Upstairs at the Croft Institute, a man wanders into a carpentry store to buy a cabinet and is unwittingly fitted for a crucifix; his measurements taken on the hill behind the workshop. It’s just one breakneck vignette from the Improv Conspiracy tonight, who have split themselves into two teams for twice the tomfoolery.
Adam Kangas, from the NASA Dropouts team, came over from the States two-and-a-half years ago, where the ‘Harold’ is common currency in the world of improvisational comedy. He’s hoping to make Chicago-style longform improv popular over here, particularly the Harold with its role-swapping and repetition of themes. It’s an enduring format that’s been used in the US for almost 50 years – almost the go-to format when a group tires of other techniques.
“It’s like in poetry, haikus have been around forever,” Kangas explains, “yet people still delight in writing haikus. The Harold is a structure that is just fun and exciting, whether you’re advanced or a beginner or in the audience.”
Tonight they’re doing an improvised murder mystery, with the audience picking the setting. The NASA Dropouts go first for 30 minutes, then the Peeping Toms, riffing off each other at an impatient pace. “By the end of the year I’d like to have three teams with people that are coming up through the ranks,” says Kangas. “By the Comedy Festival, maybe we’ll have four or five teams. My goal is to recreate what I’ve seen work in Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles, which is essentially an organisation that scales horizontally. Instead of having a massive company, which resembles a symphony orchestra, I want to make rock band improvisation, where you can get four of your buddies together, start a group, and just have fun with it. In Los Angeles, there are hundreds of groups of improvisers, and here in Melbourne there’s like less than ten, I would say.”
Scott McAteer, a former stand-up comedian, writes short plays and finds that improv work aids his creativity. “You get a sense of the way that characters interact in a story and you have to play all the different roles over the course of doing multiple things,” he says. “It’s almost like you’re constantly workshopping. You just pick a line out of a scene that you did three years ago, and realise, ‘Oh yeah, that works.’”
Adam considers himself to be a ‘pure improviser’, in that he doesn’t write or perform stand-up. “In my early twenties in Los Angeles there were plenty of people who only did improvisation, but over here that seems like a bit of a rarity,” he observes. “In the Big Hoo Haa, for instance, so many people are either television personalities, or stand-ups.”
Also sitting in on Time Out’s interview is Emmet Nichols’ – who’s a member of Improv Conspiracy, the Big HOO-HAA! and Impro Sketch. His background in musical theatre means he’s liable to break into song mid-improv… and he reckons the format is great for people who need to improve their theatre auditions.
Improv is something you need to be standing in the middle of to grasp the cues. As Kangas says, “it doesn’t travel well. You can film it, and put it online, and I could show it to you here, but a show done in Los Angeles might have cultural influences you can’t understand. The Harold is too complicated to learn in a weekend, so if an American were to come here and run workshops and say, ‘Here is the Harold, learn it, love it,’ and then they leave, people often decide that they don’t want to do it anymore because they don’t understand it well enough to keep it going. I think you need that immersion for over a year.”
The Improv Conspiracy run beginners’ workshops, but be warned, if you don’t want to wind up on stage performing in front of an audience, this isn’t for you. “The requirements to get into that are just show up,” says Kangas. “We’ll teach you the basics of how to improvise – not the format of what we do, but how to be a supportive person, how to help each other create good scenes that are hopefully enjoyable for you and the audience. And after you clear that, you can eventually have a teacher of that course say, OK you’re ready, then we teach you the format. Once you know the format, you’re doing shows. But even if you’re in the beginner class, you still get some stage time. It wouldn’t be during Fringe or Comedy Festival, but we have this variety night where there’s no threshold of skill, you can just come perform.”
If that sounds like a lot of pressure, McAteer assures us that experienced performers enjoy learning from newbs. “They learn how to listen to them and care for them. Inexperienced performers don’t drag experienced performers down and experienced performers always lift inexperienced performers up. In fact, we have a game called bad improviser, where you deliberately fail, and it’s up to the other person in the scene to support you and make it work anyway.”
Lastly, we have to know. Why the name ‘Harold’?
“The legend of this,” says Kangas, “is that the format was created in the late ’60s, and there was a scene in the Beatles movie Hard Day’s Night where George Harrison gets a hair cut. Someone asks him, ‘Oh, what do you call that?’ And he replies, ‘Arthur’. Apparently some hippies were in a band, they’d be improvising, and someone said, ‘Oh what should we call that?’ And someone else said, ‘Harold.’ I suppose the guy that invented it, Del Close, really ended up regretting keeping that name…”