AAA Rated Patterns

Craig steps out of the backline and announces to the audience, ‘Cheddah’! Jon follows along with ‘Tasty!’ Sarah is next, ‘Swiss!’ Jadwiga is fourth in line and says ‘Edam!’. We hear from Gouda and Feta and Parmesan. And then Carl steps out. But Carl doesn’t name a cheese like the rest. Carl is a rat. He sneaks around, before taking a nibble out of Sarah, then stealing her offstage.

The rest of the cheeses freak out, running around the stage and changing places in line. Cheddah is suddenly not so proud, announcing itself in a lower volume. Bobby follows with a slightly scared ‘Swiss’, and the rest follow along until Sarah returns as a rat, chewing on Feta and stealing her away too. The cheeses freak out again, with Craig yelping out a horrified ‘Cheddah!”. The speed picks up, as cheese after cheese is listed. And I’m there sitting in the audience laughing my ass off, because I know what’s coming next.

Group games are the best part of the Harold. Yeah yeah, there’s nothing like a well acted funny two person scene but when a group game is performed well, it sticks with you because you’re watching magic play out on stage. Think about it: how on earth do eight or so people play a game when they can’t establish the rules ahead of time? Oh, and also make it funny because an audience has paid to see this show and want to laugh.

The truth is that group work is easier to do than two person scenework purely due to the numbers. If you’re on stage with seven other players, you’re only doing one-eighth of the work. Groupwork is about sharing the stage and putting the group first, with every person adding their part brick by brick to build a wall, and then coming together as a wrecking ball to knock that wall down. Of course, groupwork can also be easier to go disastrous – after all it is a group of performers trying to get on the same page very quickly. It’s easy to let one person control proceedings and follow them without adding anything. Or alternatively, everyone has their own opinion and any unity from the group gets lost in the noise of individuality.

These are all airy-fairy thoughts, I know. So here’s a way to use these qualities on stage in a more digestible way. Use patterns in your group scenes and group games. Patterns are easy to establish, identify, follow. Audiences relate to patterns because we have recognisable patterns in our daily lives – from our morning routine to the words we choose when we speak. The cheese game listed above follows a clear pattern: a list of people name cheeses, a rat steps out and steals one cheese, the cheeses get scared; and the pattern repeats.

A fun pattern follows three areas: accept, add, and advance – aka my patented AAA rated pattern pattern.

Accept: In the cheese example above, the floor is open for the second person in to do absolutely anything. It would be tempting to explain away why Craig said ‘cheddah’, or try and establish a location in order in fear that Craig stepped out with nothing and needs help. It’s easier to accept Craig’s move as brilliant and support it. Sometimes that’s easy as mirroring your performer and doing the exact same actions or saying the same phrase. Doing so shows connection between the group while stripping away that awful panic and in-our-headiness where we need to something clever or funny – we’re on board with the first idea and it’s coming together bit by small bit.

Add: It’s said that the third idea in a list sets a pattern. In our pattern we hear cheddah followed by tasty. Sarah’s suggestion of Swiss confirms that the group is listing off varieties of cheese, and not say.. descriptions of money. It means that it’s now easier for Jadwiga and the rest of the cast to come in and add items to the list – the pattern is set, let’s build it together to a point where we can make it blow up.

Advance: If we’re travelling together, we’re not spinning around inside a hamster wheel, we gotta get somewhere. That means that we need to break the pattern in order to go somewhere new with it. In our cheese example, Carl could have named himself another cheese, but it’s likely that everyone on stage would shrug their shoulders and someone would have made an embarrassed sweep edit from the line. Carl’s move was not to take focus and make himself the star rat. It was to advance the pattern by breaking it. Carl taking Sarah off-stage means the pattern can advance – the rest of the cheeses are affected and it heightens the pattern, keeping things fresh.

The next time you’re watching a Harold, try and find the patterns going on in a group game. Make guesses on how you would add to the pattern and advance it. Then when you play, make those small moves of agreement and acceptance to create patterns and see where it leads you. Even if your group creates some wonky patterns (and all groups do), you will find yourselves more closer together as performers, and that’s only a good thing.


Everything is a Harold.



This is fun.

Free Range Harolds→

One piece of advice I’ve heard multiple times is that a strong Harold is about the scene work, and players don’t have to worry as much about tying ideas back to the opening. Bill broke down the Harold in such a way that added some more clarity. Namely, the first beat scenes do not need to find or tie back to a larger theme, but the players can declare a theme later in the show by looking back at everything that has already happened. I’d like to call this a free range Harold.


Magnet Theater Podcast E50: Will Hines

Here are some notes and interpretations I took while listening to New York improv podcast Magnet Theater Podcast. This is from Episode 50: Will Hines. Click the links on the times to be taken to an audio version of the note.

