Posts tagged Harold improv

Getting the hang of Harold takes time, and third beats tend to be trickiest. Really, it’s about mashing up characters and making connections in the world you just invented. It’s that second part – making connections – that can seem scary, leading to hesitation on the sidelines.

Here’s a way to help get past the fear. This warm-up shows how putting two things together is just plain fun, however it turns out.

Photo © New York Musical Improv Festival

Part One: Freak Tag

First, play a regular game of Freak Tag. Someone is “It” and they try to tag people. Once you’re tagged, you maintain whatever physicality you were in at the time you were tagged, until you tag someone else. Then you can resume your regular posture.

This continues until the Coach calls it.

Part Two: Zombie Tag

Again, just a regular ol’ game of Zombie Tag. One person is a Zombie, and they slowly lumber around trying to tag people. Once you’re tagged, you too are a Zombie. Unlike Freak Tag, everyone stays a Zombie until the last person is undead.

Part Three: Freaks & Zombies

Now let’s connect them.

One person is designated a Zombie to start. When they touch someone, that person stays in whatever physicality they were in (and makes any sound they were making) at the time they were tagged.

They’re now part of the Freak-Zombie Army, as it were, and must tag others in their lumbering freakish way until everyone is a brain-eating superfreak.


Take your own two favourite warm-ups and put ‘em together.

Love Big Booty? Got a fondness for Beastie Rap? Combine the two and see what happens. It’ll probably be a total headfuck, but that’s half the fun of warm-ups. Try it at your next rehearsal.

“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?


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???


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 ©

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.”


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.


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.


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

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.


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

After eight years of doing improv, I’m finally comfortable on stage. Sometimes I still get butterflies before shows, but gone are the sweaty palms, the dizziness in the green room, the sudden urge to stay in the bathroom all night.

For a long time, just the act of getting on stage felt risky. Now I feel it’s time to push myself further.

This year, I want to do things I’ve never done, done only once, or never thought I could do. Things like…


TJ and Dave regularly incorporate ghosting in their sets. So does Toronto’s El Fantoma.

Both are masters at creating clearly defined characters whose posture, timbre, and gestures are easily identifiable. That’s important, not just for the performers, but so the audience knows what’s happening as well.

Definitely a skill I’d like to work on.

Using A Mic

Most venues have a microphone on hand, and savvy tech guys like Comedy Bar’s Mark Andrada will turn it on if they see an improviser wants to use it.

I’ve seen mics used (generally offstage) for the Voice of God, an airplane captain, a lounge lizard, and sound effects like wind, rain, a train, a gong, and beatboxing.

It looks like fun, but for some reason I’ve never dared try it. This year I will dare.

Interacting Directly With The Audience

I’ve done this once, maybe twice with my team, and never on my own. The idea of going into the crowd and mingling or talking with someone terrifies me as much as it probably does them. Which is why I have to do it.

Leaving The Stage Completely

Occasionally someone will exit the stage and never return (well, not for the rest of the set anyway). It always seems like a gutsy move, but somehow I felt if I tried it, I’d be abandoning my team.

When I think about it though, the people I’ve seen do it weren’t screwing over their scene partners. If the opportunity presents itself and it doesn’t feel forced, I’m gonna go for it.

Performing Behind The Curtain

For some reason, playing behind the curtain while staying in the scene scares the bejeezus out of me. Whenever I see people do it I think, “How do they know what’s going on? Can they really hear back there? What if the scene gets swept and they don’t know?” 

(Ahh, “What if…?” The birth – and death – of so many great things.)

Some people go one further and do their scene from the green room. This terrifies me even more, so I guess I’ve gotta try it at some point.

Making Bold Choices…And Sticking With Them

David Pasquesi sometimes plays with his back to the audience.

Anand Rajaram once stood motionless for a whole scene while saliva slowly dripped from his mouth to the floor.

Alex Tindal regularly hoists himself up to the rafters, and he’s even been known to get naked on stage.

While I’m not quite ready to get naked, I am ready to make changes. For years, I’ve struggled with “adaptive improviser” syndrome, where I come in with a strong character and then drop it when I think my scene partner’s offer is so much better.

This year I want to make brave choices and stick to them.

Taking Risks And Trusting

When S&P performed in Chicago a few years ago, Isaac Kessler played a character who died while seated. As his character stood up and slowly moved towards the light, Cameron came in behind him and slumped in the chair.

It was beautiful to watch. Not funny, but inspiring.

He told me after that he wondered for a split second if the team would know he was Isaac’s body, and not a new character, but he quickly dismissed the thought and made the move.

This year I want to make moves like that. I want to stop playing safe.

A friend on TourCo very kindly invited us to do the improv set after the show. As I feel my comfort with being on stage suddenly dissolve in a wave of nausea and sweaty palms, I’m contenting myself with the fact that I can always do it from the green room.

“The job is not to succeed, but fail more interesting than the last time – in a more subtle fashion or in a more intriguing way.” – TJ Jagodowski

Learning long-form was like smoking my first joint.

It took me a while to get the hang of it, but all of a sudden…BAM! I felt like Lisa Simpson at Duff World (“I can seeeee the myOOOOOOsic!”).

