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Pitfalls of inventing a new Format: Harold discussion

PostPosted: January 1st, 2013, 7:15 pm
by Spots
I want to continue my conversation with Cody Dearing about the Harold but I figured what the hell, let's open it up and talk about ALL FORMATS.

For context, feel free to read the original conversation here:

... it's not the Harold that we're all iffy about. The Harold is fine. It's the fact that it was institutionalized & now serves to stifle folk's creativity rather than inspire it. It got twisted & contrived. It can happen with any format. So I'm personally proud of the students coming up and just trying everything.

Every format is susceptible to being misinterpreted & contrived by oral tradition or otherwise. So perhaps this conversation can get people thinking of what the NEXT BIG THING will be. How do you invent a winning social dynamic?

Dear Cody,

Harold - I think the format is very awesome. The idea behind it, what it can strengthen in a student. I have mucho respect for it despite only really seeing one or two good ones. On youtube. I'm aware that the version of improv that I perform came from the Harold. It evolved from that place. So I'm actually really interested in discussing it somewhere. And performing it one day while visiting a city that only has eyes for the Harold. Today might be a good time to throw the subject back in the mix so newer students can understand its place in the story of improvisation. Let's talk about it. We needn't take it off the menu completely. For pattern work & listening, it's way up there for helping students learn. I've never performed a Harold outside of rehearsals but I'm becoming very very open to it.

I'm a bigger fan of teaching a Montage that organically resembles a Harold. That's because the more rules you tack on, the more you lose in translation years down the road. I promise.

If someone tells me they are about to perform a Harold, I'm only wincing because I'm terrified none of the things a Harold is strong for will be represented in their show. You got to be living in the moment, enjoying the moment, and not dwelling upon that clever second beat. Those "clever" moves are so painful to watch. That's true for any format.

OK. So to open it up I want to ask this....

Dear The World and Everyone In It,

Have you ever invented your own improv format? What's happened? Has it stayed the same? Has it evolved at the hands of others? Been misunderstood? Folks say Del Close was frustrated by how everyone got hung up on the Harold. I think that's kinda funny. Do you feel the same way about something you created? The opposite? Do share!

What are the pitfalls of inventing a new thing? How will future improvisers translate the new format you are inventing today?

PostPosted: January 2nd, 2013, 7:25 pm
by bradisntclever
Spots wrote:I'm a bigger fan of teaching a Montage that organically resembles a Harold. That's because the more rules you tack on, the more you lose in translation years down the road. I promise.

I ultimately disagree here. I'm not at a computer to respond in length, but I was reading this on my phone and found it apt:

John W. Kirk wrote:The fledgling artist nearly always equates creativity with freedom and interprets freedom to mean the banishing of all restraints on free-wheeling intuition. The mature artist, however, recognizes that form itself imposes restraints greater than any imposed from without. When the talented person acknowledges the discipline imposed by form, she is moving from dilettantism to artistry.

There's more gained in teaching mastery of a form like the Harold than just running a montage. Skilled Harold performers that aren't in the current scene aren't standing on the back/side line worrying about a clever second beat, they're looking for ways to support the current scene while analyzing it within the larger context of the form itself. Running a montage feels two dimensional whereas most forms offer at least a third dimension.

PostPosted: January 2nd, 2013, 8:10 pm
by valetoile
Learning any form really well, be it Harold or Monomyth or Maestro, gives you the power to use it rather than it using you. It lets you see the matrix.

PostPosted: January 2nd, 2013, 8:13 pm
by bradisntclever
valetoile wrote:Learning any form really well, be it Harold or Monomyth or Maestro, gives you the power to use it rather than it using you. It lets you see the matrix.


PostPosted: January 2nd, 2013, 9:50 pm
by Alex B
valetoile wrote:Learning any form really well, be it Harold or Monomyth or Maestro, gives you the power to use it rather than it using you. It lets you see the matrix.

I say Bingo.

Good players will respect the form but, ultimately, use it to suit their own ends and the ends of the show.

A form is not a master; the players are the masters, creating their own reality (or discovering it, or swimming through Platonic ectoplasm, or whatever).

The Harold was never meant to be a restrictive set of rules that Must Be Adhered To, like Moses's Commandments. The form is a prism or a toolbox or maybe a unicorn-taxi that you ride to your heart's content (But No More!).

