Harold

upright citizens brigade

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 theater 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 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 turned 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. Close called this a 3×3 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 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. 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 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).

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