It’s over! Man it’s been a great adventure for the last 6 months. It all started in my hometown of Sacramento with The Blacktop Comedy Theatre, then we went to The Detroit Improv Festival, had a camp show at IO West, then off to San Francisco for the San Francisco Improv Festival, then to The Ventura Improv Festival, Cedar City, Utah for the Red Rocks Improv Festival, then to the Mile High City and The Denver Improv Festival…oh there’s more, Fullerton, CA for the Improv Cup and Finest City Improv in San Diego is where we finished our tour! WHEW!
I have to say I am one lucky person to have been able to have met so many great people, improvisers and their communities. These places all felt like home to me and everyone was absolutely wonderful and made me feel so welcome.
Things I learned on the road…
Improvisers are the best and most positive people in the world.
I do get tired.
We can have a national improv scene! Let’s do it!
My workshop students amazed me and I learned a ton from them!
Improv in other cities is just as good as what’s happening in LA and Chicago.
Jill Bernard and I lost in the lottery but won in friendship!
The Group Mind Foundation has an amazing mission!
The improv scene is bigger than it’s ever been
Performer clauses that don’t let improvisers play anywhere else are silly. Sharing community only makes the improv scene grow. LA is prime example of that.
I love my campers that I got to see all over the country and looking forward to seeing them again!
I can’t wait for next year! If you’d like to invite us to visit your community, theatre or festival give us a shout out at email@example.com. We will also help promote you and your fest etc. So get in touch with us!
Founder/Camp Director Improv Utopia
DENVER! The Mile High City…Boy did I feel that. I’m out of shape. Man, living in LA you don’t get to have seasons and the first thing I noticed in Denver was the trees and the colored leaves. It was fall. As I sit back at my computer in the 90 degree heat right now I miss Denver more than ever…But I will say this, I miss it for more than just the weather.
This festival was amazing. The Group Mind Foundation has a wonderful mission to try and support the improv community and the Denver community. They put on this lovely festival which was at the Voodoo Comedy Playhouse and workshops took place at the Bovine Metropolis Theatre. They did a great job and it all paid off because both nights were sold out.
One of the amazing experiences I had was being able to play with the local improv peeps. I was put on the Denver All-Star team and let me tell you it was AMAZING! I felt like I knew those guys for years. We had such a fun show and performed in front of a sold out show. I was so lucky to be able to have that opportunity.
Things I learned in Denver:
I love improvisers
I miss Fall weather
Voodoo Comedy Playhouse is awesome
The community out there is great
I love my campers they are really amazing people
David Schultz is my doppleganger
Eric Farone is NOT old
The Bovine Theatre has so many secret rooms and it’s like a maze and amazing
My workshop students were amazingly talented and willing to learn and challenge themselves
The Group Mind Foundation makes me happy
It’s widely accepted (probably even confirmed, I’m just too lazy to look it up) that Del Close’s signature, his stamp on the world of improvisation, is the Harold.
Don’t know what a Harold is? That’s okay, I didn’t either until recently. Textbook, this is what the Harold looks like:
Opening - Beat 1 (1A, 2A 3A Scenes) - Game - Beat 2 (1B, 2B, 3B Scenes) - Game - Beat 3 (1C, 2C, 3C Scenes)
Opening: Taking a suggestion and playing around with it to generate ideas for the piece (Harold)
Scenes: Improvised scenes, which are revisited three different times throughout the piece Game: Involves most, or all of the players
However, this is only the TEXTBOOK. This is merely a formula approach to the Harold. This can be taken literally and be successful. It can also be taken as a suggestion (like red lights to many a driver in LA – HEYOOOOO!) and be successful.
This is my definition of a Harold:
What the Harold ACTUALLY is, what the Harold SHOULD be, is an open exploration. It is an invitation to play. It is a celebration of improv.
It’s written somewhere in Truth in Comedy that Del Close was fascinated- maybe even obsessed- with the concept of group mind. I don’t remember exactly where in the book that it’s written, but it’s there (find it for me and win a prize?). We all know group mind as the idea that an ensemble is able to think together as a single unit, work together like one gigantic muscle. Group mind is what improv groups strive toward; it requires trust and dedication to both yourself and your players. It is hard to truly attain, but once you’ve got it, life is epic and awesome. I think that Del created the Harold out of that passion, because the Harold CANNOT exist without group mind. Other forms can exist (albeit poorly) without it, but the Harold literally can’t work without it, otherwise it’s not a Harold. You’re jumping around in your piece, revisiting scenes, characters and/or themes; the way a Harold team accomplishes this is by having a group mind.
