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HAROLDS

AND
IMPROV
COAC HING

BRENDON
CULHANE
Harolds ..........................................................................................................4
How to Play ..............................................................................................................5
The Basics .................................................................................................................6
What Is a Harold? .....................................................................................................8
Beginning, Middle, End ...........................................................................................10
Beats and Threads ...................................................................................................12
Structures ...............................................................................................................13
Playing Dynamically ................................................................................................16
Starting a Harold Team ...........................................................................................17

Improv Coaching ..........................................................................................19


Be a Student of Coaching ........................................................................................20
Imposter Syndrome .................................................................................................21
Getting Started .......................................................................................................22
Scenework Games / Exercises .................................................................................24
Side-coaching .........................................................................................................27
Non-Verbal Communication .....................................................................................28
Talking ...................................................................................................................29
Asking Permission ...................................................................................................30
Giving Notes ..........................................................................................................31
Mantras and Limitations ...........................................................................................33
Boredom ................................................................................................................37
Bravery ..................................................................................................................38
Love .......................................................................................................................39

Appendix ......................................................................................................41
Some Games for Groups .........................................................................................42
Some Books I Recommend .......................................................................................45
I wrote this book for two reasons: first, the process of writing it helped me clarify my own
thinking. Second, it was a personal goal of mine to write a small book.

While most of the ideas may not be brand new to you, I hope the way I’ve worded and
arranged things here inspires you. If not, I will have to live with my complete and total
failure, and I’m getting pretty good at that.

If you want to coach a Harold team, play better on a Harold team, start a Harold team in
your local improv scene, or read another improv book, then this improv book is for you.
HAROLDS

H O W T O P L AY

One of the nation’s largest improv theaters will tell you exactly how to do improv scenes.
It’s a very well-run brand, and I think people like that it teaches one effective and fun style.
Some people who learn this style think it’s the only way to do improv. But you’d never
mistake one style of music as the only way to do all music.

Improv isn’t limited to a single style, and no one has all the answers.

Improv is an art. If we want to teach improv well, we should teach it the way good artists
teach each other. Good artists share what they are passionate about in order to inspire other
people to do their own work. In fact, some people think this is all an artist can do for
another artist. No matter what, one artist cannot make another artist successful. Everyone
has to do all of their own work.

You and your improv team will be doing all of your own work, and I think you should do it
in your own way no matter what. Please consider this the most basic description of one way
to do Harolds and coaching so that you can try it on your own with no duty to anyone else.

I’m not going to tell your team exactly how to improvise the scenes within a Harold.

Harold teams are large, with up to ten people all on stage at the same time. It’s not realistic
to expect everyone to do improv scenes in the same way. Every member of your team has
more than one idea about how to do good improv, and people change their minds a lot as
they grow. Even if you have been on the same team for years, and even if you all went
through the same classes together, you will always play slightly differently from one another.

If you are trying to do a Harold now, today, then you shouldn't wait for everyone to get on
the same style page.

What does this mean? It means that, as a coach, I’m not going to tell your team exactly how
to improvise the scenes within a Harold. I won’t care if some of the scenes use a game and
some don’t - or if any of them do. I don’t care that some of you “stick to your thing” more
than others. I won’t spend time making sure you all approach your scenes in anything
resembling the same technique.

Del Close said “Harold eats everything” and I think he’s right about that. Harold eats
everything, which means it eats techniques, preferences, and styles.

THE BASICS

When I’m coaching your Harold team I only care about the basics. What are the basics?

1. Agree to play

2. Listen to everything

3. Put on a good show for the audience

From there, I want to provide as much time as possible for you to play together as a team. If
you don’t seem to need help remembering the basics, then I probably won’t even bring them
up.

1. Agree to play

You agree that you’re playing the scene you’re playing with the person you’re playing it
with, and you agree to keep playing it. How do you know you’re playing well? Ask yourself:
does the person I’m playing with enjoy playing with me? If they do, you are most likely
playing well.

Agreeing to play also means that you, as the actor, will be doing something and saying
something on stage in real-time. We want to see you behave, and playfully. Don’t keep your
ideas locked up inside your head. Do something. Say something.

Agreeing to play is fundamental. The idea of “yes, and” and “follow the follower” are parts
of this larger idea.

2. Listen to everything

In a scene, listening means you are affected by what your scene partner says or does. It
means you are going to alter some of the things you say or do in some kind of way as a
result of what the other people in the scene say or do. In a show, listening means that the
team tries to use everything, and forget nothing.

Dave Pasquesi was asked how he defined a “mistake” in improv and he replied that a
mistake is “anything that’s missed.” Mistakes will happen and things will be missed. Don’t
be discouraged. What matters is that you try. Try, and your team will grow very quickly and
will stay on target. The notion of “give and take” and all of the higher-level concepts of a
Harold, like finding layers of meaning and making connections, can’t happen without
listening to literally everything.

3. Put on a good show for the audience

You are a performer. Without the audience your show has no meaning. The audience came
to watch you, and you should show them a good time. You should understand how to be
pleasant to watch, to act, to share your voice, to carry yourself on stage. Be a lifelong
student of communication, presentation skills, performance skills, and stage acting. Spend
time trying to understand what makes some people good, and some people hard to watch.

It means getting that there are times you give the audience what they want, and there are
times you don’t. There are times to play with restraint, and times to play with abandon.

As a team, putting on a good show means that you should change the way you play at
different times during the show because of how long the audience has gotten to know you:
play the beginning, middle, and end of the show with this in mind. Come out on stage and
be magnetic starting right away. Use playful restraint in the first few scenes because we
want to know you have the chops to pull this off. Pace yourselves. Play with inspired
abandon at key times, and especially near the end of a show, as you pay things off and create
a sense of resolution. End on a high note.
WHAT IS A HAROLD?

The Harold is a type of long form show that goes about 30 minutes and uses between 6 and
10 people. All of the content is completely improvised, and there is only a very light
structure to guide us, though this structure can vary.

Ingredients

The Harold will contain a lot of scenework, where two or more players behave as characters
exchanging dialogue and maintaining a sense of the fourth wall.

However, a Harold will feature plenty of behavior that does not always take the form of a
scene. These are often presentational in nature, they can and often do break the fourth wall,
and they add a very different energy to the show. These other elements allow for your show
to take on a larger energy than you would if the show was simply a series of scenes one after
another. Examples of things that are not scenes include edits, monologues, songs, group
games, openings, narration, sound effects, and all of the transformations that move the
show along.

Recipe

Start with everyone on stage. Whether you get a suggestion from the audience or not, the
entire team works together to take an initial small idea and explode it quickly into a whole
host of themes and ideas within the first few minutes. The group addresses the audience
directly, presenting out towards them, and even if they are talking to one another, it’s not
some secret between them. It’s invitational, and there’s no fourth wall. This is democratic.
The whole group is needed because this entire show is going to run on a specific shared
energy and tone that we all discover together: it’s not “dictated” by one player to another. At
some moment, this shared action will feel resolved and should naturally end.

What happens next is that almost everyone leaves the stage, and two people remain. You
can feel the interplay between the energy of having an entire group on stage one second, and
having only two people just a second later. That dynamic snap, that contrast of energy and
casting, is crucial. It’s what drives the show forward regardless of content throughout the
show, and we see it right away in this first transition. We want that difference in staging,
and we want the transition to pop, to be elegant, to have a weight to it, almost as if a
director staged the whole thing.
These two players play slowly, patiently, and to each other. We need a contrast between the
presentational energy of the group opening and this new dialogue-based scenic energy,
where the players don’t appear to be aware that the audience is even listening in. We might
need a couple of these scenes in a row, to properly balance against the opening and provide
us with a sense that the players are able to communicate directly and deliberately with one
another.

