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Triathlon is Harold

For this entry discussing connections between improvisation and IRONMAN(tm), imagine the improviser athlete's mind (mine) as an enormous cabaret theater. A Harold is being performed (actually several simultaneously, if it's my mind) to a Standing Room Only audience.


The audience is memories and ideas. There's a monkey section and a lizard section along with an Id, Ego and Super Ego. There are childhood memories and former lovers and a few scars (some physical, some emotional) and joyous accomplishments and hopes and a little math. Some lines from poems and Prince songs, and way too may lines from the Canadian power trio Triumph. They're all here to see an IRONMAN(tm) triathlon. Which, like the title says, is a Harold.


Any triathlete or aspiring triathlete has heard the myriad of voices in their mind with a variety of influence and a certain level of logic or irrationality operating at different, frequently changing, volumes that can sometimes even shift mid-thought.


Any improviser with any flight-hours whatsoever knows the basic Harold. The template that Del Close developed to get everybody, all the performers and all the audience, into the creative process has the simplicity of genius. And a tragic name.


Simple, yet genius

The Harold is a three act structure built on performers taking rotating turns doing scenes. Each "act" (aka: beat) has a transition/game phase separating the previous from the next.


The first three scenes after the opening are also referred to as the first beat, then the scenes after the 1st transition are the second beat. After the 2nd transition, the third beat.


A Harold starts with a suggestion from the audience. The suggestion informs the opening which generates ideas for the rest of the fully improvised piece. Harolds were originally intended to last about 45 minutes. Most Harolds performed at iO Chicago went about 20 minutes, although some went much longer. Hence, it's become the baseline structure for long-form improvisation. Here's the basic outline:


Opening (starts the show)

Scene 1A

Scene 1B

Scene 1C

Transition/game slot

Scene 2A

Scene 2B

Scene 2C

Transition/game slot

Scene 3A

Scene 3B

Scene 3C


[Note to improvisers: take it easy. Yes, it's oversimplified. Some people call it the "training wheels" Harold. Simmer down.]


The genius of a Harold comes from the power the performers have to create, develop and present the entire work, right in front of a live audience. Art by committee. This means everybody involved is responsible for everything that happens in the show. Everything.


Executionally, it means when playing a scene, each player accepts and adds to offers made in the scene. Even while watching a scene, players support and edit the scene as needed. This requires constant and sustained focus on what is happening in the moment. Play paranoid, Del would say. Pay attention to what is really going on (not just the superficial action, the implications), what is really being said (not just the words, the tone). React and respond honestly. Truth in comedy.


The art of it emerges many ways, including how the players use the suggestion (starting with the OPENING, then expanding upon it and applying ideas to scenes). Characters and plots develop and transform from scene 1A to 2A to 3A as well as the thematic connections between beats A and B and C.


In a Harold, all the players are simultaneously and collaboratively ALL directors, writers, actors, production designers, costumers, technicians, etc. In practice (always a great word, practice), this ensures that each and every Harold will be unique. Because getting from the Opening to the final scene is not linear, it's exploratory. Emergent.


Which leads us to third beats. The training wheels Harold outlined above is the basic form. Harolds at iO Chicago from 1981 to 2020 had evolved. Opening and first beat scenes were somewhat codified, but second beats and third beats were much more organic, less linear, more fluid. More on third beats below.


[Note to triathletes: be patient with the bing-bong insider theater lingo here, especially considering most triathlon lingo. Pot & kettle... stones & glass houses, y'know?]


The Harold generates fully realized theater pieces for live audiences by transparently presenting the creative process as artistic product. The influence on modern comedy, first via The Second City stages and then TV (for starters, Saturday Night Live), cable (Curb Your Enthusiasm) and movies (again just for starters, every Judd Apatow and most Seth Rogen movies) cannot be overstated. One could argue that the overwhelming majority of non-professional streaming content (and much of the professional) is improvised and therefore influenced by the Harold format.


Tragic Name

The story goes that on their way back from a San Francisco Harold performance in 1967, members of The Committee "were discussing the performance, when one of them asked what they should call it. Allaudin (Bill) Mathieu called out "Harold"--a joking sub-reference to a line in Hard Days Night--and the name stuck." (source: Wikipedia)


A Harold, like other transcendent artistic forms--haiku, sonnets, symphonies, pop music, etc.--provides just the right amount of structure to allow for enormous creative freedom.


Kind of genius, yes? Yes. With a shitty, diminished name, "Harold."


Harold as Triathlon

A Harold's three beat structure maps pretty directly to a triathlon.


Swim is first beat, Bike is second beat, run is third beat. Transitions between each.


Hard to get more structurally similar than that.


Improvisers could argue that Harold transitions, aka: "game slots," bear ZERO resemblance to triathlon T1 and T2 transitions. Absolutely right.


Whereas T1 and T2 transitions are literally designed for speed, Harold game slots are designed as a pause in the action to allow for more organic generation of more ideas that can be used to launch into the next beat.


However, in both Harolds and triathlons, the transitions serve as a break from previous action and provide the means (tools and energy) to launch into the next beat.


The Theater in the Triathletes Head

There are some other aspects of the "Harold as triathlon" analogy worth reiterating and some that invite a little deeper examination. It's worth reiterating that what makes for a good Harold performance also makes for good triathlon training/having a good triathlon:

  • Being fully focused in the moment. Rehashing past choices or attempting to completely anticipate and control all future choices? Wasted energy that serves to distract from the truly real of what is happening right now.

  • Each is unique. This works as a metaphor for every race day, every training plan, every training session, every human being. Together with being fully focused on the present, this can help relieve stress and lighten expectations.

  • Structure is important but not meant for slavish inflexibility. Again, this metaphor works on many levels. Make a plan but allow for possible changes when needed. Do what you can do when you can do it.

  • React and respond honestly. That's just good policy for life.

Some other aspects of this multi-layered analogy that might be worth considering a little more deeply are: the Opening and the ending (aka: third beat) and how they connect.


A Harold starts with getting a suggestion from the audience to launch the Opening. What if the suggestion is the "why" that sparks a persons desire to become a triathlete? To put it another way, the thing that comes out of the opening and drives the rest of the show is the triathlete's "why."


And if the "why" is what helps us train to get to the end of the triathlon, the way to the end is in the beginning. Maybe that means the last few miles of an IRONMAN(tm) triathlon is the end of the third beat. Finishing the run is the culmination of the "why," an expression of anything and everything that emerged from training woven together to get to the end, the finishing chute.


By now you might have guessed that I came up with this whole analogy in the somewhat off balance mental state (from low electrolytes and slightly altered brain chemistry) that takes place around Mile 20 of the IRONMAN(tm) marathon.


Risking Failure

Harold player or triathlete or both, the performer risks failure. After all, what emerges from playing a Harold will be unique and impossible to predict from the audience suggestion, just as what emerges from triathlon training will be unique and impossible to predict from somebody's "why."


Nevertheless, the "why" kicks things off using proven principles to follow, and an established form to provide structure. Your results will vary.


My "why" (be the absolute best version of myself) helps me continue to train and complete triathlons. It led me to coaching. It helped me deal with the shitstorm that 2020 rained down on racing and coaching. It also led me to revitalize my joy and admiration of my heroes: Viola Spolin, Mick Napier, Susan Messing, Del Close--NONE of whom ever pondered triathlon, I daresay. At my life-stage, professional development and personal growth, I'm probably somewhere between the second and third beat... yet my "why" remains the same.


Do I have it all figured out? Clearly not. But I'm fully present and open to what is emerging.


Triathletes curious about a Harold OR an improvisers interested in triathlon OR any combination thereof, let's talk.

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