The Harold textbook formula is just there as a guideline for the team, a jumping-off point. As long as there is group mind, the formula is not necessary.
The iO West has an event every week called Harold Nights. It’s where twelve Harold teams perform on the mainstage. A rewards program was recently rolled out for students: see all twelve Harold teams (there is a punch card involved to keep track) and be eligible for prizes!
Well, it took me two weeks (the shortest amount of time it could physically take to see all twelve teams since they rotate every other week), but I am the first student to complete the Harold Nights rewards card. This post isn’t meant to be a self-congratulatory pat on the back, though. I want to talk about everything that I’ve observed and learned from this experience.
By watching all twelve teams, I have 7 1⁄2 hours of improv-watching clocked in. This is what I’ve observed:
The Harold is a beast. It is larger than life. It isn’t simply a formulaic format of improvisation. Every Harold I saw, I saw the players literally playing on the stage. It was electrifying. Some teams performed the formula, some teams played around with the idea of it, some teams ignored it completely. No matter what approach they took on their journey, it was obvious that they were still honoring the concepts of the Harold, in that it is a celebration of improv.
Ideas that were ridiculously minute could be made into something epic. For example, I saw a team do a scene, and in it, someone had mentioned that the location they were standing on was ancient Indian burial ground. It was an off-hand statement- something that could be taken and made into something or not (it was said so casually), because the scene that was going on was
going well. However, someone standing off to the side must have thought, “Oh! Let’s do that!” And so they took that sentence and ran with it. They cut to the ancient Indians, and we saw the story of how one of them died and in his dying breath, cursed the land. Then we went back to the original scene, just like that.
Another team didn’t start a scene on the same page: one player thought that they were in modern-day Italy, another player thought they were in 1940s Italy. But both players trusted each other, trusted that this would work out, and played with the idea. I mean, why NOT have two people from different eras interact? Their commitment played off. The modern-day tourist had downloaded a time-travel app. OF COURSE SHE HAD. MIND= BLOWN.
In a Harold, anything goes. Well, anything goes as long as it’s honest to the scene and to the overall piece (Harold). When I say that the Harold is a celebration of improv, I say this because the Harold cannot be successful without the support and trust of players with each other, which is exactly what improv is.
Harold has the mentality of, where you go, I’ll follow. It’s that trust of, oh, hey, I have this idea. And your players saying, okay, let’s see where it goes. And then you go there, explore it, find something super awesome, and then maybe you find something else that’s shiny along the way, so you go explore that too, and down THAT path another shiny something shows up so you go see what that’s all about, and maybe someone else sees a pile of shiny things over this way so you all go see what’s over yonder, and after explore all of these shiny ideas YOU KEEP EXPLORING. Like Dora the Explorer, you go on all these side quests to find blueberries and save monkeys and scale walls, but ultimately the whole time you’re still on the same path to your Abuela’s house to bring her a pair of mittens Boots your monkey best friend friend made.
It’s beautiful to watch. I can see why Del Close got all hot and bothered for group mind when he saw it. I can understand why he wanted it to be an essential ingredient to a form.
Watching all these Harolds, I have learned so much. I’ve got to watch intimate relationships, epic stories; an office romance, the Titanic sinking. I soak it all in like a sponge.
After seeing so many Harolds, all I want right now is to DO IT. But I am equally excited about and intimidated by the Harold. Like I said before, the Harold is larger than life. Each Piece that is performed is its own mini universe. Thinking about that makes butterflies happen in my stomach and they can go either way (excitement vs. anxiety).
I know, though, that all I need to do is just TRUST. Group mind is a wonderful thing. If you build it, they will come. I realize that may not apply here, but it made sense to put it in this paragraph. TRUST.