We should now be about 10 minutes into the show. It wouldn’t be weird to see the group
assembled on stage again. After all, we now have even more information to play with and we
need the players to stay connected. In fact, that is something the Harold feeds off of. We
want a constant exchange between everyone on stage, and almost no one on stage, and
everything in between. There should be a free-flowing energy here: an energy that we
discovered early on, and are blossoming into something completely unique for this show.

We should see players entering with new scene ideas, monologues, games involving
everyone, songs, light and sound cues, narration, and everything under the sun. Anything to
get the job done, which is to explore a great number of ideas collectively, with no one
driving, and yet to somehow arrive back to the beginning in some recognizable way.

The end of a Harold should feel familiar and collective. We want to be fooled into thinking
this whole thing was planned out, even though it wasn’t. We want to come back to the
beginning, whatever that might mean. We love that connection to the start. We like that
sense of magic that somehow you’ve pulled it all off.
BEGINNING, MIDDLE, END

Like a good story, a Harold has a beginning, middle, and end. Unlike a story, you don’t know
the content beforehand. For you, the beginning, middle, and end help you decide how to
play at different times of your show. Most Harolds are roughly a half hour long, so let’s split
the show into roughly 10 minute chunks and discuss how to play the show dynamically.

Beginning

In the beginning of a Harold, we need to take care of the audience with the way we carry
ourselves. This is the first time they’ll see your team performing. They are willing to give
you the benefit of the doubt, and until you give them a reason not to, they are generally on
your side here.

The first thing you’ll do is take the stage. If you ask for a suggestion, demonstrate honesty
and showmanship even in this tiny moment. You have the full attention of the whole
audience. Ask for a suggestion with poise and confidence.

Harolds start with an opening that has everyone on stage, because the Harold framework
encourages group work and the group mind. Is the opening showing us that you’re willing
and able to work together while amusing us?

Put us at ease. For the first few scenes that follow your opener, give the audience the
impression that you’ll be taking good care of their valuable time and attention. Your body
language and behavior should say “Don’t be nervous. We’ve got this.”

The opener and first scenes should put the audience at ease so that they can relax. The
audience should find your risk-taking behavior entertaining and interesting, not off-putting.

Middle

By the middle of a Harold, we have already explored a good amount of information with the
opening and first few scenes. At this point in the show, everyone on the team should have
an idea of how to initiate their own scene if they had to. Each scene in the middle part of the
show should probably start from some notion carried over from earlier in the show.

In the middle of the show there’s no obligation to connect things, or accomplish anything
specifically.
The middle of a show can be a great time for a peculiar or interesting decision because it can
generate a large amount of energy. There is still a lot of show left to work with an unusual
choice, and the beginning of the show has hopefully established that you are good
performers who can be trusted. The audience is especially ready at this point for something
done with intentionality and play.

End

Later in the show your job is to work bravely, taking advantage of every opportunity to
surprise and delight the audience while you find connections intuitively. Don’t stress about
making connections. The connections should be happening without you needing to show us
how hard you’re working. If they come naturally to you specifically, act on them. If not,
don’t panic. Other people on your team will handle the connections for you and you can
respond to their ideas with full play.

Throw out all duty to structure here. Focus on the energy and pacing. What does the show
need? What has this show been telling us? Where is this show headed?

In the end of a Harold, you perform with the kind of energy that communicates that we’re
coming to the close of something. It’s not about editing every scene super fast. The
scenework itself should have a falling action, should involve pay-offs, the release of tensions,
unexpected callbacks which satisfy us. These are all elements that make the ending of your
show more effective for the audience.

The end is in the beginning. Keith Johnstone said an improviser is like a man walking
backwards. You can only see where you’ve gone, not where you’re going.

Think of the path of your Harold show as a circle, rather than a straight line. Look for
opportunities to try to get everyone on stage again near the end and see if you can wrap the
opening energy, or opening stage picture, back into itself for a nice book-end.

That said: outside of rehearsals, or a show where the coach is able to pull lights, you are
trusting a tech person to pull lights and they may or may not pull lights when you were
expecting. It’s all good. We’re all trying our best!

BEATS AND THREADS

Beats and threads are contrasting ways to organize the consecutive scenes and games in
your Harold. Good Harolds make intelligent use of both of them.

Beats

A beat is a way to organize separate scenes. One beat contains a set of scenes that are played
separately from one another, and each scene in a given beat takes its inspiration from the
opening, or the suggestion, rather than from the other scenes directly. When you go from
one scene within a beat to another, you use a sweep edit to clear the stage away. You are
telling us that you are moving onto a different scene and not keeping anything.

Beats are a common way to start a Harold because they have a nice way of saving
connections for later. When the first few scenes are created as separate tent poles for a tee-
pee, starting far apart from one another, then they have room to converge later on. When
I’m playing the first beat of a Harold, I know that each of the first scenes will be starting
independently, based on the opening, and not immediately building off of one another.

Threads

A thread is made up of scenes which are played directly off of one another. When you go
from one scene in a thread to another, you use an editing style that lets your team know that
you’re “keeping something” from the previous scene. Instead of a sweep edit, you might use
a tag out. In fact, it is common for Harolds to end with tag runs. A tag run is a kind of
thread. Tag run is a term a lot of people have heard and they associate it with being jokey,
whereas a good thread should build out a world.

You might have, say, five scenes in a row (it can be any number) which don’t involve any
“clean sweep” editing techniques, but instead use things like tags, dissolves, or other edits
that keep something from the previous scene and move forward with it. You end a thread by
sweeping it and starting over with something new.

How you play a thread would depend mostly on where it falls in your show. In the beginning
of a show, you might play a thread patiently, restraining yourself from paying things off, and
instead building and expanding the world.

STRUCTURES

The Harold does not have one single structure. The most important “structure” of a Harold
is the dynamic of the beginning, middle, and end. It is up to the team to then agree on
whether they want to arrange the elements of a show in a specific way. That said, there are
some common structural patterns out there.

Training Wheels Harold

Opening. First beat. Group game. Second beat. Group game. Third beat.

In the training wheels Harold every beat has three scenes. You do not need to spend time on
this structure. There are better ways to train new people to do fun Harolds.

I like giving the team and the players as much freedom as possible in the Harold. You can’t
do this if you stick rigidly to all three beats. Below are some alternative structures you can
start with today which make it easier to grasp the freedom of play that a good Harold should
have. These can be performed “as-is” in shows and rehearsals because they allow for a lot of
discovery and inspiration. They get the ball rolling for a team’s Harold journey.

Classic Harold

Opening. First beat. Group game. Second beat. Group game. Threads of scenes and games.

I am calling this version the “classic Harold” because it is currently very common to see.
The team plays two full beats. The first beat is usually played with three scenes. The second
beat revisits each of the first beat worlds, usually in order, and explores or heightens those
worlds, often with different people than the people who were in the equivalent first beat
scene. You generally adhere to the structure of a Classic Harold until you’ve done a second
group game. After the second group game, the team switches to playing the rest of the show
as one or more threads. The players agree there is no duty to do a third beat of any of the
earlier scenes. Instead, the team “runs out the show” by following their inspiration.

