The Harold is a longform improvised form developed by Del Close. It is a collage of scenes inspired by a single suggestion which are interwoven and connected. When the Harold was first conceived by The Committee, the structure was very loose. Over time, Del experimented with the form. In the 1980's, while teaching at the ImprovOlympic in Chicago, the structure became more codified and became the 3x3 format (also known as the training wheels Harold) that is described in Truth in Comedy. It is now performed in many theaters across the world including iO Theater and The Upright Citizens Brigade Theater.
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 in which 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.
Several important improv principles are built into the structure of Harold. For instance:
- Everything in the world is connected - The initial scenes in Harold should be very different from one another with no obvious connections between them. In the final scene(s) of the Harold, the various threads should come together and connect, perhaps by characters from different scenes meeting up, or by ideas, games or themes from different scenes coming together.
- Improvisors are pattern makers rather than storytellers - when improvising Harolds, performers should follow the patterns that emerge, rather than the stories. They should not ask, "What happens next?" Instead they should take what has happened before and create other scenes, group games or transitions which create patterns with previous scenes and heighten that pattern as they move through the piece.
- Broadly, the three acts of the Harold correspond to discovery, heightening and connecting.
- Harold eats everything - Anything you can imagine happening on a stage whether it's storytelling, dance, music, poetry or performance art can be incorporated into the Harold. If you think you can't do something in a Harold, you are doing Harold wrong.
Harolds are typically anywhere from 25 to 40 minutes long. The structure as described in Truth in Comedy can be broken down in following way:
- 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 palette cleanser and should not relate to the established sets of scenes.
In a scenic group game, the focus jumps between all the characters participating. These group games should be differentiated from any short form game in that the structure of the group game, although it may resemble a known short form game, is discovered as it is played rather than determined beforehand. 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, such as one improviser presents a slide show where each slide is recreated by improvisers. Types of Presentational group games are
- Flocking - all the improvisers mirror each others actions
- Simple game - rules are developed of a simple game during the game, like freeze tag.
- Slide Show - Described above
- 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.
"The games are an opportunity for everyone on the team to work together to create something. They also often function as a way to bind the Harold together and directly explore themes connected to the suggestion. They punctuate and divide the piece, giving it some structure. They also simply provide some variety so that every part of the Harold isn't a two person scene." -Kevin Mullaney
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 ImprovOlympic, the characters and relationships are heightened. A tool for this is a "Time Dash," where the scene picks up at a different point in time than last left. A scene between a newly married couple with problems can take the second beat to show them on their tenth wedding anniversary.
At the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, when game is heightened, the second beat may also use an analogous situation to the first scene. A scene about a bad cop could be heightened through a scene about a bad priest.
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.
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 show and form are named after Armando Diaz who was the first monologist in the Chicago run.
- Deconstruction - one long opening group scene, which is used for idea generation.
- La Ronde - Multiple locations with improvisers staying in one character the whole performance.
- Monoscene - One scene location, sometimes with improvisers playing different characters and sometimes playing the same characters for the entire piece.
- The 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.