In conclusion, what I’m trying to say is that the Harold is more than just a form, it is a concept. I’m not saying that Harold is the be-all-end-all in improv, but I am saying that it’s onto something here. It celebrates improv, it celebrates the players, it celebrates group mind. It’s a magical thing to see all this celebrating happen. I am stoked to see this happen with other teams, in other forms.
I’ll be learning more about playing the Harold, too: I’m on the intern team, and we do the Harold. I’ll most likely be updating all of you on this experience. WAHOOOO!!
So, let’s all keep trusting. Let’s all keep exploring. Let’s all keep discovering. Let’s all keep being an ensemble and a single unit of awesome.
And let’s not forget to play.
I drove my car with my fellow King Ten mate Josh DuBose to The 3rd Annual Red Rocks Improv Festival in Cedar City, Utah (Southern Utah). This is my third year at the festival, I’ve been there since its inception. It’s one of the most remote festivals I’ve ever been to. The community is small and the town is even smaller. But I’ll tell you what, that doesn’t stop TJ and Wendy Penrod of Off The Cuff Improvisation.
Sold out crowds during the weekend and fantastic shows. We often think that LA, Chicago and New York have the best improv. Piggy backing of my good pal and IU board member Brian O’ Connell (iO/Dr. God) and Bill Binder (Torch Theatre AZ) there is great work being done underneath our noses that the mainstream improv communities can’t see. It’s refreshing to see how these communities are advancing improv. Why? Because they’re not worried about filling seats, even though most do, or selling booze. They are doing it for the love of the art of improvisation and that inspires me every time I see it. Sometimes LA, Chicago or New York start to get too big and forget their humble beginnings. I wish OTC could be in LA! I really do. I would be in that troupe in a heartbeat. I try to bring that spirit back with me and I guess Camp Improv Utopia is a part of that. That’s were I can unleash that spirit to the greater community. But that’s all thanks to places like SF, Utah, Ventura, Detroit etc.
I learned a lot about myself, camp and family while driving the 7 hours through desert and red rocks. I learned that these people were not just friends or campers that they are a part of my big family. TJ and Wendy would do anything for you. Let you sleep in there house, cook you a nice dinner whatever it takes and they are most humble about it all. I’ve known them around four years now meeting them at the LA improv Fest and I’m so happy I did because now I feel like I have a cool brother and sister that live in Utah! They are pretty much the nicest people you’ll ever meet and really freakin’ talented. I can go on and on but I know if they read this there faces would be red.
Led by Wendy and TJ this group is amazing. They do amazing work that could challenge any team in LA or Chicago. Especially Tj, Wendy and Ryan “Rev” McLean in Pawn Takes Queen! A highlight of the fest for me. The three did a monoscene. Not an easy thing to do, but they did it with ease. This group of people have great group mind and are just really funny.
Things I learned in Utah:
1. Improvisers are like family
2. OTC Comedy is doing the good work!
3. Zion National Park is amazing
4. Just because you’re in a smaller town doesn’t mean you can’t advance improv to its next level whatever that may be.
5. Josh DuBose secretly did want to be on Facebook! He won’t admit it but I know he does.
6. Beer has less alcohol in it in Utah. (Bring some from out of state next time.)
7. There are only two bars in town. One has a dog named “Bear” that guards the door. He was cute!
I was a band nerd long before I was an improv nerd, and those two events didn’t overlap, which is a shame, because since I’ve gotten back to playing, I’ve rediscovered all sorts of great concepts. A band is in a lot of ways a large improv group (or vice versa, depending on your mood) – multiple performers, each with their own part, playing different notes (or jokes, lines, POV), in real time, to create a totality of instrumentation – a piece of art, be it song or Harold. Both are also trying for group mind, in improv that concept tends to be a little intangible, but for a band, it’s mostly composed of the director and music, though there is a fair degree of listening across the group and adjusting as necessary. That’s where the band can impart some useful lessons – both organizations are trying to fold individual parts into the greater whole to make a good show.