If you are following the fun and paying close attention to the show you may find that not
every first beat scene returns in the second beat. This is okay. You may have a tag run in the
second beat, or other new things.

First Beat Harold


Opening. First beat. Group game. Threads of scenes and games.

In a “first beat Harold” the team switches to thread-based play after the end of the first
group game. First beat scenes tend to be longer, and when you add the opening and the
group game, you end up with something like this: about half of the show takes place before
we switch to threads, and about half of the show takes place after that. It’s a good contrast.
The first half of the show is played patiently and in a specific way. This gives us a base to
work with. The second half responds to the needs of the show and runs on inspiration.

You don’t have to have three scenes in your first beat, but I suggest that your first beat
scenes be two-person scenes that are done with playful restraint. If you do scenes with three
or more people, find ways to keep them effective. First beat scenes should assure the
audience that you can perform well. They should build a base of grounded behavior so that
you have room to surprise and delight the audience later in the show.

Try some shows where everyone on the team plays in the first beat, so that all of you add to
the show without waiting too long. If you’re sticking to two-person scenes, an extra player
could do a monologue, play a part of the environment, or focus on cool edits.

Threaded Harold

Opening. Threads of scenes and games.

There are no beats in the “Threaded Harold” which means that once the team gets the
suggestion and does an opening, there’s no further structure. There will be two-person
scenes. There will be group games. There will be other stuff. It’s on the team to decide when
these things happen and how, pacing themselves for the beginning, middle, and end.

The first scene after the opener will potentially be threaded on, to establish that we’re not
doing a strict first beat. This means the first scene should definitely take its time and have
room to breathe. The first edit to create that thread should not be based on a one-
dimensional joke. Our first threaded scene should be equally patient. We’re still in the
beginning of the show. Threads, especially at the beginning of a Harold, are not tag runs. We
are simply “keeping something” from the first scene and building a world.

The middle of the show should explore stuff without obligation. The ending should be
paced appropriately and naturally work for connections, with more of the team on stage
more often. Teams can and should still find ways to ensure the ending folds back into the
beginning.
The Threaded Harold is great for rehearsing with if you are trying to find your own form.
Threads are nice and open and they allow the team to get a sense for their own internal
sense of style and tone. You can start with a threaded Harold to find your team’s own
specific way of approaching a Harold, or use it to make your own specific long form.

Dead Harold

If a team spends too much time doing any Harold structure, I think it can become a “Dead
Harold.” It’s no longer changing based on the needs of team. If the Harolds you are running
don’t reflect your team’s preferences or needs, you should change the approach.

Team Harold

There’s no structure for me to describe here, though a team Harold could look similar to any
of the other ones I’ve described. What I mean here is this: every team should eventually
look to make the Harold their own. Some Harold teams agree on certain predefined styles or
techniques and they stick to it in every show.

There’s a team called Devil’s Daughter at the i.O. Theater in Chicago that specifies a very
particular way their second beat goes which involves solo character scenes. This has helped
them create a very exciting Harold show to watch. You know it’s going to be an interesting
show because they agreed to do something unique to themselves as a team.
P L AY I N G DY N A M I C A L LY

The Harold has an opening, scenes, some group games that break up the scenes, and edits
to move the show along. It may also have monologues and songs. It can contain anything.

It’s no good arranging those elements above into a fixed structure and only doing that every
time (“Dead Harold”). You’re improvising within your scenes, and your show can and
should likewise be improvised.

Don’t get hung up on structure. Play Harold dynamically. Relate to the audience the entire
time, and let that affect how you play in the beginning, the middle, and the end. The
content, and how you arrange it, will take care of itself.

STARTING A HAROLD TEAM

If you run a theater and want to feature Harold teams, here are some suggestions:

1. Cast 8-10 people on the team. You will want at least 6 players at any given show to do
this kind of ensemble improv style, and sometimes people miss shows. Harolds are a bit
easier with 6-7 than they are with 10, but anything over 10 is not necessary and it’s
much harder to involve everyone.

2. Find good coaches. Not everyone who would be a good coach is going to volunteer for it.
Some of the best coaches are also quite humble and introspective by nature, so guess
what? They aren’t going to volunteer themselves readily. But if you sense they’d be a
good fit, recruit them and they’ll be flattered. Some of the worst coaches do readily
volunteer themselves. They are cocky performers and/or people who are using it just to
get ahead in the community. I’ve been this person, but I had patient people around me
who helped me to learn to love coaching and the process more than my own ego.

3. Give the teams a “run of shows.” There should be stretches of time where a Harold team
is playing every week. At the theater where I play, a run is all anyone ever wants. When a
Harold team gets a chance to play every week you can get into a good rhythm and it goes
a long way. It’s hard to make much progress, at least quickly, when you have a scattered
and unpredictable show schedule. Harold teams should have some freedom to fail so
that they open up. If shows are so rare that they become “precious” it can hurt the play.

4. Give the teams enough time to do a good set. This is around 25 minutes and often a bit
more. It is not helpful to allocate 15-18 minutes for a Harold set. I’ve seen it and it
sucks. I can tell you, for sure, that a decent opening plus your first beat, or beginning
scenes, will consistently be 10-12 minutes. If you schedule a Harold team for 15-18
minutes, you are not getting a Harold. You are getting a very front-loaded and
imbalanced improv set. There will be no time for patient exploration to separate the idea
generation from the idea connections. The connections will need to come too quickly
and won’t have much impact.

5. Keep the cast consistent, but don’t be afraid to add people when it’s needed. Harold
shows harness the power of an ensemble to create a specific experience. If the shows
consistently have fewer than six people in them, consider adding people. You don’t need
more than ten, but you should have at least six people in shows. Harold is the notion of
a large group collaborating in real time to do something unlikely but appropriate and out
of seemingly nowhere. If you have five people or less, these Harold goals are no longer
necessary to put on a good show. You can connect with a small number of people
without sharing perspective the way a Harold requires.

6. If a team is done, retire it. Some of the members may be ready to move on anyway, and
for those who remain who still want to dedicate time to it, there’s always the chance to
form a new team. That said, there is an art to knowing when to retire a team and when
to add some new blood.

7. Be open to learning. If you want to cast and coach a Harold team in your community, but
you don’t have much Harold experience yourself, this is okay. We all started from the
same place: not knowing anything. But there’s no need to condemn yourself to a novice
level of familiarity with this type of improvisation. You should help yourself out: read
the many good books that are out there. Go see Harold shows when you have the
chance. Bring in outside coaches and teachers to get the ball rolling. Even if you do fancy
yourself a Harold enthusiast, there is always room to grow and be inspired.

IMPROV COAC HING

BE A STUDENT OF COAC HING

Improv coaching is paying close attention to the other people in the room and helping them
to work better together at making things up.

There are more ways to coach than there are coaches. Every person who coaches adopts any
number of approaches over time. The best coaches bring their own personality to it but
change their style on the fly to meet the needs of the moment, all while wanting what’s best
for the team. They have to be good people.

Since you’re helping people improve at something, you should be trying to improve at that.
Do the thing you’re telling people to do. Be open to learning.

You can’t purchase the insight earned from even a single rehearsal session with a team. If
you are coaching, be a student of coaching.

You don’t need to create every game. Spend time learning the games and ideas listed in
books that other talented people have compiled for you. You don’t have to be burdened by
the need to agree with their philosophy, but you never know when some game written years
ago will come to mind in the middle of a rehearsal and be perfect. Use these resources.