Paraphrasing what Bill Arnett, director of training at the iO, told me when I interrogated him: The Harold should be flexible. If your suggestions is "the four seasons", are you sure you want to base things around 3 beats rather than 4?

PostPosted: January 3rd, 2013, 10:17 am
by Rev. Jordan T. Maxwell
agreed that form and structure can nurture creativity rather than inhibit it. disagree that montage is two dimensional.

PostPosted: January 3rd, 2013, 1:36 pm
by Spots
bradisntclever wrote:
John W. Kirk wrote:The fledgling artist nearly always equates creativity with freedom and interprets freedom to mean the banishing of all restraints on free-wheeling intuition. The mature artist, however, recognizes that form itself imposes restraints greater than any imposed from without.

Let me at first respond to this point. This is a great point that even I brought up recently in regards to writing workshops. I agree that adding constraints frees the artist for creativity sake.

To demonstrate, I've been in different writing workshops in my life:

One workshop leader said, "OK guys go! Write whatever you want!"

And I simply froze. My self censor was whirring on overdrive. Instead of choosing and commiting to write about a particular character or event my self censor said "No no no, that isn't good enough."

The second workshop leader said, "Go and write a monologue about a construction worker."

Almost immediately I wrote one of the most inspiring monologues of my life.

I SHOT STRAIGHT PAST the self censor. There was no question about it. The workshop leader cut off my desire to doubt myself by making me commit to one thing which ultimately inspired me.

Now, that's me agreeing with you. But I disagree when it comes to improv. Why? Because you are up there on the stage with an ensemble and the self censor (ideally) is absent. You are all reacting and inspiring each other moment to moment. The moment ITSELF is that constraint you speak of.

So my point here would be that BOTH scenarios could be true in improv.

A format could be inspiring because it helps you wiggle free of the self censor.


A format could invite the self censor back into your head.

I'm not going to commit to either perspective right now because I want some time to think about it. I just wanted to make a distinction between writing by oneself & performing an ensemble piece on your feet. Ideally the ensemble casts out the self censor. That's what "yes and" is. What do you all think?

Brad I'm so thankful you brought this up. This is a fucking fantastic point that's been hiding around the edges of my consciousness. Well done.

PostPosted: January 3rd, 2013, 1:53 pm
by Spots
I had something similar happen in improv too. A format DID free us to have a fantastic performance.

We've been doing this thing lately at student lottery here in New Orleans. Just coming up with new formats on the fly and seeing what happens. (literally in the green room 5 minutes before showtime)

One week Trew & my troupe came up with the dumbest, simplest format and had amazing success.

But there was no rule about what had to happen next.

If anyone could please form a good point about that particular constraint freeing one from the self censor I would love to hear it. I'm not challenging the point, its perhaps my wiring that sets me apart. How does what needs to happen next free you or the ensemble from the self censor?

In my personal opinion what happens next has a history of murdering the group mind in many scenes and performances. Or at least diluting it. I've seen so many stumbling, bumbling Harolds and Dusties. Not because every member of the ensemble invites the self censor. Just ONE person. The least common denominator is that one person gets in their head about what needs to happen next. So the chances are high it will happen. And a miracle if it doesn't.

My personal challenge / guideline for inventing the perfect format constraints would be something like this:

Create the ideal environment for *every* member of the ensemble to get out of his / her head and stop worrying about what happens next. Create that perfect environment which encourages the group mind to surface where one scene leads to the next from a place of inspiration over intellect or necessity.

Create constraints which lead to the least amount of hangups. For instance La Ronde carries over characterization from scene to scene and little else. A Monomyth could lead to the next scene simply by familiarity with the Campbell or Jungian archetypes. Close Quarters obviously carries over a location or archetype of that sort (ie carnvial, Hell, office).

A Dusty, Deconstruction, Living Room, or Armando could bring back an inspiring relationship archetype.

Find constraints that inspire the most & whip up a format using those. Archetypes or otherwise.

Group mind is of course that intangible essence where everyone feels connected, in sync, & every moment becomes believable & magical. It's either there or it isn't.

Re: Pitfalls of inventing a new Format: Harold discussion

PostPosted: January 5th, 2013, 4:03 pm
by TexasImprovMassacre
Sorry for being tardy to the party, y'all.

