When I was first placed on the Harold team, Devil’s Daughter, I did not like the Harold. I thought the openings were stupid, pretentious, whooshy whooshy hogwash. The game slots were just people running around yelling, or worse—“Get in here, Eraserhead babies!” Okay that one’s actually good, but usually, they’re bad. The point is these parts of the form seemed perfunctory and boring.
Let me give an example of how a bad Harold opening goes. The audience gives the suggestion of “carnival”, and everyone rushes to be different parts of a carnival—the carnival barker, the guy throwing baseballs at a pyramid of cans, and so on. And you—panicking, searching for a place to fit in this chaos (all the best spots have been taken already!)—just curl up and become a trashcan. No one knows what you are though, so you say aloud to the audience and to yourself, “I’m a fucking trashcan.”
Or the audience suggests “astronomy”. Immediately, some genius stands in the middle of the stage and says, “A star burning at the center of the solar system.” And someone else starts circling them, saying, “A blue planet rotating around that star.” And someone else says, “A planet with rings rotating round that star.” And by now, you’re already so bored you can hardly breathe, but because it’s required, you mope onto the stage and, with a terrible sigh, say “A gas giant rotating around that star.”
This was my understanding of openings: a dull performance art slog till someone finally euthanizes the miserable thing by saying something like, “Now that’s what I call a hot dog!”
But then a couple months into being a team, we had a rehearsal in which our coach (at the time, it was Ryan Patrick Dolan) was running openings. I think I said something like, “This is boring! I hate openings and game slots! I was told if I got on a team, I’d get to walk onto other people’s scenes as a sex mannequin whenever I want!”
“Why do you think openings are boring?” he asked.
“I never know how to fit into it! Or if I do, it’s because they all came out as planets and then I gotta come out as a planet and it’s boring!”
He thought for a minute and said, “Well, how about instead of doing something boring, you do what you want to be doing.”
Sometimes a piece of advice unlocks way more than intended. I thought about this: do what you want to be doing. It suddenly clicked for me. I didn’t have to be another planet in the solar system. I could be a dead astronaut or a very big boy or I could zoom in on one of those planets to see the sick shit your dad is doing on Mercury. It put me in a different headspace.
There’s a way of thinking about improv—and art in general—in which you’re simply trying to do what you’re “supposed” to do. You often end up afraid to step out because you’re worried about “doing it wrong”. This comes from improv classes with a million rules: don’t go for laughs, don’t say “no”, don’t disagree. If you were in a painting class, the rules might be: don’t use this brush for trees, don’t paint a person green, don’t splatter on the canvas. But like with any art form, if you do what you want to be doing, you might have to break those rules--which were really just suggestions anyway.
After this rehearsal, I found I actually really enjoyed openings and game slots, and over time, we figured out exactly what kind of openings and games we liked to do as a team. We kept tinkering with the form to figure out what version of the Harold fit what we wanted to be doing onstage. And thank God because I wasn’t very good at the other version.
Our coach, James Dugan, sometimes side coaches by stopping a scene and asking, “Is this what you want to be doing?” It’s his way of giving the performer an opportunity to check in with themselves—Am I enjoying this? Is this actually what I want to be putting up in front of an audience?—and it’s much more positive than the alternative, which is: “What the fuck are you doing? Don’t do that.” But anyway, it’s good to ask yourself this question, whatever your art form. Just every once and awhile, check in with yourself and ask:
Is this what you want to be doing?
Or are you just doing it because it seems like what you’re supposed to do?
And beyond just improv, are you in a show or on a team because it’s what you want to be doing? Or because it’s just what’s conventionally seen as prestigious?
It’s a much healthier headspace to be in as a performer than constantly worrying about ruining the show or failing to live up to some imaginary expectations.
P.S. I should add one last thing before ending this blog post which is a very big caveat: if the “thing you want to be doing” is saying racist/sexist/homophobic shit or talking over people or walking onto every scene or treating people like garbage—then baby, you’re just an asshole, and that is not what I meant.
If there is one question that I have been asked more than anything else over the past 14 months it’s this: James, how can we know that you are wearing pants on this zoom call? But a close second to that question is:What is Chicago improv going to be like after the pandemic?