Imitate the coaches and teachers you’ve had, but make sure you are taking notes on how
they teach. Keith Johnstone is right in his book “Impro”:

“When I give workshops, I see people frantically scribbling down the exercises, but not noticing what it is
I actually do as a teacher. My feeling is that a good teacher can get results using any method, and that a
bad teacher can wreck any method.”
IMPOSTER SYNDROME

Imposter syndrome can make you feel unqualified to give notes to people you think are
better than you, but it might keep you humble and bearable to work with. Be brave. Offer
your thoughts and take the risk that they may not land.

You’ve got to practice this skill with people who are willing to let you coach them. If you’re
in the room watching everyone else improvise then you are the only person who saw
everything without having the pressure to do anything.
GETTING STARTED

Here are some approaches to coaching that can help you get started right now, and that can
help you clarify your thinking once you’re in motion. There are easily more approaches than
this. One note: use these approaches to get started, but once you’re in motion, change
things up when the situation requires it.

Assess the Team

Is this a brand new team? If not, how are the shows going? Sometimes an existing team will
tell you how things are going, but if not, I recommend asking them what they want to work
on and see some shows if you can before you start working with them.

Coaches you Admire

You’ve taken classes and you’ve had coaches. How do they start rehearsals? What are the
games they’ve used? How do they give notes? What do they do that makes you like them so
much, and how do they do it? Try to emulate it.

Don’t be surprised if something that “worked” when your favorite teacher or coach did it
somehow doesn’t work when you try it. There are so many factors at play. Be ready for it not
to work exactly like you think it will, stay present and don’t beat yourself up.

Improv You Love

What do you like to do on stage? What has worked for you that you enjoy? Focus on what
you personally love to do and explain it to others and have them try it. Lead with
enthusiasm. Your enthusiasm is raw energy.

Don’t get defensive if your way of doing things doesn’t click with some of the people you’re
coaching. There are going to be times when your energy might turn someone off. Maybe
you’re a little too enthusiastic and it feels inauthentic, or maybe the people you’re coaching
just don’t see improv the same way you do.

Read Good Books

Do you read any improv books? It doesn’t take much time and you’ll give yourself a lot more
to work with. You’ll only ever meet a few improv teachers in person. Learn from people
you’ll never meet. Read about games and exercises you’ve never even personally done, and
try to see if they might work for you. After all, the author isn’t going to be in the room with
you to make fun of you.

This is an intellectual approach. Take in the philosophy of an author who you’ll never have a
chance to meet. Use their philosophy to come up with your own games in your head.

People enjoy something new and fresh and your odds of bringing new and fresh stuff go up
when you look for material beyond your immediately improv scene. Then again, some of my
weirdest rehearsals have been me getting a team to try some esoteric approach to scene
work that even I have never attempted, and couldn’t really explain very well.

What’s Missing?

To paraphrase Anne Bogart, what is missing in the culture? What is missing in your improv
community? What are you passionate to shine a light on that needs to be handled? Go do
that. Create a game from it. Use your platform to raise an issue with your team.

Think: what needs to happen, with this team, or with the improv community in general, or
with society? From time to time, you’ll find that the team you’re coaching probably agrees
with you and will find some interesting way to bake it into their playing.

Improvise

No matter how you get started, good coaching eventually means staying present and
changing your approach to meet the needs of the people you’re working with. In many
cases, some of the best coaches prepare for rehearsal but are able to “wing it” when needed.
They know how to play, they have experience coaching, and they know a lot of games.

SCENEWORK GAMES / EXERCISES

Scenework games (also known as “exercises”) usually involve having two or so people on
stage doing a scene with some instructions, or a focus, for how the people doing the scene
should do it. There are so many of these out there. You can make up your own, steal other
people’s, or anything in between.

Games and Theory

Good scenework games are rooted in good theories of how to do improv and how to
perform on stage. This means that a good game probably isn’t going to start very far from
some underlying principle that is helpful. To create a game, take one idea of improv and
focus on that.

I’d like to use an example. There is a fantastic blog called “Boiling Point Improv” by Ben
Bowman. In one of his articles, Ben Bowman mentioned an interview that T.J. Jagodowski
did where he was asked what he thinks about before he goes on-stage to do a scene. Ben
Bowman writes that T.J. said he does the following:

“1. Don’t Panic.

2. Make an emotional choice, a point of view so you’re safe, no matter what.

3. Remember how fortunate you are.”

What T.J. has shared is one workable theory of how to approach scenework. I made these
same words the exact objective for a scenework game for a Harold team. First, we briefly
chatted about the article (I mentioned the blog and what T.J. had said). Then, we had two
players take the stage and, before each and every scene, I calmly read out the three things
from this list. I even used the same choice of words. After the scene, I let them share their
thoughts, and we moved to the next scene.

Passion, Discretion, and Patience

I use the T.J. example in particular because it is a decidedly “un-original” approach. You do
not need to be original as a coach. Instead, the team wants your passion - to bring them
something you care about. They want your discretion, which is the taste to try this game
and not that. The team wants your patience to sit there, facilitating several consecutive
scenes of this, more than once per person if necessary.
Don’t reinvent the wheel. Instead, absorb the theories and games that are already out there
and have these in your brain, and your bones, marinating. Then you will make the
appropriate connection when the time is right, and you will recall a useful theory and game
at a good time where it will be helpful. Your passion for doing the thing, your discretion for
choosing a specific thing, and your patience to let the team work through it in real-time:
none of these things require originality. You don’t need to make up convoluted exercises.

Some Tips On Leading Games

Once you’ve got an idea for a scenework game (exercise), take a moment to think about how
you are going to present it to the team and coach to it. Every game and exercise are
different, and you might need to lead them differently. Here are some tips:

1. Keep it simple. Scene exercises should be simple: each exercise is just one aspect of this
huge art form. It isn’t necessary for your exercise to tackle several simultaneous issues at
once. If you want to layer problems on top of each other, this can be done. First, do a
complete exercise with everyone, and then add an additional objective to layer onto the first
and do the exercise again.

2. Share the objective quickly and simply. For example: “In this exercise we’ll have two
people up. Each player will start everything they say by making a non-verbal emotional noise
and using that to transition into their line of dialogue.”

3. Repeat yourself. Repetition is your friend. Set the stage for each new set of players who
are about to do the exercise. Re-state the same simple instructions every single time a new
group goes up to do the exercise. Don’t just say the point of the exercise once, at the very
top of rehearsing it, and then expect the next several groups to never need it re-stated.
Think of this as outsourcing the emotional labor, from them, to you. The players who are
about to do the exercise can stay in the moment and not be caught off guard by, for some
reason, thinking “oh wait what are we doing?”

4. Pay attention to the objective. You are there to hold the team accountable to their shared
objective in a non-judgmental way. If the objective isn’t being followed, most of the players
watching will silently know. The other players are not going to want to bring this up to their
peers, but it will hurt the integrity and scatter everyone’s focus if they are distracted by how
the team is not focusing on the objective. Ask the team if the objective is being reached and
work together to reframe things as necessary.
5. Be objective with the notes after an exercise. You can judge any improv scene in any
number of ways. Stick to the point of that exercise and try to be non-judgmental with your
observations. It is unhelpful to have a specific goal for an exercise but then offer critiques
that are unrelated to the goal simply because it had other problems. This goes for praise,
too. Our need to offer compliments usually says more about us than it does about the
people we are complimenting. We usually just want something from them in return (in this
case, immediate and superficial assurance to you that the exercise is working).

