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Harold is a structure used in longform theatrical improvisation. Developed by Del Close and brought to fruition through Close's collaboration with Charna Halpern, the Harold has become the signature form of Chicago's iO and the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater in New York and Los Angeles. It is now performed by improvisational theatre troupes and teams across the world.
The Committee, a San Francisco improv group, performed the first Harold in Concord, California in 1967. They were invited to a high school and decided to do their improvisations on the war in Vietnam. On the way home in a Volkswagen Bus they were discussing the performance when one of them asked what they should call it. Allaudin (Bill) Mathieu called out "Harold." It was a joking reference to a line from A Hard Days Night where a reporter asked George Harrison what he called his haircut; he answered "Arthur." Close later remarked that he wished he had chosen a better name.
When The Committee disbanded in 1972, improv company “Improvisation, Inc.” was the only company in America continuing to perform Del’s “Original” Harold: A 45-minute free-form piece that would seamlessly move from one “Harold technique” to another. In 1976, two former I-Inc performers, Michael Bossier and John Elk, formed "Spaghetti Jam", performing in San Francisco's famous Old Spaghetti Factory through 1983. Spaghetti Jam performed Harolds while also turning Spolin games and Harold techniques into stand-alone performance pieces... i.e. Short-Form Improv.
Close's book, Truth in Comedy, which was co-written by Charna Halpern, is the definitive text on the form. It describes a "training wheels Harold" as three acts (or "beats"), each with three scenes and a group segment. With each beat, the three scenes return. By the end of the piece, the three scenes have converged.
A typical Harold is 25 to 40 minutes. Given three unrelated scenes A, B, and C, the structure follows:
- Scenes A1, B1, C1
- Group Game
- Scenes A2, B2, C2
- Group Game
- Scenes A3, B3, C3 (Note: In the final set of scenes, not all three will always return. Players are encouraged to call back the most interesting scenes and characters from the Harold, and also to intertwine them.)
Close called this a 3x3 structure, using it to give improvisers a sense of organization to help them through their first Harolds. He was clear that the format was theirs to use. Departures were not only allowed but were considered important steps in developing a group's ability to Harold. He expressed this in his book Truth in Comedy noting that "the first rule is: there are no rules." In performing Harolds, content and the need to develop an organic commentary on the suggestion trump predetermined structures.
Various Harold structures use different sets of guidelines such as the 3x3 format. Another guideline might be whether you stay as the first character you create or can play multiple characters. Or, that the ending is a group scene. Or, that everyone knows each other and scene partnerships may change from the first to second and second to third layers.
The loose structure allows for the creative bursts necessary for the Harold. Using an audience suggestion, actors explore their relationship to the topic as a starting point. The scenes progressively evolve as the exploration continues to an ending point.
The basic form starts with an "opening." After eliciting the audience's suggestion, the ensemble explores it for a few minutes in either an unplanned or a predetermined structure. Textbook structures include:
- A cocktail party that ebbs and flows between conversations.
- Monologues that rotate among cast members.
- Invocation of the suggestion in the style of an occult ritual (It is, you are, thou art, I am).
- Organic involving morphing sound and movement exploration.
- Pattern game where word association is used to generate ideas, often referred to as a clover leaf because the pattern arcs out with associated words and returns to the suggestion, and is repeated two additional times.
- Source scene or scenes which are used to pull ideas and which might return in the 3rd Beat.
Rarely is the opening just about the literal suggestion. The suggestion serves a starting point to discover greater underlying themes. Del Close stated that a suggestion should be elevated from the commonplace to the extraordinary.
First Beat (A1, B1, C1)
Following the opening are three completely unrelated two-person scenes. Each may use such information from the opening as:
- Details, such as location
- Themes and patterns, such as troubled family life
- Tangential information, such as a throwaway line
As the suggestion inspires the opening, the opening is a launching point for the first set of scenes.
Following the third scene, multiple members of the cast return to stage, for a group game based on the opening. A group game is a palate cleanser and should not relate to the established sets of scenes.
In a scenic group game, the focus jumps between all the characters participating. A textbook structure is the Advertising Meeting, where the entire cast must come up with an ad campaign for a new product.
More abstract group games are called presentational, which focus less on individual characters and more on a concept; in "slide show," for example, one improviser presents slides that are recreated by rest of the troupe. Some other examples of Presentational group games are
- Flocking – all the improvisers mirror each other's actions
- Simple game – rules are developed of a simple game during the game, like freeze tag.
- Inanimate Objects – improvisers become inanimate objects and do a very short monologue describing their perspective then perform a scene based on the interpersonal relationships of the objects.
Second Beat (A2, B2, C2)
The second set of scenes heightens what was established in the first set. What it is heightening will differ from school to school. At the iO, the characters and relationships are heightened. At the Upright Citizens Brigade, the "game" of the scene is heightened.
A tool for this is a "Time Dash," where the scene picks up at a different point in time than last left (for example, a scene between a newly married couple with problems can take the second beat to show them on their tenth wedding anniversary).
After the second beat is another group game.
Third Beat (A3, B3, C3)
The final set of three scenes (the third beat) connects themes, characters, situations, and games from the whole piece. Often, scenes merge into each other, avoiding the need to return to all three. The third beat is usually the shortest. This beat may often culminate in a "Finale". A musical number that is either a well known song that emerges, i.e., America the Beautiful", or an improvised song with a chorus that emerges and one or more players passing the verses around.
Del Close allowed for and encouraged much variation within the structure of the Harold and saw it as a malleable and organic form with which to explore themes and ideas. The beats and games need not appear in the order or number described.
Most modern forms are derived from the Harold. These include:
- Armando (The Armando Diaz Theatrical Experience and Hootenanny) – a host's monologues provide the inspiration for scenes. The name originates from Charna Halpern and is named after Armando Diaz who was the first one to be the monologist.
- Deconstruction – one long opening group scene, which is used for idea generation.
- La Ronde – A series of short two-person scenes in which the first character is tagged out to be replaced by a third, then the second is replaced by a fourth etc., sometimes ending with the first character tagging back in for the final scene. Based on the format of the play by Arthur Schnitzler.
- Monoscene – One scene location, sometimes with improvisers playing different characters and sometimes playing the same characters for the entire piece.
- Movie – an improvised movie that uses disjointed situations which converge by the end.
- Sybil – one-person Harold.
- The Bat – a Harold performed in the dark, like a radio play.
- French Harold – a Harold performed within a monoscene, in which the improvisers perform the Harold in one location.
- Triptych/Triple Play – a form similar to a Harold, but without the group games.