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Posts from the Long Form & Harold Category

Photo © John Roiniotis

Photo © John Roiniotis

All longform wants to be boring.

It wants a parade of two-person relationship scenes. Each one familiar to the one that came before.

It craves scenes of a similar length, content, characters, and stage picture. Many brilliant improvised scenes have fallen at the feet of an exhausted audience.

Without variety, good scenes in a long form show mean nothing.

Group Games

Our solution? Do a scene so radically different from every other scene offered, it resets the audience’s expectations of what’s possible. Think of it as an anti-scene. We call it a Group Game. Here’s how it’s different:

Two-person scene: Improvisers’ ideas are expressed through the dialogue exchanged between two (or more) characters onstage.

Group Game: Improvisers express their ideas in any way other than dialogue exchanged between characters. This scene usually involves the entire cast. Often performative and delivered directly to an audience.

You’ve seen these before: a movement piece, a cast song, or snippets of dialogue delivered to the 4th wall.

Of course, there are tons of different formats for Group Games but here’s three that are easy to execute and fun to watch:

1. BOARDROOM IDIOTS

A boss is launching a new initiative and is looking for ideas. His employees want to help but are dumb and get all the details wrong, infuriating the boss.

Why it Works: Great way to use the suggestion. Both verbal heightening (questions from the ensemble) and emotional heightening (the boss). Simple dynamic to play: 8 (ensemble) vs. 1 (boss).

Tips: Try to make every employee dumb in the same way, so you are heightening offers, as opposed to just general jokes about a topic. Try substituting boss/employee for mayor/constituents or mom/children. Anything can work!

Player 1 (Boss): Get in here! We’ve had complaints from some of the campers’ parents that kids are having sex in the tents…

Player 2: That’s terrible. The kids should have sex in the open so the nerdy kids are included!

Boss: Did you say–?

Player 3: Maybe we make it a rule: cool kids have to have sex with one nerd, before having sex with each other?

Boss: No kids should be having sex!

Player 4: I told them third base only. But everyone seemed more interested in the orgy than anything I was saying.

2. JOURNEY OF AN OBJECT 

Using scene painting, each player takes an object on one part of a journey.

Why it Works: Great way to transition between scenes. Easy to understand for a non-longform savvy audience.

Tips: Try to reinforce the energy already present, as opposed to introducing a new one. Scary? Make it scarier. A joke that undercuts tension will always get a laugh, but it compromises the energy of the game for the next offer.

Player 7: The boy runs to catch the bus for summer camp.

Player 1: As he does, the ball falls out of his pocket…

Player 2: …rolling into a nearby sewer.

Player 3: Rapids of excrement push the ball through aqueducts…

Player 4: …through rivers of syringes and band-aids…

Player 5: …into the creek of flushed diapers.

Player 6: The ball is coated in bile and refuse.

Player 7: Heavy, it sinks to the bottom of a black abyss.

Player 1: The ball screams out to his best friend, the boy…

Player 2: …but he can’t hear.

Player 3: The boy is busy at summer camp…

Player 4: …having sex for the first time.

3. LINE-UPS

One at a time, improvisers walk onstage and each deliver one snippet of dialogue to the audience either as unseen character or to the universe. They remain onstage until the last player has entered.

Why it Works: Small lines of dialogue allow players to bring a verbal idea to the stage without getting bogged down by context or narrative. Quick heightening of an idea and then the scene ends.

Tips: Try to heighten in small steps, so you leave room for other players. Also, minimize your interactions with other players onstage. If you end up in an exchange with another player, now you’re improvising a scene instead of group game.

Player 1: I’m disappointed.

Player 2: Carl, you let your mother and I down!

Player 3: We trusted you Terrence. And now that trust is gone.

Player 4: I don’t want to say we’ll never forgive you, but right now it feels that way.

Player 5: We’ve never had to disown one of our own children before.

Player 6: Your father and I hired a witch doctor to curse you.

Player 7: We just want you to learn from your mistakes. So we mortgaged the house and took out a bounty on your head.

Player 1: If you survive, you can say goodbye to going to summer camp!