2:12: Improv fighting: philosophical debates are good, but wizard battles are bad.

  • Philosophical Debates: Two characters are having a point of view discussion. It’s not about winning the fight or defeating your scene partner. It’s about exploration of point of view, which could lead to further point of view, game, or pattern.
  • Wizard Battles: Using the powers of reality to win the fight. Making up something to justify your own point of view/make your scene partner look wrong.

Find the sweet spot for fighting in scenes. No fights makes for unrealistic discussion (people in real life fight!). Too many fights leads to defensive moves by the improviser, instead of the character in the scene.

6:20: When a fight is over, we move forward. An interesting change happens in the character as a result of the fight impacting on the character. Fights don’t exist just to fight.

8:14: “Fighting (in scenes) is tricky I think ’cause [..] good fighting and bad fighting feels very similar I think. And bad fighting feels like a lot of good stuff in improv. Like bad fighting feels passionate and true, and honest and specific, all that stuff’s great, like that stuff is what you’re trying to get to right? So it’s really tough for younger improvisers, you want them to be like passionate and committed and honest and personal, but then they’ll only do it to defend themselves. I mean I’ve done it, I don’t mean to. But that’s the trick, to get them to separate their ego out.”

8:53: “The guaranteed way to know if a fight is good or bad, and this is not helpful for when you’re doing improv, is like if you feel like defensive anger while you’re doing it, it’s wrong. Like if you’re just doing it to protect yourself, that’s wrong. Even though that does happen in real life, you can’t pursue that feeling [in a scene]. But that’s not necessarily helpful. Like if you make fun of me on stage and I zing you back, that’s probably not helpful even if it makes the audience laugh. But if you say something about yourself and I zing you just to like make your thing more true or creative more evidence to back up what you said about yourself that is good, and the audience might laugh. Those things feel very similar, but the former is a protective move, it doesn’t work.”

11:05: Fights often break out due to scene partners not acknowledge each other when starting the scene. The first performer in enters the stage, starts doing object work, leaving the second performer to make a big choice. First in will then feel violated and then fights with the second in. “Shake hands” before you start the scene – acknowledge your scene partner when you start the scene – use eye contact, get on the same page early. “The person tried to shake hands with you by talking about a sandwich, and you rejected the handshake. So they’re as miffed as if they put out their hand and you ignored it.”

18:44: Differences in Magnet style Harolds to UCB style Harolds according to Louis Kornfeld:

  • Less game oriented.
  • Second beats: Extensions of the first beats instead of literal direct heightening. First beats are considered source scenes, which are followed in the second beats discovering resonance between them.
  • Use of opening: Casual, exploration of ideas, finding characters. Not literal, not so much to generate premise or game to re-use in scenes.

19:34: Will Hines’ pragmatic thoughts on Harold openings:

Premise or game based opening pulls

  • Advantages: You get something funny earlier, potential of laughs earlier, makes the performers and audience comfortable that the show is going somewhere.
  • Disadvantages: Discovery can be rushed, scenes can be thin as a result.

Theme, moods, characters, half-idea based opening pulls

  • Advantages: Connect more with your teammates, commit harder, more real, more freedom to find yourself in it. Yes And/Agreement is stronger.
  • Disadvantages: Can meander more before something funny happens. Less aggressively entertaining – if people aren’t funny naturally, the show will ramble around.

22:02: “Entertain the audience now. Do it now, that’s what you’re there for.”

22:24: “I treat openings a lot [..] as gifting each other with what the suggestion brings to my mind. So what I mean would be, if I do something in an opening, let’s say I come on out and do a short character monologue in the opening, I would then avoid touching that character for the rest of the show, that’s, I’m leaving it out there for the reason of the group to pick up, should they be so inspired. Once I get my idea my idea out there, I’m actively looking for somebody’s idea that’s inspirational to me.”

28:38: Great acting in an improv scene may not be great acting at an acting school, or even feature great actors. It has an honesty and a sincerity to the way that is played. The simplest thing becomes fascinating to watch.

31:20: Just do what you’re being asked to do. Don’t add more, just do what you’re being asked to do to the best of your ability. That will lead to something fascinating, a glimpse between two people – not big, not bullshit, just direct and sincere.

36:37: “Scope on the rules is what’s good.” Not all improv rules apply to every scene uniformly. If the improviser is aware of the scene – what they are doing and what their partner is doing, they will know what rules to apply in the situation.

42:47: “If you’re a good student, you’ll try on different things because the teacher’s asking you to and you’ll decide later if it’s for you or not. But that’s definitely the most productive approach if you’re a student anyway.”