This thread is really sweet, and very interesting. I like what Val said. In talking about this yesterday I said a knife makes a pretty shit cup, but a great knife.

I made a bullet response to several different things.

To respond to some harold stuff first.

- I think that perhaps there is a little bit of that classic misunderstanding of the use of the word harold to apply to two different things. There's "the harold" the 3 scenes/game structured order of scenes, and there's "the harold" which I suppose also means a style of play. Harold (noun) vs harold (adverb) [haroldly?]. At least in the way that I teach it I emphasize early on that just because you did 3 scenes/game doesn't mean that your show will be good. I suggest that what's actually important are things like immediate unconditional support, listening and using what has already been created, looking for the patterns and connections that already exist and furthering those rather than adding new ones...So, when I think of shows in this way they feel totally open each time, but there is still some training at work. Maybe at first you have to think some about what you're doing more than you should. I think that probably goes for learning most thing. Though its something I think that after some time really shouldn't be taking up a ton of your focus.

I'm not a huge fan of feeling like you have to do 3 scenes game. Even early on in a harold there are no rules about what "has" to happen next, in my mind. Though I think it is helpful in ways to learn it first in a way where you do ask people to try to just do 3 scenes game to see how that feels. Although, I have also just jumped past that before and students seem to also understand it and perform good shows without having to do the 3 scenes/game version first.

You mentioned that the montage was preferable because you don't have to think of a second beat...I think you can though in a montage think of something to call back, or heighten in a new way...I think there's room for thinking, and making choices along with listening. I think that this also with time takes less conscious effort, and things "just come to you" faster and more fully developed. I agree though that the montage as a form has less thinking requested of its players on the sidelines. I once heard someone say, "if you're going to think, do it on the sidelines". I like that mantra.

In the shows though I still think you're thinking on some level. Saying Yes to everything doesn't mean that anything is void of choice...and I think you typically still want be thoughtful about what choices/discoveries you're making in a show as you're discovering them. Even with no predetermined "form", you're still can still agree to try find "something" in the show...I think that's a fairly good definition of how I see the types of shows my understanding of the harold creates. I also think a lot of people feel they are doing some form of that in their show. Trying to listen to each other in and make their scenes more than just a bunch of scenes, but into a show. So, being aware of the connections between scenes, and ideally making your show more of the show it seems to be.

A quote from Del! That's extra nerdy because I also copied the citation!

“It’s the order that is imposed on it — nay, not imposed, discovered within it. There is no art without order. There is no art without structure. Art is not the moment of free expression — anybody can do that. That’s just masturbation and free association and therapeutic purging. There’s no art in that. Where the art comes in is in the control, in taking this material that could spew off in any direction and imposing on it, or discovering within it or revealing, the inner order of this seemingly random, disordered, or unordered behavior. I remember trying to get people to improvise something in a checkerboard pattern, and they’re like ‘What the fuck do you mean?’ It was clear to me. I think I could have done a light scene and then a dark scene and then an oblique scene that was neither light nor dark, but they were still hung up on some other level.”

Del Close in The Art of Madness (Langer, Adam), University of Chicago Press, p. 197

- There is a balance of what is being "cast out". Its sometimes good to have a focus, or some pre-determined choices that help people get on the same page earlier. But I don't think that you completely cast out any sense of form unless you're doing a completely disconnected montage...but even then you've essentially agreed not to agree (not in a bad way)...I think that in the show when you're looking for any kind of pattern on any level you're essentially giving some kind of form (repetitive structure? boundary/consistency?) to the piece. So, you're not totally void of notions of form in my mind. If you want to start without any of it to be totally free/open on the approach I think that's a totally awesome and valid choice. once the show starts though many shows are searching for it in my opinion. So, even if you do turn off that self-censor in that aspect before the show I think in some ways it comes back during the show and says "maybe not that choice, not because its wrong, but because this choice is more in line with what already seems to be going on"...Or, maybe that "self-censor" voice is what you call it when its negative or telling you bogus things you have to do, but when its positive or when it helps you realize what other people are doing that you perhaps should do its called "group mind/inspiration" or whatever you want to call the purer version you(we) seem to be after?

