in the show.

Watch how they go from zero to 60, forming different points of view while staying connected in this opening:

Sometimes their openings are so physical, they go into their first scenes out of breath. The opening isn’t a separate entity; it’s an integral part of the set. And check out that time: just under two minutes, or about the length of a good youtube video.

Get Cooler Gets

The drunk guy in the third row has been waiting all night for this. If you just say “Can I have a one-word suggestion?” odds are he’ll yell out “Fuck!” or “Shit!” or the more imaginative “Dickwad!”

Instead of making them go through their mind dictionary, help the audience by narrowing it down. For example:

“Can I have a location that would fit on this stage?”

“What’s your favourite sport/colour/product?”

“What’s something you would never pack on a vacation?”

“What’s a tattoo you’ve always wanted?”

It doesn’t really matter what the question is. Just keep it as short and focused as possible. And if the first suggestion is “shit,” wait for another. There’s nothing set in stone that says you have to take the first suggestion. Be choosy.

“If we’re on the same stage, we’re on the same page.” – Joe Bill

It sounds so basic, but the most important thing you can do in an opening is agree. However many players are on stage, your opening will be stronger and more dynamic if you build on each other’s ideas right from the start. That means really listening to whoever initiates, yes-anding and either matching or heightening their physicality, behaviour, voice, and whatever else they put out there.

Like scenes, your openings will be so much better if whatever you’re doing, you commit, fully and joyfully.

Information, Sound & Movement, and Stage Picture

Too much stand-and-talk is boring. Look for ways to add to what’s being created. You can:

• Narrate the action

• Scene paint

• Use your environment to create a more interesting stage picture. If the suggestion is “baseball,” maybe you take up positions on the stage like a baseball diamond.

• Become an object. Someone taking the form of a physical object is always more interesting to watch than an empty stage.

• For bonus cool points, use symmetry. If someone moves on one side of the stage, mirror them.

Go Deep, Not Broad

It’s easy to go on a tangent and start listing things (“salad ingredients,” as Jet Eveleth aptly calls them).

Player #1: We see a ball.

Player #2: It’s a colourful beachball.

Player #3: There’s a man holding it.

Was Player #3 listening? Absolutely, and you could argue he yes-anded. But in openings you want to go deep, not broad.

Explore the first thing until you’ve exhausted it, before you move on to something else. Is the ball made in China? Is it partly deflated? Does it have shark toothmarks on one side?

A Word About Length

During a rehearsal, my team got the suggestion “shining.” I initiated with “Heeeeeeere’s Johnny!” One of my teammates stepped out and said “Heeeeeeere’s Dave!” Others joined in: “Heeeeeere’s Marcie!” “Heeeeeere’s Donna!”

We went on to a second and third beat of that opening, but our coach pointed out that we could have ended it after the first. “Your set could be about exploring each of those characters you initiated.”

Boom!

Sometimes the simplest ideas are the best.

“Decide what you want from an opening. Once you’ve got that, you can end it.” – Cameron Algie

In other words, you don’t need three beats, and it doesn’t have to be five minutes long, unless that’s what the team feels like it needs.

Finding Your Own Style

After you’ve performed as a team for a while, you’ll probably find yourselves gravitating towards a specific kind of opening. Then you can really have fun exploring it.

Mantown is another team with a signature opening style. They stand and face the audience, beer in hand, and deliver short monologues based on a word or topic. But really, they’re taking turns trying to make each other laugh. The audience goes crazy for it. Here’s a sample from one of their shows:

Adam Cawley: Sega Genesis was the better Sega.

Bob Banks: Better than the master system? Of course. It was the second generation of the master system. That’s like saying Super Nintendo is better than Nintendo. Yes!

Jason DeRosse: Genesis was the second-coolest book in the Bible.

Bob Banks: It was also the second-best time in Phil Collins’s life.

Like S&P, they throw out tons of information that they can use to inspire the set – or not. The monologues are fun in and of themselves. You can see a Mantown opening by clicking here here.

For another, thoughtful take on openings, check out this guest post by Erik Voss.

Photo © People & Chairs

Photo © People & Chairs

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.

***

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.

***

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

Photo © Steve Hobbs

Photo © Steve Hobbs

Got an Armando coming up, or just want some tips on how to tell a great monologue?

Check out this article from Fast Company entitled How To Tell A Story – Right Now – From A Master Of Improv.