59:48: “It’s all like are you being present and honest in the moment? Or are you relying on formulas and shoulds and you’re no longer like, tuned in. You have to be an honest reporter of the moment to the audience. The audience is watching you so you have to report honestly on what’s going on. So if you’re not doing that because you’re obeying a rule you heard, then you suck. But it’s funny because what is a freeing simplification one day is a binding rule the next day, just because you grew.”

1:22:08: Know/Care/Say: The opposite of the “normal” improv rules that are all negative – scenes should have positive things – choose to know what’s going on, choose to care about it, and choose to say something. “Because those are the three things we’re socialised to not do. [..] Those are real instincts that we have learned. And although we want you to be real on stage, it’s except for those three very ingrained things, big exceptions.”

1:26:51: Know/Care/Say: It’s about skipping all your natural “mammal brain” defenses without changing your real personality.

“Del Close Notes”→

Some notes from Del about his improv philosophies and the Harold that I found with some digging. I love point five.

Got Your Back E39: Eat the Whole Pizza

Here are some notes and interpretations I took while listening to Austin improv podcast Got Your Back. This is from Episode 39: Eat the Whole Pizza. Click the links on the times to be taken to an audio version of the note.

3:24 – Working way harder then you have to – aka eat the whole pizza, use the whole buffalo. Slow down, be more efficient, use what we have to create more stuff.

4:39 – Why does it happen? Judgement (of what’s happening on stage), a lack of trust.

6:16 – “If it feels weird, do it more.” – Liz Allen. If it feels weird, you’re not 100% committing.

8:02 – “The minute you start judging from inside the scene that what you’ve put out isn’t enough, you start being at that 80%. You’re not committing, and all that judgement can rush in and you’re stepping away.”

9:12 – “This idea that if you’re going to keep worrying and being in your head and trying to control stuff, it’s going to be so much more work for you.”

10:30 – “It’s improv – to get something going someone is going to have to buy into someone else’s thing at some point. If we’re not going to do more of this thing, then maybe you could give the next thing, but are people going to buy into that thing? Or are people going to be people putting out next thing after next thing after next thing and we never get anything going. So it’s that idea of going deep versus broad. It’s not about doing the next thing after the next thing after the next thing. It’s about doing a thing and then doing the next thing specifically affected by it. And that requires awareness of the moment.”

16:45 – “Looking at the offers that happen not just as throwaway lines, but every offer we could go deeper into.”

19:16 – The ideas you pull from the opening of a Harold is like a stool. “The further apart those three worlds are, it’s going to hold up that stool so you can sit on it.”

23:41 – “A scene starts, you have something, and I’m like “this is great, it’s real, I believe it, I’m into it”, and someone will get scared or fearful or otherwise self-aware in a negative way and then try to force something or they’ll invent, they invent rather than mining or inferring from already established information. Or even backing away from it is another thing that happens.”

28:43 – Be patient in our exploration of each move. It requires really listening to and reacting to each move, and not being in such a hurry. You’re not really soaking in the implications of what is being said and using that verses getting too carried away in what you thought was happening.

33:40 – Heightening without exploration – if it’s heighten/heighten/heighten/heighten/move/move/move/move, and we’re not taking the time to use any of these, it takes you out of reality. You have to explore/deal with the consequences/react and respond, otherwise it’s replication/ignoring – it’s crazy town, people making game moves.

Think I am a Tree – because of the last thing, we have the next thing; not a new thing. If we have the tree, we have bark, if we have bark, we have a carving.

37:20 – If we have an idea in the first beat, we want to explore the specifics in the second beat. If people’s butts are poison in the first beat, we can explore that reality – people’s butts are poisoned due to incompetence at the boron factory – let’s explore incompetence at the boron factory.

38:42 – “On a big scale, what are we doing here? Element: butt poisoning, how can we do more of that?”

39:20 – On callbacks: Callbacks are like steak. It’s really great, but five bites of steak really fast is gross. But if you put a little space, it’s incredible.

44:42 – “Keep it simple – it doesn’t always have to be two guys hanging out and one of them’s a vampire! The fun will happen if you trust the process. […] There’s going to be some fun thing that we can do, either implicit or explicit, if we’re listening and being efficient. That’s going to be less work than creating something from scratch.”

45:20 – How to use this. Person A starts a scene, Person B’s response must contain some of Person A’s line in their response. Person A’s response must contain some of Person’s B line in their response. Repeat.

47:07 – “Let’s get more specific on the specifics.” Using some of the last line will get you that emotion of that out that makes you continue

51:00 – As an audience member, simple = satisfying. If you do that and it happens organically, it looks amazing. The laughs that you generate are of a different quality too – they are more staying, and will stick around longer.