Brainstorming Conversations, and the deal with Harold openings

Recently in a (non-iO) class I was told that the opening and games in an iO style Harold are intended to be a theatrical version of a brainstorming conversation.

Of course, in practice a typical iO Harold opening looks and sounds like a bad children’s show version of the Invocation. I’ve had players, both highly experienced and not so experienced, tell me over time that they find most iO Harold openings lacking, because of the default to this presentationally playful but otherwise banal version of the Harold opening.

Personally, I got used to seeing these Harold openings and didn’t think much of it, figuring iO Harold teams were told to do it specifically that way. But now that people bring it up, I see that a) no, they have the option of doing it differently yet b) choose to make this detrimentally default choice.


Why does it happen? Well, having seen quite a few Harold shows, I do vividly recall one key recurring factor: The opening music, regardless of which musician is playing, always tends toward this tinkly, childlike, Mister Rogers Neighborhood quality, which lends itself to the players on stage sliding into that child-style group game.

It would be very hard for the improvisers to do a more adventurous or otherwise divergent opening against that music. In fact, it would essentially be a denial of that musical initiation… even though the musical initiation has the problem of being pretty much the same exact initiation every time!

While I can understand the intent of playing that style of music, to avoid a darker or overtly serious opening that might take the audience out of their enjoyment or sap their energy level… the tone the current default sets also cuts off a myriad of other useful and interesting choices that could easily engage and entertain the audience.

I can also see wanting to avoid forcing a stylistic choice on the team by playing a stylistic musical riff. But the incumbent music ends up forcing a stylistic choice on the team’s opening anyway!

I realize I’m not a musician. But in Seattle, the improvised music (often on a keyboard or piano, just like iO and most Chicago theatres) sported a wider variety of musical styles and sounds. So it’s certainly possible to give Harold teams a greater variety of style and sound in opening music choices. I trust that the musicians here are capable of playing in many styles, and themselves are operating mainly out of habit.

I don’t think silence or otherwise eschewing the musician is necessarily the best alternative. Some non-iO houses do open sets without a musician, and many of these shows are great. But I do believe the musician’s input can add a lot of texture, environment and other value to the set if said musician is available. It only appears that input needs to have more variety.


In any case, regardless of the music, the bigger issue is that Harold teams tend to do the same half-baked opening, and then use that same approach for the group games… when they have the option and opportunity to do something more contextual and creative. The music is only one factor in why teams default to the same sort of choices every time.

It’s also hard to initiate a group choice players aren’t used to making, to quickly get everyone on the same page. I can see groups doing the same thing simply because everyone will immediately know what to do, whereas trying to quickly do, say, snap monologues or improvise a talk show or something else makes it harder for everyone to quickly get on board and yes-and the opener or game.

However! The statement I opened with sheds some light. The opening and games in a Harold are intended to be a theatrical version of a brainstorming conversation. A brainstorming conversation. You take the suggestion and everyone, as theatrically as truthfully possible, bounces ideas derivative of that suggestion around until everyone feels good about starting a two person scene and taking off from there.

What if the players saw it as, and made it, that sort of creative yet truthful conversation? The child’s fever dream that opens most Harolds isn’t much of a sincere conversation. Everyone’s indicating and bullshit play acting. Truth in Comedy is iO’s goal, but there’s little truth or comedy in the conventional Harold opening.

As George Lewis would tell us in clown training, the harder you try to “be funny”, the less funny you are. Original and truthful is different, and probably will not only be funny but give the team more material from which to create scenes.

What if groups tried making the opening and games more of a conversation? For example, start by flocking into a couple groups through matching, and then having a group on group conversation, giving, taking, breaking and reforming as needed to bounce the idea around? Or someone initiating an actually crazy idea, and everyone yes-ands that? Or both?

That’s just an idea. I’m not saying I have the solution to Harold openings and games. I just know what we usually get is a half-baked solution that can easily be displaced and improved upon, until someday the sort of opening we see all the time today becomes a contextually original solution to someone’s set, instead of the same shit everyone does.


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