Marching vs Dancing

The following was written by Chad Haught, DCH's training center director and overall swell guy.  Chad HaughtI have students ask me the question, "So am I supposed to follow the rules in a scene or not?" all the time, so I wanted to clarify a few things.

We instructors spend a lot of time contradicting each other. You'll take one workshop or class where you'll hear, "Don't ask questions," "Be specific," or "Stop saying no," then you'll take another workshop where you'll hear, "Screw the rules!" or "Don't restrict yourself!" Ahhh! On behalf of instructors everywhere, I'm sorry.

We all have the same goal in mind (for the most part). We all want you to dance. We want you to play in the moment without worrying about who is what status or how specific a location is we're in. The last thing improvisation needs to be is a march. A rule-guided, restrictive, specific, straight-lined, inside-of-a-box march. Unfortunately, it’s kind of how we have to teach this stuff.

I write this because I used to get so confused. In college, we self-taught ourselves improv games. Then we discovered a wonderful book, Truth in Comedy that opened a whole new world to us. We started taking trips to IO in Chicago to take workshops from the writers of this amazing book, and we successfully learned how to build a scene out of nothing by establishing what was necessary. But then I went to an improv festival and took a workshop from someone who basically said, "None of that matters!" and I was thrown for an absolute loop. I remember asking a guy in the class that I knew was a student at IO what he thought about this workshop, because it directly contradicted the teaching he (and I) learned. He jokingly said the instructor was crazy and mimed dousing the place in gasoline, saying we had to get out of there or we'd ruin our improvs. His spacework was amazing.

I write this because while this instructor contradicted everything I had been taught, he made sense. He was right.

So now what? Was he right, or were the others correct? Both. Learn how to march. I preach a lot to new students about making high percentage choices. Start that scene with a statement, not a question. Or add an action, (OH THAT’S BONUS!) Better yet, be doing something but don’t talk about what you’re doing, manage the relationship. That’s rich stuff! All I’m teaching is how to march. Boring. But SO necessary. Learn those rules. Know how to make the choice that will benefit everyone and that’s chalked full of information or motivation. Oh, but do it with an economy of words -- we don’t want to hear you blather on while your scene partner stands there staring at you wondering when they’ll get the opportunity to speak.

Now go back and look at that paragraph. How many things did I tell you to do. A lot. And who wants to follow a bunch of orders? Not me. I just want to play and have fun.

Then there’s the fact that even if you’re following all these rules and making all the high percentage choices it could still lack entertainment value. WHAT? Why? Because you’re marching. You’re following orders. You’re checking off a process list. Gross. If you’re not freeing yourself up to have fun, I don’t care how many boxes you’ve checked off, your audience doesn’t care.

Now what? Kill myself? NO!

Once you know how to march, you can successfully dance. And when you dance, this stuff is amazing. When you’re dancing, you can break those rules and still have a blast, you can have an argument with your scene partner and it will be hilarious. You can appear to walk thru the back of a car someone established earlier and your justification will bring down the house.

But Chad, how do I dance? Thanks for asking. Once you’ve learned all these rules, know how to successfully start a scene and providing the who, what, where is second nature, just allow yourself have have fun. Allow yourself. That’s something you have to do. How do you play that crazy character? I allowed myself to not care if I fail or make a fool out of myself. For me, this stuff went from a list of rules to (as Mick Napier once told me) “the least important thing I’ll ever do” -- as statement, that was both a travesty and the most freeing thing I ever learned.

The bottom line is you have to work. Cram all this knowledge in and go thru the repetitions. Read books on this stuff. Watch shows. Check out videos on the Internet. Be in love with improv. Time spent inhaling improv comedy is flipping switches in your brain that’s allowing all that marching we’ve taught you to flow thru your subconscious and make sense as you apply it on stage (dancing).

So the next time you hear an instructor say, “Learn these rules” or “Screw the rules!” just know that they’re both right. Learn to march so you can find the freedom to dance.