6. Be brief with the notes after an exercise. We don’t want your voice to be the only one we
hear all day. Consider not giving any notes in-between scenes if people look to be getting the
point. If the scenes are three minutes each, we don’t need three minutes of notes after each
one.

7. Go more than once. Try to allow time for everyone to get to go more than once for a given
exercise. If this is not possible, at least find time for the first group to try it once more, since
they were the only group who didn’t get to see anyone else go the first time.

8. Be flexible. Don’t cling to a specific way you think the exercise needs to go. If the players
are engaging with the scene and with each other, but doing it “differently” than what you
expected, they might end up showing you a better way of doing things! You are teaching
improv, so you yourself may need to improvise. Change an exercise on the fly if the first few
groups are showing you something worth exploring. You can’t purchase the insight of a
single rehearsal with a real team. Don’t settle into a fixed role of “the expert.” Be just as
open to the present moment as you want your players to be. You aren’t teaching these
people how to drive a car or perform surgery. This is an art and a craft. You are helping them
to become more spontaneous and playful. There’s a million ways any exercise can go.

9. Don’t be a creepy weirdo. This one is probably just for the men. Are your mannerisms
and general approach pervert-adjacent? Please quit coaching so that you do not exercise
power over anyone.

SIDE-COAC HING

Side-coaching is directing words towards the players themselves in the middle of a scene
exercise, while it is happening, without stopping the action. The idea behind side-coaching
is to keep the players playing, in the present moment, and moving towards the objective of
an exercise.

Without side-coaching, all of your feedback would be delivered after a scene was over, or
you’d be constantly stopping scenes to give notes in the middle. These approaches aren’t
always desirable. Side-coaching, when it’s done right, saves time and keeps people playing
more. If you are able to gently and quickly nudge someone back into the present moment in
a scene, you make it more likely that the objective is reached and less likely that you will
need to offer constructive feedback after the scene.

Side-coaching is a skill like any other and requires practice. When done poorly it can make a
scene worse and potentially hurt the rapport between the player and the coach.

Side-coaching Tips

1. Side-coach simple phrases that are related to the objective. If you are running a scenework
game where the objective is to “feel the weight of what your scene partner says” then you
should find a simple way to say this to the player in the middle of the scene that won’t take
them out of the moment.

2. Side-coach only when needed. Are the players already focused on the objective? You may
not need to side-coach them. You may actually confuse them into thinking they weren’t
doing it properly.

3. Be positive. You should be a welcoming friendly voice in their head. Picture your side-
coaching as a phrase a player can recall in the middle of a show, on their own, to guide
themselves in the present moment. You are acting as their scenework conscience. Be
empowering. Be an ally to them in that moment.

4. Don’t choice-coach: shouting at someone mid-scene to make a completely different choice


that is coming from you, and not something they’ve already done. If anything, side-coach
the choices that the players are making and affirm those.

For more information on side-coaching, I highly recommend reading Viola Spolin.



NON-VERBAL COMMUNIC ATION

Non-verbal communication is a part of your coaching whether or not you focus on it. Sun
Tzu said “where the body goes, the mind will follow.”

As a coach, you are there to create a mood that is conducive for a lot of other people to feel
free to play, and non-verbal communication, your body language, is a big part of that.

Standing

Try this in your next rehearsal: stand. For as much of it as you can. Stand, and move around
the space in front of the playing area. If your Harold team in rehearsal is running a full
Harold, stand the whole time. They’re standing, right? Join them. This will connect you
with them in a non-verbal way that you probably won’t appreciate until you try it.

Try laughing, or making at least some positive audible noise, when you see the kind of
surprise move, the kind of behavior, that draws you in.

Where the body goes, the mind will follow.

Sitting

Sometimes you should sit. If you’re giving some blunt and potentially off-putting feedback,
for example, sitting lower than the people you are talking to is a common “low status” move
and so it might make it easier for them to receive what you’re saying. If you can’t or don’t
want to sit, consider other low status moves like fidgeting. I know this sounds silly.

The Notebook

Once the rehearsal begins, a lot of coaches will sit down and scribble into a notepad. This is
not bad. I’m not saying it’s wrong to sit and scribble notes into a pad. However, I believe it’s
over-used. It’s not necessary to do very much of this during a typical improv rehearsal. This
isn’t a theatrical stage play, where blocking and other logistics must be captured at once or
potentially be lost. You are there, among other things, to assess the mood of the team and
feel what they are feeling. 

TALKING

Don’t talk longer than you need to.



ASKING PERMISSION

I start a rehearsal by getting the team to circle up so that we’re all standing as equals, and
before the team warms up I briefly share the lesson plan. I don’t worry about explaining the
specifics. I want people to relax because they know there’s a plan: their time will be well-
spent. I want them to feel like it’s not a huge deal if we need to change something, so I keep
it brief and casual. I also want their buy-in for the rest of the rehearsal, so I ask them if they
are okay with the plan. Here’s an example of what I am getting at:

“Tonight I was thinking we could do a quick warm up, then run a montage of scenes and then work on the
opening because I know we have some ideas there. After that we’ll take a break and then come back and
run a Harold. Sound good?”

Ask for permission early and often.

I recommend that you find authentic and organic ways to do this at the beginning, and
throughout a rehearsal. For example, once you have explained a game you’re about to have
them do, you could end this by simply asking “sound good?” Or “how do we feel about
that?” You might get a laugh or smile from a couple folks, which is great anyway.

If it’s genuine, asking for permission is a dialogue and it levels the playing field. What do I
mean by genuine? Simple. Does the team believe you that would potentially change your
plans based on what they say? As a coach, you should keep yourself ready to change your
plans at a moment’s notice if the situation requires it. You are coaching an improv rehearsal.
It makes sense that you would also need to improvise.

The people on the team are the best way for you to know if something needs to be adjusted.
Check in with them often, and make it genuine.

Questions

If you ask for permission a lot before an exercise, you might get a lot of questions. It’s very
common thing before an exercise for one or more players to seek, let’s say, more clarification
that they need. You can feel the energy dip when this happens. It’s possible that you’ve
created too much pressure, inadvertently, or perhaps their personality is to ask a lot of
questions. Don’t be afraid to kindly encourage them to try the exercise first in good faith,
but there’s an art to handling this with grace. Practice.

GIVING NOTES

Coaches should watch as many of their team’s shows as they can, and provide objective
feedback.

This often takes the form of “post-show notes” where the team that just played goes
backstage right after the show to discuss the show with the coach. This shouldn’t be too
long. Keep this in mind: the people on the team know they can’t change what happened, so
there’s a very real limit to how interested they are in hearing what you have to say. They will
be quick to tune you out.

The Notebook

One common approach is for a coach to write down everything that happens during a show
into their notebook. This is not inherently bad, but you should think deeply about what it is
you are writing, and why. Coaches want their notes to be helpful, but they often fail to
realize that the medium is the message here: deconstructing the entire show, moment by
moment, is an inherently critical act, so you need to work a little to mitigate that effect. It is
easy to “miss the forest for the trees” - to write down a lot of information from the show
but miss the essence of how the show went. Don’t forget to watch, really watch, the show.
You might miss key moments if you spend too much time writing.

It is absolutely true: if you are enjoying the show you are more likely to naturally pay close
attention. Alternate your focus between enjoying the show and writing a few things down
that you know you don’t want to forget.