If you aren’t already doing Group Games, now you have three easy structures to try. (Tip: Try one group game for every three scenes). You can even try to connect your Group Games via theme (like I did in the examples above).

But the real fun is making up structures as you go. Group Games have led me to crowd surf across an audience. Chant on behalf of an imaginary Giant Hotdog. Lock an audience in the theatre to hold them prisoner. Invoke dark gods.

There are no rules. You can do whatever you want in a Group Game, as long as the rest of the troupe wants to do with it you.

The Group Game is my favourite tool to cut through the miasmatic cloud that usually accompanies 30 minutes of interrupted improv. Something I have to remind myself before I step onstage. It’s not easy taking a risk and initiating with something that is “un-scene-like.” But your show needs it.

Longform wants to be boring.

Rob Norman is an award-winning actor (Sunnyside), and improviser (MANTOWN, RN and Cawls). He is the author of the player-friendly longform manual, Improvising Now: A Practical Guide to Modern Improv, as well as co-host of the improv podcast The Backline with Rob and Adam. He currently serves as the Department Head of the Longform program at Second City Toronto.

Improv teams come and go, but every so often one beats the odds and stays together for six months, a year, or longer. And the longer you stick together, the more you can heighten and explore what makes your team unique, both onstage and off.

Toronto’s Standards & Practices have been together since 2007. Over the years, they’ve developed their own style of performing. And as they’ve evolved, so has their image. We thought we’d share some, to inspire how you think about your own team.

In the beginning, S&P had 10 members. At some point Tom Vest took it upon himself to develop a graphic look and feel for the team, including fake merch (and possibly our favourite promo video ever):

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When Tom left, the group had whittled down to Matt, Cameron, Kevin and Isaac. They began using random images of foursomes to represent themselves on social media.

Spot the Isaac.

More recently, Kevin Whalen has steered the team’s image in an ever-more-imaginative direction where, like an S&P show, anything is possible.

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When you’re committed to a team, you can have a lot of fun with how you perform, dress, write about, and present yourselves. Here are some more ideas to try:

• Get a professional photographer to take some team pictures. Bring a couple of changes of clothes, or even costumes.

• Make promo videos. They can be themed to tie in with your show, an ongoing series, or just funny one-offs. Use live action, finger puppets, stop motion, parody…whatever. It might be a 30-second gibberish scene with subtitles that you film on your iPhone. Experiment and see where it leads you.

• Don’t just write a straightforward description of your upcoming show; let your inner David Sedaris (or Steve Martin, or Hunter S. Thompson) loose. Here’s a sample S&P description:

Standards & Practices take you on a groovy trip through the silky smooth Dream Highway on the road to Laidbackville U.S.A. – RIGHTBEFOREWEFUCKYOURBRAINS – tonight – 9 pm – Comedy Bar.

Honestly, who could resist an invitation like that?

• Choose a theme song that reflects your team’s vibe, gets you in the mood to improvise, or just means something to you. TJ and Dave always come out to Commie Drives A Nova by The Ike Reilly Assassination. S&P shows start with the first few bars of Carmina Burana in total darkness, then the lights come up as they kick in to an upbeat song like Move Your Feet to blast the cobwebs from everyone’s minds.

Now, maybe you’re more Improvised Shakespeare than crazed comic superheroes, and that’s cool. Whatever your flava, just make sure you celebrate it.

If you’ve just joined us recently, welcome! Below you’ll find some of our most-read topics to date, so pull up a bentwood chair and enjoy.

Image © People and Chairs

Image © People and Chairs

How-To Posts

Eight Ways To Be Good With The Improv

Eight More Ways To Be Good With The Improv

How To Succeed At Anything by Being Yourself

Audition Tips From The Other Side Of The Table

How To Write A Kickass Performer Bio

Performance Anxiety: How To Dissolve Pre-show Nerves

How Cameron Got Over His Anxiety (And So Can You!)