Photo © Jeremy Wein

“No one who grew up watching comedy says, ‘One day I hope to do openings.’” – Matt Besser

Whether you agree with Besser or not, openings are a fact of longform life. If you’ve been on a Harold team for any length of time, you’ve probably grappled with:

• what form your opening should take

• how long it should be, and

• what (if anything) to take from it

We’ve all seen – and God knows I’ve been in – plenty of terrible openings. They tend to include:

• “whooshing” sounds

• players standing in a semi-circle, waiting for someone else to make a move

• one player making a move while everyone else watches

If you find yourself struggling with openings, here are some tips to help you get more out of them. Whatever you do, it’ll be exponentially better if you commit to whatever is happening right now.

Standards & Practices is a team famous for their high energy, character-driven openings. They start with a word and quickly generate ideas, characters and situations using physicality and soundscapes. These may or may not come back later in the show.

Watch how they go from zero to 60, forming different points of view while staying connected in this opening:

Sometimes their openings are so physical, they go into their first scenes out of breath. The opening isn’t a separate entity; it’s an integral part of the set. And check out that time: just under two minutes, or about the length of a good youtube video.

Get Cooler Gets

The drunk guy in the third row has been waiting all night for this. If you just say “Can I have a one-word suggestion?” odds are he’ll yell out “Fuck!” or “Shit!” or the more imaginative “Dickwad!”

Instead of making them go through their mind dictionary, help the audience by narrowing it down. For example:

“Can I have a location that would fit on this stage?”

“What’s your favourite sport/colour/product?”

“What’s something you would never pack on a vacation?”

“What’s a tattoo you’ve always wanted?”

It doesn’t really matter what the question is. Just keep it as short and focused as possible. And if the first suggestion is “shit,” wait for another. There’s nothing set in stone that says you have to take the first suggestion. Be choosy.

“If we’re on the same stage, we’re on the same page.” – Joe Bill

It sounds so basic, but the most important thing you can do in an opening is agree. However many players are on stage, your opening will be stronger and more dynamic if you build on each other’s ideas right from the start. That means really listening to whoever initiates, yes-anding and either matching or heightening their physicality, behaviour, voice, and whatever else they put out there.

Like scenes, your openings will be so much better if whatever you’re doing, you commit, fully and joyfully.

Information, Sound & Movement, and Stage Picture

Too much stand-and-talk is boring. Look for ways to add to what’s being created. You can:

• Narrate the action

• Scene paint

• Use your environment to create a more interesting stage picture. If the suggestion is “baseball,” maybe you take up positions on the stage like a baseball diamond.

• Become an object. Someone taking the form of a physical object is always more interesting to watch than an empty stage.

• For bonus cool points, use symmetry. If someone moves on one side of the stage, mirror them.

Go Deep, Not Broad

It’s easy to go on a tangent and start listing things (“salad ingredients,” as Jet Eveleth aptly calls them).

Player #1: We see a ball.

Player #2: It’s a colourful beachball.

Player #3: There’s a man holding it.

Was Player #3 listening? Absolutely, and you could argue he yes-anded. But in openings you want to go deep, not broad.

Explore the first thing until you’ve exhausted it, before you move on to something else. Is the ball made in China? Is it partly deflated? Does it have shark toothmarks on one side?

A Word About Length

During a rehearsal, my team got the suggestion “shining.” I initiated with “Heeeeeeere’s Johnny!” One of my teammates stepped out and said “Heeeeeeere’s Dave!” Others joined in: “Heeeeeere’s Marcie!” “Heeeeeere’s Donna!”

We went on to a second and third beat of that opening, but our coach pointed out that we could have ended it after the first. “Your set could be about exploring each of those characters you initiated.”

Boom!

Sometimes the simplest ideas are the best.

“Decide what you want from an opening. Once you’ve got that, you can end it.” – Cameron Algie

In other words, you don’t need three beats, and it doesn’t have to be five minutes long, unless that’s what the team feels like it needs.

Finding Your Own Style

After you’ve performed as a team for a while, you’ll probably find yourselves gravitating towards a specific kind of opening. Then you can really have fun exploring it.

Mantown is another team with a signature opening style. They stand and face the audience, beer in hand, and deliver short monologues based on a word or topic. But really, they’re taking turns trying to make each other laugh. The audience goes crazy for it. Like S&P, they throw out tons of information that they can use to inspire the set – or not. The monologues are fun in and of themselves. You can see a Mantown opening by clicking here.

And for another, thoughtful take on openings, check out this guest post by Erik Voss.

Mantown photo © Clara Kuhl