So first up is tone – the quality or character of a sound. My band director in high school drew the two ends of the spectrum this way: on one end is the Jim Carrey movie “Ace Ventura”. Ace is trying to demonstrate the soundproof qualities of a window leading out to a balcony in regards to a possible suicide and does so by standing on the balcony while opening and closing the door, belting out a grandiose vibrato note; warm, open, that seems like his whole body is resonating with tone. The other end of the spectrum is another Jim Carrey movie (I went to school in the 90’s, the fact that my band director’s examples seem to built around comedies from the middle of the decade seem to indicate something either about him or about his understanding of his students) “Dumb and Dumber”. Lloyd Christmas (no lie, that’s the character’s name – look it up) has picked up a hitchiker and playfully asks if he knows what the most annoying sound in the world is. What Lloyd emits is a shrill, stagnant, spirit-shaking note that seems to only come from his nose.
Now, all instruments have a degree of range as to whether or not they’ll be tinny or robust, which is typically set by the section leader and should be uniform across a section. But, we’re improvisers, not instruments, right, so how does that work? Tones can be thought of in scene terms as energy (high, low) type of comedy (zany, observational, wry), or service to the scene (realistic, editing, character). Billy Merritt (http://blogs.laweekly.com/arts/2012/01/pirate_robot_or_ninja_ucbs_bil.php) broke the scene roles down as Pirate, Robot, or Ninja, others have probably used other classifications, but I think you’d be hard pressed to find someone who didn’t recognize the different roles that players provide to the group dynamic.
Now, the various tones are played together in balance, which is to play all of those various disparate parts in a way so that each part maintains its relative importance to the piece. In music, that means that the melody is usually above the harmony, which is above the bass line (usually the tubas). This is either accomplished by the melodies playing louder or the basses playing lower. It should be noted that balance accommodates relative playing, which doesn’t mean that one particular voice is always above, it just means that at any one time, the important voice (whoever is playing it at that point) must be heard above all others. (My director always told us to listen down the lower instruments, not sure if that fits in here or not, but it seems worth mentioning.)
These all fit together into the blend, which is to play so that the entire ensemble has a characteristic sound – such that individual voices do not stand out from the texture of the entire group. It’s what made the Beatles different when they had Stu Sutcliffe and Pete Best, and it’s what makes an improv group seem different when one of the players is out sick. The key to a good blend is that the individual constituents should be indistinguishable from each other such that the end result is a harmonious, uniform sound.
What this means is that sometimes you play the lead, sometimes you play second fiddle. Sometimes you soar above, and sometimes you support below. And all of these things sound an awful lot like the “group mind” we’re always hunting for in improv groups, both from our teammates and from teams we watch. Good improvisers are capable of listening just as well as a musician to know which notes to play and how loud to play them.
But I could always quote the movie “Drumline”:
“One band, one sound!”
About Christopher George
Chris George has been improvising since 2003 in Hattiesburg, MS. In 2007, he moved to Chicago where he studied at the iO Theatre, and moved to San Diego, CA in 2008. Since being in SoCal, he has founded and directed the Stage Monkeys San Diego, SD’s premier longform improv group, as well as performing and teaching with multiple groups around town, including the National Comedy Theater, Dinner Detective, and ROAR Theatre. His regular series blog can be found at 00george.blogspot.com and videos of some performances can be found on youtube.com - user name the00George.
So Labor Day weekend came and went. But I can tell you it was an amazing time. Improv Utopia sponsored The Ventura Improv Company’s Improviad XVI. I was even awarded an improv medal! How exciting!
This festival was different than a lot I’ve been to because most of it was a short form competition in the spirit of the Olympics. But I have to tell you it was a great time. Also, they invited High School students to perform too and they were amazing. Gave me a run for my money. :)
One thing I wanted to point out that I absolutely love about the people of The Ventura Improv Company is their sense of family. Once you walk into those doors you are a part of the family. They all help each other, do chores together and have each others back and they make you feel right at home.
Things I learned from Ventura:
1. I love improvisers even more
2. The Clocktower Inn may be haunted
3. Becky, Judy and Tom are amazing along with the Ventura Improv Company players.
4. I love teaching more and more
5. Kind Strangers are magical
6. I’m rusty at short form
7. Restaurant servers really have your back. Was asked if I wanted Turkey Bacon because I ordered a Turkey Burger.
8. My workshop group did amazing work and inspired me
Up next I head to The 3rd Annual Red Rocks Improv Festival in Cedar City, Utah where I get to see my good friends and campers Tj and Wendy Penrod of Off The Cuff Improvisation.