Harold/Long Form & Scene Work

Openings: The Good, The Bad & The Funny

Somebody Edit This, Please

John Lutz on Keeping It Simple

Enjoy The Silence: Improvising Without Dialogue Part One and Part Two

On Coaches, Chemistry, And Finding Your Dream Team

Specificity: Why Pabst Blue Ribbon Beats Whatever You’re Drinking

All By Myself: Solo Improv

How I Lost Interest In Game Of The Scene And Found Something Way More Fun

Great Guest Posts

12 Tips For Festival Organizers by Amy Shostak

12 Tips For Improvisers Attending Comedy Festivals by Matt Folliott

7 Tips For Surviving An Improv Jam by Laura Bailey

Now’s The Time To Know The New by David Razowsky

How Not To Get Sued (A Guide for Canadian Comedians) by Rob Norman

Never Give Up by Jimmy Carrane

How To Avoid Being A Creep by Conor Bradbury

Improv Community & Insight

For The Love of Art, Pay People

Why Improv Is Good For Business

The Art of Comedy

When “Yes, And” Becomes No

Comedians, Don’t Sell Yourself Short

Random Fun Stuff

Improv Explained In Venn Diagrams

What’s Your Improv Persona?

It’s An Improv Thing

When Improvisers Date

An Illustrated Guide To Improvisers

Improv Forms That Don’t Exist (But Should)

When Ralph Met Becky

Web Series: Inside The Master Class

Stick This In Your Ear: The Improv Podcast Round-up

Video: How To Spot An Improviser

 

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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The year was 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

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

Photo © Kevin Thom

Photo © Kevin Thom

If you ever get the chance to perform on your own, do it. No matter how much it scares you.

Rob Norman did his first solo set when Adam Cawley and Jason DeRosse couldn’t make it to a Cage Match competition. Their team was called Maybe. Rob opened the set by saying, “When I asked Jason and Adam if they’d like to do Cage Match with me, they said…maybe.”

When the laughter subsided, he got a suggestion and did some word association, followed by a montage inspired by those words. It was a mix of ghosting, narration and monologues.

Solo Formats

Maybe you wanna wing it on the night, like Rob. Or maybe you’d prefer to choose a specific structure beforehand.

Some performers have a signature style, like Andy Eninger’s Sybil, David Shore’s One-Man Harold, or Mike Brown’s Solo Improv Extravaganza. Whatever form your show takes, just remember: if it’s fun and interesting to you, it will be to the audience as well.

Here are some forms to explore:

The Phone Call

Choose an audience member and invite them onstage, then ask them about the important people in their life: a significant other, a BFF, their boss, a sibling, an ex-lover… Try to get as much detail as you can, spending one to two minutes on each person and their role in the audience member’s life.

Once you’ve got info on three to five people, thank the audience member and find a spot on stage. Then answer (or dial) imaginary phone calls with those people.

The audience sees and hears only the improviser’s half of the conversation; the other characters remain unseen and unheard.

Monoscene

This is like a standard monoscene, except you play all the parts.

You can create a two- (or more) person scene by ghosting different characters. Changing your topography, voice, and physicality on stage will help define and differentiate characters – for you, and the audience.

Use whatever you need to build your scenario: monologues, scene painting, object work, and that most awesome of all tools: silence.

For inspiration, read about Jason Mantzoukas’s epic, silent one-person monoscene at UCBLA.

Single Character 

Choosing a character ahead of time and playing the set as that person is another option. By having your “deal” when you walk onstage, you can hit the ground running with a strong point of view right away.

For examples of character-based solo formats, click here.

Play People You Know

When Cameron’s team, Standards & Practices, went to Vancouver, he stayed in Toronto and performed a one-man show as S&P. Because he knows them so well, it was easy to take on the physical and verbal characteristics of teammates Matt Folliott, Isaac Kessler and Kevin Whalen. (Or at least, Cameron’s version of them.)

You can do the same, playing anyone from other performers to friends, relatives, famous authors, celebrities, or anyone living or dead.

How about a Talk Show where you’re the moderator, as well as the guests?

Solo Musical

If you sing or play an instrument, why not utilise your talents by merging improv and music?

Josh Bowman performs an improvised musical using a loop pedal, vocal percussion, and guitar. (In his words, “Think Reggie Watts, but totally different.”)