The notebook is just for you, the coach. Don’t read too much from it when addressing the
team afterward. Think deeply about what, at the high level, you really want to say to them,
and stick to that. If there is something you need to read straight from the notebook, I
recommend that this be positive and specific. Don’t nitpick.

Have an Objective

Successful post-show notes sessions start before the show. Before the show, let the team
know what it is you are going to watch for. Sometimes the team will tell you - good. As the
coach, make sure this goal is easy to describe and easy to remember, and not something that
will be pointless or impossible to measure. After the show, you can let the team know if you
think they hit their goal.
One example of a goal: Dave Pasquesi said that a mistake in improv is anything that is
missed. Before the show, let the players know that they should pay attention to “things that
are missed.” After the show, ask them: did we “miss” anything?

There may be times when you notice something in the show that you think needs to be
addressed, but it isn’t already on the team’s radar as an objective.

Ask yourself if this is something you can address right away, at the next rehearsal. If so, I
think you are okay to bring it up during the post-show notes. State it non-judgmentally as
something you noticed, and encourage the team that this will be something to address at
the next rehearsal. “We’ll work on this next rehearsal.”

If you can’t address it right away, at the next rehearsal, I recommend that you keep the
personal discovery to yourself for the time being. Don’t bring up the issue during the notes
session, unless they do. Simply make a personal mental note for later.

You don’t want post-show notes to be a moving target: the team tries one thing, you focus
on something else anyway.

What You Say and How People Feel

I’ve heard it said that people don’t remember what you say, but they remember how you
made them feel. How does your delivery of your notes make your team feel?

Improv shows have a temporary quality to them. One show represents just thirty minutes in
the life of your team. The notes you give, and how you give them, should defer to this very
fundamental reality. It was one show - there will be many more.

Encourage the team that a single show shouldn’t have too much importance placed on it.

Your notes should make your team more likely to want to try again. Not less.
MANTRAS AND LIMITATIONS

Coaching any long form improv team, Harold or otherwise, is very open-ended. It can be
hard to know where to start with a new team because improv is so interdisciplinary. I’d like
to share one of my approaches called “Mantras and Limitations” which I like, and which you
are free to steal or modify.

The approach is to get the group to agree on two things:

1. A "mantra"... a state of mind, a catchphrase, some worldview, whatever you want to call it.

2. A single limitation on behavior (behavior is something you can see or hear - an action). Restrict one
aspect of the group's behavior as specifically as possible.

These two things are opposites: one super ethereal thing to rally behind that isn't tied to any
behavior, and one super-down-to-earth choice that limits behavior restricting some part of
how the group improvises.

How do you do decide on them?

If you've seen enough shows and know from experience with them, feel free to pick these
and see how they go. Personally, I think it's wise to get the group to talk it out if needed
(don't let this discussion drag and drain). Then, use the mental and emotional information
they're giving you to help them settle on their one mantra and their one restriction.

You can stop here if you're pressed for time, because that is essentially it. The rest of this is
some helpful context and answers to some common questions. If you have time, read on.

Mantras

1. A "mantra"... a state of mind, a catchphrase, some worldview, whatever you want to call it.

The team’s mantra should invoke the right mindset, and it should be a very simple phrase
that the group can say out loud in a circle before the show, and that individual players will
remember and can say privately to themselves during the show. So it’s no good to make this
long-winded. The mantra should not dictate any specific behaviors.

Here's an example of a mantra, and the problem it was invoked to solve.

One group wanted to slow things down in their second beats because they felt the scenes
were being jumped on too quickly, and connections made too fast, and the third beat and
later part of the show would run out of gas. After some healthy debate where most people
shared their thoughts, I offered a simple phrase: "We have time." The group agreed, so we
tried a Harold with that mantra.

Notice: the mantra is for the whole team and the whole show. It’s something to say all the
time. The initial problem in the example above was tied to the second beat, but it's no use
telling the group to imagine a mantra they can chant to themselves but only "during the
second beat." That is a misguided idea that probably won't work. It puts you in your head a
bit too much. You don't want to discourage the team. The mantra should be a positive life-
giving mantra that can be said quietly to oneself at any point the group is together: warming
up, doing the opener, playing throughout the show. I guess the magic is that the mantra,
used in this way, does solve the initial problem. But only if you ensure that the mantra is not
built to only address the one problem.

This is some group psychology. The problem they're telling you is that the second beats are
being done too quickly and with no patience. Okay. But what is the real problem? Get below
the surface. There's almost always something going on. "We have time." "We have time."
Time for what? Who knows. But it's true. You have time. That should help the whole show
as well as probably solve that second beat problem.

You aren’t just helping them solve a singular problem, but grow as a team and push
themselves to the next level.

Limitations

2. A single restriction on behavior (behavior is something you can see or hear, an action). Restrict one
aspect of the group's behavior as specifically as possible.

This one is a negative, to play off of the first thing, which is a positive. They're opposites. I
think the positive mantra should cover all behaviors and light a fire of inspiration. I think
this negative restriction thing needs to be small, and tied to a physical behavior you want to
remove or take out of play. For example:

- this same group, from the example above, thought that tag outs might be contributing to
the impatience in the second beats. This was the same group as before, the one whose
mantra is "We have time." So this was an easy one: since we called out tag outs, all we did
was this: "No tag outs in the second beat."
Notice this: the limitation can be applied to just one part of the show (whereas the mantra
should be universal). With this, you're taking something away entirely, with a restriction.
It's wise to confine it as closely as you can to the impact you want. Now, another team might
want to remove tags or whatever, from a whole show, or for the life of a team. Great! If you
want that, cool. Nothing is impossible or ill-advised if an entire team decides on a
restriction. That's what forms are, after all. I just think that, unlike the positive mantra, that
you want to wash over everything, don't feel pressure to find the limitation for all things.
Just take time and decide on a simple thing you can take away. If it applies to the whole
show, fine. If not, fine. Use discretion and consider what is going to be more appropriate.
This team decided on "no tag outs during the second beat."

Why be so negative? Why not decide on a single behavior you want to do? Why "no tag
outs" rather than "only do sweep edits" etc.?

It may seem counterintuitive to take something away, but the reasons are quite simple:

1. We all know how ineffective it can be to try to force one particular action in improv. It
seems to dull our thinking. Forcing everyone to do a thing later in a show just doesn't have
the same magic.

2. We unleash creative problem solving when we take just one thing away, while preserving
our individual freedom which keeps our thinking fresh. What I mean is: each person is told
what not to do, which creates a "problem to solve" - but no one is being told how to solve
the problem! In our example: If the restriction is "no tag outs" then everyone is free to edit
however they want as long as it isn't a tag. If everyone is told, however, to only sweep edit,
then we don't have any inspiration to add to the situation. It's not up to us and there's no
individual freedom. We shut down a little.

3. It's hard to explain, but we instinctively know this: if anything is possible, truly anything,
then we can experience decision paralysis. "What do I do next?" But if you can take just one
thing away, it generates a focus to quiet the mind a bit, which leads to the next small thing,
whatever that may be. Instead of thinking "what should I do?" The mind is asked to start
somewhere. "I can do anything except a tag out in the second beat" might be a better way to
put it if you really are struggling with this. You have removed even one of the possibilities
which is an excitable thing for the mind and gets it moving, helping to avoid decision
paralysis

4. Your group might be “in a slump” and looking to fix something anyway, so you're
probably looking for something you don't really want to be doing anyway. "Gosh I wish we
didn't... x" So indulge this just a little bit. Go there, but no further. It's not a bad thing to
want to stop doing something. It can form the basis of most self-improvement, after all.
You’re find a behavior that will probably be helpful to take away.

