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Posts tagged improv Harold

“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

When you’re starting out as an improviser, being put on a Harold team is about as exciting as it gets. We’re talking X-Men: Apocalypse in IMAX with a bagful of weed exciting.

At this stage, thoughts like “Who else is on my team?” or “Who’s our Coach?” (Director, for our American readers) are usually far behind thoughts like, “What if I suck?” “How do you do a tangent scene again?” and “I feel the sudden urge to take a crap.”

But once you’ve rehearsed for a couple of months and have some shows under your belt, you’ll find your focus turning to your fellow team members, your Coach, and your relationship with all of them.

After being on numerous teams and watching the development of dozens more, I’ve come to some conclusions about why certain teams shine while others struggle.

“If you’re not having fun, you’re the asshole.” – Susan Messing

You’ve probably heard this quote at some point, and if you haven’t, you will. While it’s pretty self-explanatory, I asked Susan to elaborate. She said, “You determine your joy ride. If you’re not getting off on this work, it’s not your teammate’s fault.”

As the Bible says, “And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the log that is in thine own eye?”

(Thanks for translating, Susan.)

So before you go around trashing others for being shitty improvisers, try working on yourself first.

Everyone on your team has their own strengths and weaknesses. Some people are natural editors. Others are great with physicality and spacework. Still others are geniuses at remembering offers and tying everything together.

That’s the beauty of being on a team. Very few people are great at everything, especially when you’re starting out. So go on easy on yourself, and your teammates.

But what if you feel disrespected? If you find yourself consistently getting tagged out, swept early when scenes are going well, or endowed as the “stupid ho” every show, maybe it’s time for a frank and honest talk with your team members or Coach. It could be they’re unaware of these behavioural patterns.

On the other hand, if you’re constantly tagged out or swept, it may be a sign that you need to step up your game.

Back when Standards & Practices had about 37 members, a few of them called Cameron out in rehearsal. He’d been hanging back in shows, and not contributing much to scenes. Kevin Whalen put it bluntly: get better, or get off the team. It was a tough-love moment from someone Cameron looked up to. Happily, he used it as the impetus to start bringing it every show.

That being said…

Chemistry Isn’t Everything, But It’s Pretty Damn Important

You can “yes and” your scene partner all you want, but at some point personalities come into play. And just as you may not love everyone at your day job, you may not be gellin’ like Magellan with everyone on your Harold team.

When you look at the top improvisers, there’s clearly a connection between great performances and great chemistry.

TJ and Dave, Joe Bill and Mark Sutton, Razowsky and Clifford, the UCB Four, Susan Messing and Blaine Swen…all of these people found kindred spirits with whom they enjoyed performing, and made a decision to pursue playing with them.

But when you’re put on a Harold team, you’re not The Decider.

Different Artistic Directors have different reasons for assembling teams. Chances are, whoever assembled yours wasn’t thinking purely of player chemistry.

Maybe they wanted an all-girl team. Maybe they needed a tall guy to balance out the short one. Maybe they wanted someone fat, thin, bespectacled, or heavily pierced.

It’s a bit like The Monkees.

Photo © Wikimedia Commons

The group was the brainchild of corporate executives who wanted to emulate the success of The Beatles. Instead of finding an existing band, they auditioned four guys and threw them together, leading to the moniker The Pre-fab Four.

Compare that to Nirvana. Never in a million years would a Casting Director have looked at Kurt Cobain, Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl and said, “These guys are gonna be huge! They’re gonna change popular music and ignite a generation of kids!”

Nirvana may have looked a ragtag trio of oddballs, but they had chemistry and talent in spades.

When your team has chemistry, it’s a whole lot easier to form group mind. Yes, you can get there with exercises, focus and commitment, but when it comes naturally, it’s like Boom!

Chemistry is the reason why some Harold teams last years, while others implode in five minutes.

Most teams have a lifespan of anywhere from six months to three years. People come and go. Some quit, some are voted out by team members, and some asked to leave by the Coach.

It’s all part of the process.

But even if your team doesn’t have amazing chemistry, there’s a way that you can create it for yourself…

Broaden Your Mind – And Your Network

Attend shows. Lots of shows. Not just improv, either. Sketch shows, solo shows, plays and concerts are all great inspiration. So are art shows, movies, and all kinds of festivals. Anything that enriches your life offstage will automatically enrich your work onstage.