- I believe that there is a way to think/make choices about things without being "in your head"...I once heard someone describe being in your head as "when your primary conversation was with yourself". Which I took to mean when you're devoting more or your energy to thinking vs listening.

- I don't think one person being in their heads necessarily ruins a show, but I suppose it does usually have a negative impact overall. I think I see more "meh" shows than i see really good or really bad shows. This may just be a matter of personal taste?

To segue into the creating your own form questions.

- "people getting hung up on the harold" ...I can see it being frustrating. Like if you're a band and people only want to hear songs from this one album in the order from the album...Especially with something like what I think they were creating that I don't think they were really finished with when they started sharing it. Like I said earlier, because in my mind it is more of an approach or style or philosophy of play than a form I don't know if it is every really done being defined...which lends to it being frustrating to explain.

- You asked about creating your own form, and I think it can at times seem difficult to do something that's really really really actually new. I think most things are building off of the past in a lot of ways. I guess when I think of new forms I think of shows that maybe combine technology in some way. But then again...I think each show in particular is new in a way. I did a bat where I also used some audio sampling equipment live in the act. I'm not sure if anyone has done this live before as an improv show...but even if they did I bet they didn't do it exactly in the way I did. I dont know how original it was because I didn't create improv, or the bat, or live performance...but I did ask to do it and did it ONCE upon a time...and in that sense it was original.

So, I like the social dynamic created by the tennants of the harold. And when it comes to creating something I want to do I guess I focus more on what is exciting me than being novel...or maybe I just want to think that. Because I think I basically always want to find some way to make everything new to keep it fresh...If it is a matter of teaching students though I think its a good idea for you to go with whatever in your mind will work best to get across the tenants or style of play you think will best set them up for success

- One last thing, I just wanted to give my quick definition of group mind. I think it just means people doing the same thing together...being on the same page...ranging from the very simple acknowledgments of unspoken things to unspoken communication where multiple people have the same idea about what comes next. But I think this sometimes gets mysticized where it is talked about like magic, but I think its all based tangible things like on good listening and communication.

Thanks for starting this conversation Jesse. Its given me some interesting things to think about.

Re: Pitfalls of inventing a new Format: Harold discussion

PostPosted: January 5th, 2013, 8:55 pm
by PyroDan
That's top notch Cody.

The idea of art coming out of form is something I believe, and it is different from form creating art.

If it only took form to create art, then every show done following the traditional Harold format would be art, and I think we all know that is not true.

As an instructor, I like to teach the harold for the benefits it reaps for the students that learn it. It requires all of the skills we teach/admire in our performers.

Re: Pitfalls of inventing a new Format: Harold discussion

PostPosted: January 6th, 2013, 12:13 pm
by valetoile
I think there are a couple of ideas at work here regarding the purpose of form. One is the idea that form is useful in creating art- because it gives shape to a piece, because constraints spark creativity, because it removes the self-censor by providing externally imposed limitations which challenge our own internal (be they personal or shared group) limitations.

The second is the idea that form is useful in training while we are learning the art, because it relieves pressure and allows us to feel an experience of creating without control (which is tied into the removal of the censor) and also because it gives us specific skills which we work until they become second nature, and we can use those skills and patterns at whim, in different combinations. Like when you are learning another language, you will often learn by repeating scripted conversations. But the more you learn and become familiar with those scripted conversations, the more you understand what you're actually saying, and the more comfortable you are with taking them apart, putting them back together in different ways, and even creating unique phrases. Writers who are masters of language will play with grammar, syntax, and meaning to dazzling effect. Anyone can break the rules, but those who have mastered the form can truly play. I also think there's a time when you're just learning the form that really allows you to be playful, because you haven't yet learned "the rules."

Also, forms are not the moon (to piggyback on a zen proverb). They are the fingers pointing at the moon. And different fingers point at different parts of the moon. And the moon has a lot of beautiful and interesting stuff to explore. The moon is improv!

Re: Pitfalls of inventing a new Format: Harold discussion

PostPosted: January 6th, 2013, 1:56 pm
by jillybee72
I like a form like I like a coathanger so my pretty suit don't just end up in a heap on the floor.

I have invented games and forms and they have been misinterpreted, but I'm trying to be zen and let them be what they're going to be. Once a creation leaves you and goes into the world it's not yours anymore.