Before a Show

If you put these together, then the group, before a show, can huddle up and review this.

"Remember: we have time. We have time. That is our mantra. We have time. And remember: no tag outs
during the second beat."

And then go play! Don't put more stuff on your mind than this. Go, have faith, and see what
these simple attitude changes and behavior restrictions lead to.

So there you have it: individual freedom is enhanced, problem solving skills are effortlessly
called forth - you aren't boxing people in. But you also are avoiding decision paralysis.

Of course, none of this is guaranteed. Showing up to a show still requires an enormous act
of faith for everyone involved if it's going to go well. This can't replace you being on a team
with people you trust and like. What we're dealing with here are ways to take that kind of a
team and push them even farther forward.

BOREDOM

Long form improv can be boring if it’s not done well. Pay attention to the moments in your
shows that are boring: that aren’t entertaining, funny, or interesting.

Big-time theater director Peter Brook wrote about boredom in his book “The Empty Space.”
He called it “deadly theater” and said it was the performers’ fault if the performance bored
their audience. He said there’s nothing more honest than the spontaneous reaction of a
large group of strangers.

Don’t blame the audience.

To diagnose boredom in the audience, try watching your Harold team like you were a
stranger, seeing them for the first time. When you are watching your team perform, pay
attention to the audience, too. Make a note of the boredom, but don’t panic. Note it, and
continue watching.

There’s no one way to solve boredom. It is an effect with many causes. Start by learning to
sense the boredom. Take a note of it and come up with a way to address it in rehearsals.
Share this perspective with your team. Often the awareness of boredom, conceptually, is
enough to change behavior.

A good Harold will be entertaining, funny, and interesting. The audience shouldn’t be bored.
It will happen sometimes. Don’t freak out. Don’t ignore it.

B R AV E RY

The audience is rooting for you to succeed. The audience understands that improv is
watched differently: we want to see the risk side-by-side with the bravery of the performer.
That’s where “I could never do that” comes from.

Bravery is being present on stage in a state of relaxed readiness in spite of all of the
expectations and stimulation that come with a live stage performance. Don’t forget how
pleasing it is to see someone onstage behaving this way: agreeing to play, listening to
everything, and putting on a good show, all in spite of the risks they’re taking.

You will not eliminate fear - and this isn’t the goal. We want the risk taker. Keith Johnstone
talks about taking a risk but having a good attitude while you do it. Imagine a tightrope
walker who is calm and focused. If you look nervous, we feel wrong watching you.

This makes fear useful. Fear tells you that bravery is going to be a magnetic and
transformational choice. Fear tells us when to use bravery.

LOVE

I hope you are able to do the improv you love doing, with people you love to do it with. If
you’re not there, but you still feel like you should keep going, I hope you find both and you
should not settle for less.

Compulsive Behavior

Are you compulsive? One definition of “compulsive behavior” is putting more energy into
something than it requires. It can be hard to understand, in advance, how much energy
something requires. But after you’ve completed something, you can usually tell if it was “too
much.” You have a sense. You feel drained. You’ve lost the love.

Viola Spolin describes compulsive behavior this way in her book “Improvisation for the
Theater”:

“The use of energy in excess of a problem is very evident today. While it is true that some people working
on compulsive energies do make successes, they have for the most part lost sight of the pleasure in the
activity and are dissatisfied with their achievement.”

In other words: everything becomes vapor. You see the possibility of your own success in the
distance, like the morning mist over a field. By the time you’ve walked into the mist, you no
longer see it. Vapor. Compulsive striving turns success into it. Even if you’re standing in it,
it’s like you can't even tell.

Worthwhile

What makes something worthwhile? Worthwhile means you get back more than what you
put in.

Improv is most likely worthwhile to you if you’ve gotten to the end of yet another improv
book. If you’re considering coaching a team and spending time in the improv world and not
even being the one on stage getting the laughs, then it’s safe to say you probably see improv
as a worthwhile activity. It’s giving you back more than you put into it. You love it.

Remember that, even if you love it, your ability to fall prey to compulsive energies means
that the way you approach improv could still suck the life out of you. Done right, improv
will give you more than you put in, and improv does not require you to drain yourself in its
service. Be generous to yourself. Take a break if you need to. Love everyone on the team.
Give them the benefit of the doubt. Everyone is going through some kind of personal
struggle, but they still showed up. Love yourself, love the people, love the work.

Anne Bogart in “And Then, You Act” mentioned this: a good artist points to something that
they love and says “look at this!” A bad artist says “look at me!” This is how one artist
teaches another, and it’s probably the only way artists can teach one another. Show each
other what you love. Show what you’re passionate about. Love something so much that you
can’t help but say “look at this!”

APPENDIX

SOME GAMES FOR GROUPS

It’s hard to put together an improv book and not share at least a few games. I won’t say I
invented any of these, because that’s just not the case. In fact, there are so many great
games and game books out there that I really didn’t intend to include any at all. As time
passed, I got more comfortable with the idea of sharing a few.

I’m sharing the ones below because, to my knowledge, they aren’t conveniently described
anywhere else, or they aren’t described exactly how I’m getting use out of them today. As a
result of this focus, I’m not including any scenic exercises, where you get two people up to
run scenes. There are a lot of great strategies out there and I wouldn’t presume that you’d
need much help there. My focus is on some of the larger ensemble stuff Harolds require:
openings and group games, for example. My thought is that if I can provide a source of
information for you to use in rehearsals that covers those elements, that I’ve provided more
value.

For group games, I like to find ways to get everyone playing without being “in their heads”
too much, and an objective can be especially helpful there. After all, if players are distracted
by trying to be clever or funny, it can get in the way of efficient and impressive group work.
If you have eight people on stage at once, anything that gets people unconcerned with what
their next line is going to be effective. For the following games, start by getting everyone up
on stage and encouraging them to focus only on the objective you set out: not on trying to
do anything specific with the content.

Presentational Energy

This works for openings and group games. The objective here is for all of the players to be
“presentational” with the things they say and do. As the player, don’t get mired in “scenic”
energy which can slow down the exchange of group energy during your team’s openings and
group games. The rule for this exercise is simple: players can have no eye contact with
another player when they are speaking. They have to look out towards the audience when
speaking. So don’t look at another person when you speak. You can look at them if you
aren’t speaking, but any talking you do as a player needs to be shared out to the audience
only.

Pro Tip: push even harder into presentational energy. Now that we’re used to delivering
most of our lines out at the audience, add other challenges like vocal projection and variety
of physicality.
See and Be Seen

This is a riff on a great Spolin game. I’ve used it for helping teams run their openings with a
stage picture in mind, but it’s good for other group games and scenes as well. Each player
on the team plays with this focus collectively and at the same time: 1) see everyone in the
room, including audience and fellow players, and 2) make sure you can be seen by everyone
in the room, including audience and fellow players.

Can you see everyone, or is your view blocked? Move so that you can see everyone. Can
everyone, audience and fellow players, see you? Move so that they can. If you were to freeze
the stage picture, and have everyone try to make eye contact without moving, could they?

Encourage the group to move fluidly around the stage, adjusting themselves to achieve both
goals at all times. If they notice that someone in the room (audience or players) probably
can't see them, move. If they can't see someone in the room, move.