Founder/Camp Director Improv Utopia
San Francisco! I love this City. It’s one of my favorite cities in the world! And it did not let me down this time. Why? Not only is the city awesome but so is it’s improv festival called The San Francisco Improv Festival.
What a great fest! I went with Kind Strangers and King Ten both teams from iO and I have to say we had great houses and the audience was thirsty to see improv!
A special shout out to our two time camper and Executive Director Jamie Wright who puts on the fest every year. He has help from some great people there and great support from a lot of different Bay Area theatres. Everyone was so welcoming and awesome I highly recommend this festival.
Things I learned in SF:
1. I love improvisers even more.
2. I miss San Francisco more than I thought.
3. The cab drivers are awesome: One quizzed me about the names of the five bridges I only could get four but I knew more about the niners then him. GO NINERS!
4. Golden Gate Park is amazing!
5. The Freeze is a pretty great show: It’s a improvised hip/hop show with accompaniment.
6. Susan Messing is amazing!
7. Blood and Sand drink at Comstock not that good.
8. Old Ship Saloon is an amazing dive: I improvised to my buddy what I thought the story of the bar was and he said, “Actually that’s pretty damn close!”
We are off to the Ventura Improv Festival this Saturday! Workshop and shows!
Founder/Camp Director Improv Utopia
I want to scream! That’s right scream at the top of my lungs! Why? Because the Detroit Improv Festival was amazing! What a great community they have out there in the little Detroit suburb of Ferndale. Go Comedy Theatre was the host of the festival and I have to say what an excellent job.
Highlights you ask?
Food…tons of great food.
Booze…Jessica was the best bartender and took care of us all.
Party Bus…okay it had smooth jams and improv dancers including TJ Jagadowski one night!
Shows…313, Matt Naas music, Twinprov, Ken and Issac - Two Man No Show, ROBOCOP THE MUSICAL!!! (Dream comes true) So many amazing shows I saw
Workshops: Tj Jagadowski laid down some honest scene play! It was a great reminder of the work that can be done in improv.
Two Man No Show (Ken/Issac) Did a workshop on physical and emotional commitment to character that was inspriring. These guys have some great energy and play off each other well!
A special shout out to my fellow camper Chris Moody! Thank god I met this human being. What an amazing person! One of the nicest you’ll ever meet. His hospitality and commitment to the Detroit Improv scene is beyond words. Every festival can learn from him and this festival.
So are improvisers the nicest people on the planet? Yes
Is Chris Moody amazing? Yes
So should you go to this festival next year? HELLZ YES!
Nick Armstrong (www.improvutopia.com)
So, I’m in Detroit getting ready to go teach a workshop thought I’d catch you guys up. Sacramento was a huge success and Paul Burke and Betsaida Lebron are really doing a smashing job bringing community and improv to the Sacramento/Roseville area in Northern California. I’m really proud of the work, community and theatre they have made there.
Last Saturday, we did a show called Draw Something. Letting the audience draw a picture and then we would perform a scene based off this picture. I have to say it was really fun and the Blacktop Comedy gang really brought it! So inspiring to have been a part of Blacktop Comedy for the weekend.
I have to admit I was a little nervous coming out to Detroit. I’m a West Coaster and know a lot of improvisers out there but not a lot out here. Would the accept me? Dumb question right? It took a nano second and a party bus to make me realize that, “Oh yeah, improvisers are the best people on the planet!” They have welcomed me with open arms. I performed in the All-Star Musical on Wednesday and I have to say I was freaking blown away by the talent here! So amazing.
I’ve seen a ton of shows already and I’m really impressed. Also, this is the second year of DIF and it feels like they’ve been doing this forever. Such a great festival and it’s only Friday! The best is yet to come. I will fill you in more when my adventures in Detroit finish but so far thank you Detroit for everything and a special shout out to fellow camper and DIF organizer Chris Moody! What an amazing host!
So, improvisers awesome - Check, Chris Moody awesome - Check, Paul Burke and Betsaida Labron awesome - Check, Party Bus - Check!
I think I need to change the name of the tour to Planes, Trains, Automobiles and Party Bus!