Your Solo Is Part Of A Symphony

The only way to really do improv all by yourself is performing in an empty room. The moment you set foot onstage, you realise you’re not alone. The audience becomes your scene partner, and you share the experience together.

For more ideas, check out Chapter 11 of Mick Napier’s Improvise: Scene from the Inside Out. There are lots of fun exercises you can practice on your own; you might even find something to inspire your set.

And while nothing can quite match the magic of group mind, at least when you’re alone on stage, it’s a lot harder to talk over top of yourself.

The Whiplash

The Coach steps out and introduces the team, saying:

“Thank you ladies and gentlemen, we’re very excited to be here. Tonight we’ll be doing a brand new kind of improv, unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. It’s breathtakingly bold, hilarious, and heartbreaking. I promise you’ll never forget this astonishing set. The team’s been rehearsing it for months, so please sit back and enjoy The (Mosquito/Can Opener/Banana/ Shoelace/whatever pops in the Coach’s head).”

Coach smirks at the performers, exits.

The Get                                                                                                            

A 25-minute set where the team spends the entire time getting the suggestion.

Players start by explaining the rules of the show they’re about to perform (“This microphone is a lever that takes us to another dimension.” “When I snap my fingers, we start speaking in Russian.” etc.) Players can also riff off of each other’s suggestions, tell monologues, scene paint, or do whatever it takes to fill their allotted time.

When they finally take a suggestion, lights out.

The Deep End

Grab a Level A student and throw them in with the highest-ranking Harold team.

Photo © Kevin Thom

Photo © Kevin Thom

Short Form Long

A 25-minute set of a short-form game. If it’s “Sit, Stand, Bend,” openings and group games would incorporate all three actions, and edits would be done while bending over, or sitting in a chair and scraping it across the stage.

See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil

Three players. One puts on noise-cancelling headphones, the second blindfolds him or herself, and the third tapes their mouth shut for the entire set.

The Tweet

At the start of the show, everyone (performers and audience) logs on to twitter.

Players are seated with their smartphones on stage. They tweet to each other, line by line, never looking up from their phones.

The audience watches the show the same way.

Deuce

Create a stage at the back of the theatre and have two competing sets. Each team gives and takes focus, going scene by scene.

Halfway through the show, the audience faces their chair towards whichever show is better. One team wins when they get the other audience’s whole front row to turn their backs.

Reverse Steamroller

A strong improviser who normally drives scenes walks out on stage. Before they can utter a word, players on the side narrate all of the dialogue and action for him/her.

The Dinner Party

Two performers show up at a formal dinner party to provide the entertainment. No matter what they do, the diners ignore them and carry on their own conversations.

Time Traveller

The team gets in a time machine (for real) and goes back in time, changing a historical event to make it funnier. They come back to the present and reference it on stage.

Jokes will not land, as the audience will only know of the event in its new form.

For over a decade TJ Jagodowski and David Pasquesi have wowed fans and critics alike with their two-man show. Last year they opened their own theater, The Mission. And now they’ve co-written a book with Pam Victor, whose blog chronicles her own improv journey while celebrating the work of others. We asked them about (what else?) improv, on the eve of the book’s launch. 

Photo © Eleonora Briscoe

Photo © Eleonora Briscoe

P&C: You’re both busy acting in films, TV, web series, on stage, and now running a theatre. Why did you decide to write a book?

TJ: Circumstances seemed to conspire. All around the same time, David and I had both separately started jotting down some mad ramblings and then Pam offered to help us if we ever decided to write something.

P&C: Pam, how did you get involved with TJ and Dave, and specifically the book?

Pam: I’m slowly releasing the long answer to this question in a new series called “Writing The TJ & Dave Book” on my blog – it’s a real behind-the-book look into my experiences over the last two years. Lots of sex, shoe-throwing, and gore. (OK, that’s not true at all.) But here’s the short answer: I’ve been a ginormous fan of the show pretty much since the first moment I saw it, which was in the documentary Trust Us This Is All Made Up. When they did a show in Western Massachusetts, where I live and TJ just so happens to be from, it was sold out, but I just had to get in. So I showed up, ticket-less, at the door and somehow begged my way in. When the lights came back up fifty-three minutes later, my life was forever changed.