Q&A With Harold Teacher Tim Yager

Del Close is a genius. Or a jerk. Depends on who's telling the tale. What's undeniable, though, is that he created an improv form that's continually talked about and performed: The Harold. Tim YagerWe here are offering a special advanced class on The Harold. And to you get you excited about it, we asked teacher Tim Yager about the course, the form, and his experience with it.

How long have you been performing The Harold? How did you get interested in it?

I was learning or performing The Harold for most of my three years in Chicago. I went through the training center at the iO (formerly Improv Olympic) where The Harold is their signature form put together by the crazed and allured Del Close. When I moved back to Dallas, I got involved with DCH's FIAD, which was coached by my buddy Cody Dearing. I got interested in The Harold when I read about it in Truth in Comedy while I was taking classes at 4 Day Weekend in 2004.

What makes The Harold unique to improv?

Probably the fact that it's so fucking hard. It's incredibly simple to screw up and difficult to master. Its success is due in part to what improvisers call group mind. It does have a structure to it, but that can be messed with. Ultimately it depends on everyone in the group being on the same page, and that ain't easy.

Aside from that, I'd have to say the group games set it apart from other forms. There's a group opening at the top and then group games throughout, articulating each "movement" of the piece. People either love 'em or hate 'em, but it's definitely a big part of what makes Harold unique as most forms don't incorporate these unless they happen organically.

What skills from The Harold can performers learn that they can apply to other forms of improv?

This is precisely what I love about The Harold: it's an amalgamation of everything you've ever learned in improv and then some.

Probably the biggest skill one has to hone is listening. Loads of people think they listen, but for Harold to work, everyone has to be listening extremely carefully--superhuman listening. Listening for small bits of information, understanding deeper meanings behind initiations, watching for some interesting physicality or sound and having the gumption to bring things back.

The second biggest skill is: TAKE A FUCKING RISK!

Both of those will go a long way in any show you're doing.

Who are some Harold troupes that you recommend as great examples of the form?

The Reckoning, hands down. Carl & The Passions, Bullet Lounge, Cook County Social Club and Revolver. All Chicago teams at iO.

The Reckoning is truly inspirational to watch when they're all together, or even when they're not. They elevated the form and really enjoy fucking with it, making it their own.

What's the most difficult thing about the form and how do you overcome it?

For me, it was thinking thematically. Harold is a form that strives to find meaning in the suggestion. If the suggestion is monkey, we don't want to see a boatload of scenes about monkeys, we want to see scenes about evolution, animal testing or being 96 percent identical to some superior person and just not quite being "good enough." It's about taking an idea and exploding outward. To overcome that, you have to train your brain to be thinking this way. Luckily, it already does this, but we have to train it to be even more alert.

For others that I've taught Harold to, I feel like their biggest hang-ups are understanding that the structure of Harold is malleable and not as rigid as they think. Often people will be on the sidelines wondering what part of the show we're in and not paying attention to what's happening in that moment.

Thank you, Tim, for taking the time to answer our questions. Registration is still open for The Harold course for improvisers who have graduated from the DCH Training Center. The seven-week, three-hour course begins this Saturday, January 7, at 4:30 p.m.

Funny Business

Comedy is never relegated to just clubs, TV or cats. It can be a part of a business, too, and a recent Inc. article by Steve Cody explains how it can help people be better leaders.

Did you know that 81 percent of respondents in a poll of Fortune's "most admired" companies said they worked in a fun environment? What about that 75 percent of respondents to a Society of Human Resource Management poll believe companies that promote fun at work are more effective than those who don't? What about—hold onto your hats—that nearly two-thirds of workers polled by Robert Half said it's very important for managers to possess a sense of humor?

The article is a great read and one I suggest sending to your boss (unless your boss is Will Ferrell; he's got funny locked up).

Another thing you can send to your boss or HR department is information about our corporate training program. We can teach you, your boss and everyone in between the basics of improv and comedy so that all will listen better, treat every kinder and pretty much be bad asses. It'll definitely be more fun than climbing ropes or Hawaiian shirt day.