I love long form improvisation, and more specifically I love Harold. Some people might wonder why I would want to perform a format that was created over 30 years ago in some other city by a bearded guru. People might wonder why I wouldn’t prefer to create something new, something different, or something else. Anything else. For those, I would contend that every time Harold is performed, it is something new, something different, and something else. Allow me to explain why I am in love with Harold today as much as I was the first time I watched one.
Harold becomes, for the first and last time, an original long form every time it is performed. Although there are many reasons why this is true, I will highlight three specific factors that contribute to my opinion. One reason is that every individual player brings unique and personal perspectives and experiences to a team. Additionally, the emotional states of the improvisers and audience members vary from one performance to the next. Finally, the organic nature of Harold allows for a team to listen to any of these subtle differences and respond in unexpected ways that uniquely alter the form itself.
These factors contribute to an art form that evolves in front of audiences in cities all over the world, every night of the week.
Every experience, opinion, and emotional response that makes you a unique person also makes you a great and powerful improviser. Improvisation thrives when our diverse individualism combines with acceptance and trust. When these honest moments appear, the team can support and heighten the ideas, characters, and emotions presented to create a show greater than the sum of the individual players. A show that is honest and supportive of the differing ideas of its team members is a show capable of presenting ideas in a specific way unique to each particular performance.
Harold was designed to put human behavior on display one moment at a time. The varied emotional states of the audience and performers contribute to the endless permutations by which any single scene is executed and perceived. Improvisers are trained to use empathy to listen to other team members and the audience, which means that they will feel the emotions of the theater from opening suggestion until the lights are pulled. Build upon that empathetic listening during the opening, multiply it across three beats of three scenes, and toss in a couple group games and a show appears for the first and last time. Harold, an experience that is unique to the combined emotions of the performers and audience members who witness its creation, follows the mood of the moment.
Due to its organic nature, Harold is a constantly shifting performance art. The first Harold ever performed is vastly different from a Harold performed today. A Harold performed in New York will look different than a Harold in Chicago. The fluid nature of the art form allows Harold to evolve, to grow, and to improve with every single performance.
Students perform a thousand shows, and then teach a new group what they learned along the way. The new groups play a thousand shows, and then teach another group, building on what was passed on to them. One show challenges another; teams push each other and themselves. The teachers learn from the students, more students become teachers, and all the while, the art form is evolving. Teachers open new schools, and students learn from all of them. Harold becomes a conglomerate of the past and present, because Harold wasn’t designed to be a homogenized stagnant art form.
Harold was designed to evolve, and every time it is performed it has a chance to do so. With every first beat, every group game, every second beat, every unexpected laugh, every uncomfortable silence, with every terrified risk boldly chosen, Harold has a chance to evolve. It is this evolution of the art form that brings me to it night after night.
I still learn from workshops, rehearsals, performances, my fellow performers, and my students. I still learn when I watch a Harold live on stage or broadcast on YouTube. By learning, listening, rehearsing, and performing, I get to be a part of that evolution of Harold. I get to honor the tradition of the past while simultaneously creating something new every time I play.
And that is why I love Harold.
Written by Clifton Highfield