After the show, I screwed up my courage and introduced myself to Dave. He was (and is) utterly charming, so I asked him if he’d be willing to do a “Geeking Out with…” interview with me. For some reason he said yes. That seemed to turn out pretty well, which lead to TJ’s “Geeking Out with…” interview, conducted in his living room while I was in Chicago for the five-week iO Intensive. Once those interviews were published, I wasn’t ready to stop being in their heads. I emailed them to say as much, suggesting that they should write a book and offering to be the one to help them with it. (I’m a little ballsy that way.) For some reason, they agreed. That was in the Fall of 2012, and I’m still waiting to wake up from the dream.

P&C: What can readers expect from the book?

TJ: I think they can expect a really thorough examination of how we think about improvising, which is a big thing we really love.

Pam: Basically, I spent two years asking TJ and David every single darn question I could come up with about how they approach improvisation, mostly within their show but also a bit as it applies to other shows. I think our hope is that readers can find an insight or two that they can take back and try out on their own. These gentlemen really have a unique approach to improvisation – it might seem pretty different than what we’re seeing out there these days in most comedy schools – so I’m personally hoping that readers will simply expand their views of how one could improvise

P&C: The book is called Improvisation at the Speed of Life. What do you mean by that?

David: As opposed to any pre-determined speed. Like slow or fast.

TJ: That we would like our improvisation to represent reality. To look and feel real and in that, move at all the different paces the real world moves at.

P&C: What’s unique about your approach, versus the way others improvise?

David: I think we look at it as realizing what is already occurring, as opposed to what we can make it into.

TJ: I think we play how most of us were taught to. Moment by moment, focused on your partner and what is happening. So, I’m not sure if we are unique, but if we are then a lot of folks have abandoned their education.

P&C: You’re both so respected and your show so well loved. Why aren’t there more people doing what you do?

David: Ask them. Actually I think there are people doing two-person stuff.

TJ: I think there is a lot of two-person improvisation going on. We are lucky in that we have been doing it a long time and get a long time on a given night to do it.

P&C: You’ve been performing as a duo for 13 years – longer than some marriages. How have you been influenced by each other’s style, or has your style evolved together?

David: We don’t agree totally on everything, but we certainly agree on the larger ideas about improvisation and what it is capable of delivering if we allow it to.

TJ: I think we have remained almost completely unevolved. We are still chasing the thing we started chasing 13 years ago in much the same way we began. I dont know if we have individual styles but if so, I still feel David is very much David and I still I.

P&C: TJ, you said in an interview that improv is often about “Why is this day different?” whereas you’re more interested in “Why is this day the same?” Is that something you consciously do on stage: look for the everyday?

TJ: I would say more than looking for everyday, I don’t look to find how this is different. It seems unnecessary to me. An audience has never met these characters before, so why do they have to  be different than they normally are? I think that way of thinking is employed so that there is action or emotion to your play. But there is action and emotion in the things that happen everyday. And even if nothing big happens, David and I would prefer to honestly bore people than fabricate a meteor strike.

P&C: David, you’ve said that Del Close taught you to be honest and authentic in scenes, versus funny. Do you think improvisers shy away from honesty because they’re afraid of being vulnerable, or afraid of audiences not laughing?

David: I suppose so. But Del also said that onstage you can afford to tell the truth…no one will believe it’s you.

P&C: There’s a lot of emphasis in curriculum nowadays on game of the scene. How do you think this is shaping improvisers or improv in general?

David: I’m not real sure what that means, so I cannot comment on it. I am not a student in class and I am not one who writes or follows a curriculum, so I am unqualified to say.

TJ: I don’t know how it’s shaping improvisation in general. I know that I don’t think it’s needed in improvisation. It serves a certain function in a style of play, but a good scene certainly doesn’t need a game.

P&C: Actors are strongly encouraged to have improv training, yet few improvisers seem interested in taking acting lessons. Do you see that as a problem, or just the evolution of the art form?