One way to meet new people and make new friends is to take workshops. Master Classes are not only good for learning skills, they’re also a way to connect with people who may be more seasoned than you.

Whether it’s a five-week intensive in Chicago, a weekend workshop to learn musical improv, or a two-hour drop-in class, push yourself to get out and try new things.

Duo nights are another option, and they’re becoming increasingly popular. Forming a duo is an awesome way to do something different with someone you don’t normally perform with.

The same goes for improv jams and cage matches. They may seem terrifying at first, but you’re all there to have fun, so accept the offer if the opportunity arises.

A Word On Coaches

Your Coach is a guide, mentor, and cheerleader, rolled into one. They are not a teacher, but they may teach you new skills or forms.

I’ve been blessed with a diverse range of Coaches: some were focused on acting and scenework, some were big on structure and theme, while others were all about play and being in the moment. I learned from each and every one of them.

Sometimes there will be differences of opinion. Whether you agree with every note, exercise or idea your Coach has to offer, try to at least accept it with an open mind.

But when rehearsals turn into debating sessions, it may be time to look for a Coach who shares the team’s vision.

Know When To Hold ‘Em, Know When To Fold ‘Em…You Know What? Just Know When To Walk Away

At some point, it will be time for you to leave: your team, your Coach, or the theatre company that trained you. This is a good thing.

When you do, try to do it with grace and respect.

That team who liked fast-paced shows while you prefer slowprov? Wish them the best as you both pursue your own interests.

That Coach who drilled you on game of the scene till you wanted to throw a chair? Be thankful for the skills they imparted, and for helping you define your own beliefs.

That theatre company that gave you a start? Say a silent “Shalom” and step aside to make room for some new up-and-comers.

Be grateful for each and every experience, then focus on doing more of what fulfills you. In life, as in the Harold, nothing is ever wasted.

Photo © Joseph Ste Marie

Photo © Kevin Thom

Photo © Kevin Thom

Lights up. Empty stage. 12 of you on the sidelines. You all know at least one of you has to move, RIGHT NOW, and fill that empty void.

Two people step forward. Heroes, right? They overcame the scariest thing you can do in improv and stepped out into nothingness.

Or so it seems. Because the fact is, the two that stepped out are not the bravest. They ran away from what’s truly the scariest thing in improv:

Being left on the sidelines.

“Look at those two out there, being in the moment, connecting with each other. What am I doing? I’m on the sidelines with nothing else to do but listen to the voices in my head. Think about why I didn’t step out first. Think about how to help this scene. Does this scene need help? Would I know? Should I edit? Should I have edited just there? Is it too late to edit now? It’s probably too late to edit. Why am I on this team? I’m probably the worst on this team. Maybe. Me and Chuck, bottom two for sure. Fuck, I should be listening to this scene. Okay, it’s not too late. Who are they to each other? That got a laugh. Not sure why. Delivery? Or callback? Focus! Oh good, someone edited. I should go out. What was that last scene about? I should bring a different energy. What was the word again? Oh good, someone’s out there. Why didn’t I go out?”

In the improv world, there’s nothing scarier than the voices in your head. So how do you avoid that?

One easy way is to go do a scene. Yep. I said easy. When you step out and do a scene, even a bad scene, you’re playing with someone else. You forget for a couple moments all the things you should be doing and you start doing them. If you step out and say, “Hey,” your next thought is probably What a stupid offer, but before you can dwell on that, your scene partner says “Hey” back. Now you have to say, “Sup?” and pretty quickly the scene takes focus over your thoughts.

On the sidelines, it’s just you and your thoughts.

So next time you’re too scared to go start a scene, don’t beat yourself up about it. You’re a hero to the rest of your team, ’cause that’s sure as hell not where they wanna be. Being on the sidelines is scary as fuck.

Photo © Kevin Thom

Photo © Kevin Thom

When you’re learning The Harold, it can be difficult sometimes to grapple with the structure.

Here’s one way to visualise beats and group games, and how they work together over the course of a show. In this context, “blobs” can be a word, a gesture, a character, a setting, or any other element that becomes part of the set.

LavaLampHarold