It was awesome. But then a funny thing happened.

After having some great shows early on with my team, our Harolds started to suck.

Image ©

Image © Dyna Moe

Our coach had a very specific approach to the Harold. We spent months just doing organic openings, while he quizzed us on identifying the “theme.”

When Cameron watched my team perform, I’d ask him afterwards what he thought.

“It looked like you were working up there.”

Not having fun. Not entertaining the audience. And certainly not being in the scene. We were doing everything “right,” but our shows were marked by hesitation and worse (in my opinion), trying to be clever.

The more I tried to analyse sets, the worse I became as an improviser.

I missed edits my body told me to make, forced connections or failed to make others, and spent a lot of time staring at the floor.

It wasn’t until I discovered the organic, respond-in-the-moment style of improv taught by David Razowsky, Jet Eveleth, Susan Messing, Todd Stashwick, and Greg Hess, among others, that I found a way of performing I understood.

It was intuitive, not intellectual; physical, versus formulaic. Most of all, it felt effortless.

When I told my coach how I’d seen and made connections without trying, he shrugged. “Anyone can connect the dots after the fact.”

It made me think of The Artist’s Way. In it, Julia Cameron talks about writing a screenplay. There was a gun in the opening scene and she didn’t know why, but she listened to her muse and wrote it in. As she neared the end of the script, everything came together and the gun made complete sense.

I realized my coach and I had fundamentally different ideas about long-form…and that’s OK.

That’s why I think it’s incredibly important to experience different approaches. Even if you love the way you were taught, it’s good to see how other people play.

A Harold By Any Other Name

Cameron and I took a workshop a few years ago with Charna Halpern, to learn a form called Cat’s Cradle.

Like the name suggests, Cat’s Cradle is a flexible structure that can take many different forms. UCBT describes it as “a fluid, unfolding symphonic long-form of living environments with all performers onstage all of the time.”

It can incorporate just about anything: singing, scene painting, group physicality, silent scenes, monoscenes, monologues…the list goes on.

There’s an opening, but no set beats or group games, per se. The structure is as simple or as complex as it needs to be.

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

She went on to say that the “training wheels” structure of Opening, First Beats, Group Game, Second Beats, Group Game, Third Beats was just her and Del’s way of teaching people callbacks and connections. It was never intended to be a rigid format.

This was very exciting to us.

Suddenly openings could be anything, not just monologues or organic “whooshing.”

Beats and group games were a choice to be made in the moment, not something that had to be planned ahead.

If the co-creator of the Harold was saying it was more than just a set structure, then the sky was truly the limit.

“Life is a slow Harold.” – Truth In Comedy

In the end, I don’t think it matters where or how you learn the Harold. Not really.

The nuances may be different (at iO, the characters and relationships are heightened in Second Beats; at UCBT, game of the scene is heightened), but the basic structure remains the same.

What matters, once you’ve grasped the basic principles, is that you continue to learn and grow, and stay open to new possibilities. Including the possibility that what you learned is not the only, or best way, to do a Harold.

Organic or structured, left- or right-brained, as every Harold demonstrates, we are all connected.

The Book of Harold

Truth In Comedy is the Penguin Classic of improv books. I’d only ever done short-form when I read it, and it was a year before I did my first Harold, but I knew I wanted to learn more. If you’re just beginning your long-form journey, this is a great place to start.

Hot off the presses is the Upright Citizens Brigade Comedy Improvisation Manualnow available from the UCB Store. Written by Matt Besser, Ian Roberts and Ian Walsh, it includes explanations of the Harold and other long formats.

The book is designed for beginners, as well as experienced improvisers, and with the surge of interest in long-form worldwide it’s sure to become a bestseller.

Another recent addition to the canon is Long-Form Improv: The Complete Guide to Creating Characters, Sustaining Scenes, and Performing Extraordinary Harolds by Ben Hauck.

Frustrated by the way the Harold was taught to him, Hauck decided to find his own method of teaching and performing it. Using a combination of games theory, mathematics and military strategy, he developed an approach that reveres structure above all. Among other things, Hauck recommends:

• Getting the “who, what, where” out in the first sentence

• Taking care of your scene partner before yourself

• Bringing back the same two characters from First Beats into Second Beats

• Monitoring scenes to ensure they have “bilateral agreement”

I confess to breaking out in hives around page 5. Structure is one thing; rules are another. That’s not to say his approach doesn’t work. Judging from the book’s reviews, it works gangbusters. It’s just not an approach that works for me.

As for learning Harold structure, Joe Bill likens it to driving a car.

First, you’re unconsciously incompetent. Then you become consciously incompetent. Next, you become consciously competent. And finally, you’re unconsciously competent.

Such mastery might take months or years, depending on your instructor, your skill set, and your Harold team’s chemistry.

The good news is, once you’ve learned the basics you can start to develop your own style. You might even want to create your own format. The Bat, The Movie, The Living Room, The Deconstruction, The Beast, Armando and many other forms were all inspired in some way by the Harold.

Click below to see one of the best Harolds ever captured on film, performed by legendary iO team, The Reckoning.