TJ: I don’t know if it’s a problem, but if an acting class would benefit your improvising then I see no reason why you wouldn’t want to do that. Sometimes we turn improvisation into sketch, and being able to act those sketches would be of real use as well.

David:  I think it’s very helpful to learn to listen more and be more present. On more than one occasion I was told by the director that I got the job in a play because of how I listened. That is directly from training and practice in improvisation.

P&C: You don’t go “meta” on stage. How do you feel about shows that do that?

TJ: It sooo rarely goes well in my opinion that I think it’s better to avoid it altogether. Things often seem to go meta when the show isn’t going well, as a way to step out and away from it like you’re not really doing it anymore, so you can feel free to comment on it and acknowledge it as something separate from yourself. Also, once you go meta you almost never get your show back into non-meta thinking. And I as an audience am now taught that this scene may not be there to be believed, but is there to be referred to or stepped out of

P&C: What are some other shows or performers you’ve seen whose work you enjoy?

David: Beer Shark Mice. I love watching them. They know each other so well, it’s like one person rather than five guys. Dassie and Stef Weir, Scott Adsit…tons of folks. Literal tons. (Or tonnes for your British and Irish and Australian readers.)

TJ:  I love the whole cast of our theater’s sketch revue, our house ensemble, Michael O’Brien, Gethard, Trio, Quartet…this would truly be a very long list, so I’m going to stop.

P&C: Mick Napier jokingly (well, kind of) referred to improv as a cult. How important is it to cultivate other interests and experiences?

David: Essential.

TJ: When I first started, I was totally immersed in it. I think that helped me for a while. My passion was really intense and I had a lot to learn, tons of stage time to benefit from, new friendships to form. But at some point I realized I was talking about scenes I saw or was in as though they really happened out in the world. I got kind of scared that all my experiences would be imaginary, so I found a better balance in my life after that.

P&C: At the start of each show you say, “Trust us, this is all made up.” Trust is obviously a huge factor in how you play together. Do you think it’s possible to have that kind of trust with larger teams of players?

David: It is. I have had it. I think good group improvisation requires that trust.

TJ: Absolutely.

P&C: What is it about improv that’s kept you doing it for over 25 years?

David: Still trying to do the same things. Trying to do them better, with more ease and grace. It always is exciting to see what is going to happen.

TJ: It lived up to its promise. It’s different every time and on any given night it may be the most wonderful thing in the world. Why would someone not want that possibilty in their lives?

Improvisation at the Speed of Life is available for pre-order at amazon.com. Chapters include:

• The Job of an Improviser

• Being a Good Stage Partner

• Listening (No, We Mean Really Listening)

• Shut Up (No, We Mean Really Shut Up)

• Fuck The Rules

• The Importance of Disagreement in Agreement

• Being Funny Isn’t The Goal

• Don’t Step in That: Dealing with Trouble

• Taking the Next Little Step

• The People We Play

• Details and Specificity

 

For decades, TV shows had the same structure: an opening montage or story synopsis, typically sung or narrated, so newer viewers could understand the story and characters right away.

Meanwhile, regular viewers had to listen to how The Brady Bunch got together. Every. Goddamn. Episode.

As the internet grew and attention spans shrank, intros got shorter. Scrubs‘ intro was just 20 seconds long. By the fourth season, it was five seconds. And Louis CK’s Louie got right to the point this season with no opening whatsoever.

StartInTheMiddle

Modern audiences are story savvy. We’ve become really good at making assumptions, jumping in midway and figuring it out.

When you lose exposition, you focus on now. And that’s where great improv lies.

A Harold traditionally has some kind of opening (the form, after all, was modelled after TV and film) but even that’s changing. More and more long-form shows start with scenes. And dynamic scenes start in the middle.

Even if you just have a fragment of something to begin with, that’s OK. Make assumptions. Decide to know each other. Make bold choices, and you’ll figure it out as you go.

Another way to think of it is like an Oreo cookie.

In Canada there’s a brand called Eat The Middle First. The boring outer layer is like all those scenes that start with “Hey,” “Hi,” and other timid offers. Feel free to ditch that and dive right in to the fun part.

Don’t wait to get to the good stuff.

Carpe Cookie

Carpe Cookie