With a goal like this, the idea is that by placing your mental focus on this objective, you
don't stress about what you're going to say. Only worry about this game, and let your
subconscious be spontaneous as you respond on the fly. By not worrying about what you're
saying, only that you are seen and that you see, do you think the quality of what you say
goes up? Down? Stays the same?

Rephrasing

I’ve heard Mick Napier uses this exercise, but I’ve never seen it done by anyone else. I heard
about it and applied it to group games in Harolds. It can be awkward to start a group game
in the middle of a Harold. The “blank slate” nature of it can prevent playfulness. So let’s get
rid of the blank slate. For this game, clear the stage and pretend it’s the end of a scene and
it’s going to be the beginning of that first group game (if you do those). The game begins
with one person making a statement of some kind. It should be some assertion. Maybe a
theory of how life works. It doesn’t need to be funny. The second person enters the stage by
entirely rephrasing, with different words, the entire notion of the first sentence. They should
stay true to the essence of what was said, but use entirely different words. Ditto for the
third person to enter.

After that, the team has three things that have been said, and they have some great
cooperative forward momentum. The rest of the team can continue this objective, or, if they
are so inspired, they can branch out. What matters is that we started with a narrow focus
and built consensus, and we ended up branching off once this springboard of energy
inspired us. We didn’t feel like we started with a blank slate. Instead, one player did the first
little thing, knowing that it will be supported with abandon. This game is good for teams
that have trouble joining into a game.

You can warm the team up to this by having them run one round of it standing in a circle,
and sticking to the objective all the way around the circle: everyone rephrases that first line.
Keep the essence of the first line intact, but use different words.

Three Rings

This is a simple way for a team to organize their opener. Imagine the stage has three power
spots where the group clusters. Each spot will be the focus of one idea, one notion, one
exploration. When there's a natural transition to a new idea, someone (anyone) in the group
can move to another place on the stage and start this new idea, and the group elegantly (but
quickly) follows them. There are endless modifications of this: you can return to previous
spots to pick up on previous ideas and see how they interrelate. You can just do each spot
once, progressing from one idea to the next, using this way of staging as a guide to help you
pace the opening and handle transitions.

Give & Take Dance Party

This is more of a fun warm-up to get everyone connected, and it helps to have a Bluetooth
speaker and an internet connection for Spotify or Apple Music handy. Get everyone up and
in a circle. Ask someone for a suggestion of a song from the group. You’re going to play that
song while the group dances but here’s the thing. There’s a basic rule: only one person can
be moving at a time, and one person has to be moving at all times as long as the music
plays. Instruct the group to stand perfectly still and as soon as they hear any music at all, to
have someone begin moving. Make those transitions sharp: as soon as one person “takes” by
moving, the other person should “give” by stopping their movement.

Pro Tip: once you’ve got this sorted, add an additional layer that you can move at the same
time as someone else as long as you’re doing the exact same thing as someone else
physically. Remember that if someone else starts moving, those several people need to stop
moving at the same time!

SOME BOOKS I RECOMMEND

If I haven’t referred to them directly, they influenced my thinking in other ways and found
their way into my process somehow. I highly recommend checking out the following books:

Viola Spolin - “Improvisation for the Theater”

You don’t need to read Spolin to be good at this, but you might need to read Spolin if you
want to truly teach this well. This book starts with a very detailed and edifying summary of
what constitutes creative expression. Most of the book is her detailed and tried-and-true
exercises, but I absolutely recommend you do not start there. Refer to “Theory and
Foundation” first and digest it. Spolin describes, with great accuracy, how creative
expression works and how it can be harnessed, or hindered, by the way you conduct a
theater workshop. If you are only ever going to be a player, and doing improv to be a better
comedian, you may not resonate with her worldview. She attempts to make an overall
framework for improv that can be used by everyone: children, adults, amateurs,
professionals.

Keith Johnstone - “Impro”

If you can make it through the rascally way this book is written, you’ll be better for it. Keith
Johnstone wrote this book about the same time as Viola Spolin was working hers. These
books came out before there were the slick and polished improv communities in cities
across the United States. Like Spolin, Keith Johnstone was an educator first and his
cheerleading of improv comes from this subtle truth: that formal education dulls us, and
that we need to find ways to coax out the spontaneous creativity inside of us. This book is
filled with useful tips, and will remind you that improv did not start with UCB, or Second
City, or ImprovOlympic.

Mick Napier - “Improvise: Scene from the Inside Out”

This is perhaps the most actionable book for an individual performer to learn how to do
their own scenes better, right away. The problem with almost every scene strategy out there
is this: it goes out the window if you don’t play with another person who agrees to approach
improv that way. The Annoyance method of scenework, so aptly described in this book, will
help you play better in any building: no matter who you share the stage with.
Spoiler alert: my favorite line from this book is the very end of chapter 5: "Good
improvisation [is]... finding your individual deal with another's individual deal and realizing
a common context and surprising from within it. Plain and simple."

I promise you, he nailed it. That’s every good scene.

Bill Arnett - “The Complete Improvisor”

Bill Arnett is a Chicago treasure. He used to run the training center at the i.O. Theater
(formerly ImprovOlympic), and now runs the Chicago Improv Studio. My favorite thing
about his approach is that he considers the individual style of the player and the team when
assessing the quality of the product. There are far too many people in the community who
voluntarily blind themselves to the fact that they favor one style over another when they
judge your scenes. Bill runs a wonderful blog which inspired the book, but you should buy
the book as soon as possible.

Charna Halpern - “Art by Committee: a Guide to Advanced Improvisation”

This is the follow-up to Truth In Comedy and I personally found it more useful in the long
run. Pages 7-10 include a transcript of an interview with Del Close where he describes the
reason for Harold-style shows and what goes into doing it well.

Peter Brook - “The Empty Space”and “The Open Door”

Peter Brook is not an improv coach - he directed theater in England and France decades ago
and had an innovative approach which tips its hat to the improv games we do today. To be
fair, he was suspicious of improv as an end product, since he said (at least at the time) that
it wasn’t good for much more than devolving into stereotypes and archetypes, and playing
out similar scenarios with predictable results. But his overall work focuses on keeping
theater alive, and engaging with the audience, and too much of this book overlaps with what
we’re trying to do today, in my opinion. My section on “Boredom” is inspired by him.

W. Timothy Gallwey - “The Inner Game of Tennis”

You don’t need to be interested in tennis to find this book insanely useful. This influenced
how I see coaching and the learning process. The book explains how to: “focus your mind to
overcome nervousness, self-doubt, and distractions, find the state of “relaxed concentration”
that allows you to play at your best, and build skills by smart practice, then put it all
together in match play.” That quote is from the back book jacket. Sound like something an
improvisor would be interested in?

Anne Bogart - “And Then, You Act”

This book is so inspiring. If you’re doing art, and consider yourself an artist, you should
absolutely read it. Here’s a quote from this book that explains what I mean. "Shared action
in small rooms can resonate throughout an entire culture." If that resonates with you, please
do yourself a favor and read this book.

My Name is Brendon Culhane

I live in the city of Chicago with my wife and two sons. I am a “Chicago improviser” and
there’s a style that is associated with that. I suppose I generally fit that, though I don’t
actively try to fit any specific style. I regularly perform with house teams at the i.O. Theater
and CIC Theater. I love coaching Harold teams and independent improv teams. In 2014 I co-
founded and co-owned a long form improv theater in the western suburbs of Chicago.

Please feel free to contact me by going to brendonculhane.com if you like or hate this book,
if you need a coach, or if you just want to chat. I hope to hear from you.