Why learn the Harold? | John McInnes & John Gallagher

We spoke to John Gallagher and John McInnes (AKA The Billy Boys AKA 2/6 of Jazz Police) about their upcoming one-day Harold Intensive. We asked questions like “what’s a Harold? and “why take this course”. Read on to find out!

1 Tell us a bit more about yourselves as teachers, what’s your improv experience and where do you perform?

JG: I’ve been improvising since 2011. I started teaching pretty early, only in my second year. I began performing with my university team at Aberystwyth university, playing short form games similar that to ‘Whose Line Is It Anyway?’. With a bit more experience, the group started performing more narrative and story-driven formats, which we were lucky enough to take to The Edinburgh Fringe. Around the same time, I began taking more guest classes in London with American longform teachers, to broaden my knowledge a bit, and I instantly fell in love with that style. Now I teach and perform American-style longform in Bristol with Bristol Longform Comedy and Jazz Police, and occasionally I travel to other improv communities in the UK performing and teaching.

JM: I’ve been doing improv since about 2014, mainly in American style longform. I recently calculated that I’ve been doing (on average) 2.5 workshops/shows every week since 2016 and have performed about 350+ Harolds since then. I’ve done lots of workshops/coaching/directing things, mostly with Kitchen Rules Theatre’s old Tuesday drop-in and Harold workshops. Now I mostly perform with my team Jazz Police at the People’s Republic of Stokes Croft, or with various teams at Hodgeprov (at the Stag & Hound). I’ve performed at billions of poorly attended jam shows at Cafe Kino and The Room Above. I have also performed at the BIT 5 times.

2. Can you briefly explain what the Harold is and where it comes from?

JG: Harold is an improvised performance format created by Del Close and Charna Halpern in 1980’s Chicago. Both used their different styles, Close with longform, Halpern with short-form, to collaborate together and create one format. Colleen Doyle describes it as a “mono thematic poly scenic multidisciplinary exploration”, basically a collection of different styles and different scenes under one theme.

JM: The very earliest attempts at longform improv involved rehearsing and pre-agreeing the core content of the show ie a genre or a story. The Harold is a kind of generic 3-act structure that allows you to put together a show without pre-agreeing any of the content.

3. Why do you think its important for improvisers to learn the Harold?

JM: In short; The Harold has no safety net, so if you can do a good Harold you can be great at any kind of improv. In genre based shows (eg “Improvised Superman”), you and the audience know the tropes of the genre which you can fall back on. In shortform you rehearse the games and know vaguely what moves work and what moves don’t. Even in musical improv you get to work on your singing in rehearsals can fall back on being a good singer. You cannot “hide” a weak scene in The Harold, there’s no pre-agreed shiny thnig to hide it behind and as a result if someone gets good at The Harold, they tend to be great at scenework.

JG: Harold is love. Harold is life. It’s the perfect training tool for American-style longform. It encapsulates everything you need to know about becoming an improv team, from teamwork and listening, to finding comedic patterns. As a performance, if done right, it looks amazing for audiences who’ve never seen improv before. It looks like a well crafted, well written comedy sketch show.

4. What kind of things can people expect from the course? 

JG: They can expect to have a lot of FUN! Most importantly they can learn the mechanics of crafting a good improv scene. It’s about putting the work in, and knowing that we as entertainers and comedians are trying to entertain the audience. I think the work happens in scene work, not just in games and warm ups, so expect to be challenged, and expect to be given honest notes. And don’t forget fun!

JM: We’ll be going over the training-wheels structure so Gallagher is covering the ensemble parts (Opening the show and the “group games”) in the first half and I’ll be covering 2 person scenework (1st/2nd beats) in the second half. We’ll throw it all together at the end and you’ll get experience of the form as a whole, including how to end it with a “3rd Beat”. We may also discuss more abstractly how you can modify and reuse the Harold in other forms (e.g performing a 1 act play with the internal structure of a Harold)

5. What are you particularly looking forward to about teaching this course?

JM: Zip Zap Zop, my favourite of all warm-ups. I enjoy improv, particularly the longform structure of the Harold so I’m hoping to meet new people who might end up liking those things too. I enjoy questions which are like “Why do we do this part?” or “Why do we do scenework like this?”. I like trying to answer “why” questions, because it’s something I’m not good at in the Harold and need to practice myself!

JG: American-style longform is the thing I’m most passionate about, especially teaching Harold. A lot of my teaching style comes from how passionately I care about what I’m trying to teach, so I’m excited as hell! I’m also looking forward to working with McInnes. He’s a great and experienced improviser and I think students will learn a lot from him. His attention to comedic detail is unparalleled in Bristol, and his notes are eye opening. 

Harold Intensive with John Gallagher and John McInnes is on Saturday 21st September from 10am – 5pm. Places are £60 and can be purchased here.

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