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Searching for Harold

Illustration by Rick Sealock

I signed up for an improv class — as in improvisational comedy. Why? Because this is my Fear Factor. I’d rather eat slugs while jumping off a building in a Plexiglas box of water than stand on a stage and talk in front of people.

“Oh, it’ll be fun,” everybody reassures me. “You’ll learn new things about yourself.” “Your inner performer will come out!”

My inner heckler just snorts at that one.

The Improv Olympic West Training Center — the name invokes Andy Dick as an SS officer — caters mainly to actors but also to non-performers who want to “explore dangerous territory in a supportive environment.”

Let the danger begin.

Three Hundred and Fifteen Dollars Later . . .

You enter the Black Box Theater through a discreet doorway a half block down Cosmo Street. Sixteen of us sit on chairs in the square black room, leafing through Truth in Comedy, “the manual of improvisation” written by I.O. founders Charna Halpern, Del Close and Kim “Howard” Johnson. It’s the only required reading for the class and features testimonials from John Belushi, Gilda Radner and Chris Farley, along with other famous funny people who aren’t dead. The book covers the building blocks of performing “the Harold,” a long-form improv game invented by Halpern and Close.

At this point, I’m not sure what the Harold is, but I have seen more than a few episodes of Whose Line Is It, Anyway? and can throw out non sequiturs from the couch that are just as zany as Drew Carey’s.

Our teacher, Jeff (real name: Paul Vallaincourt, but let’s just call him Jeff to protect his identity), has the affable looks of a cuddlier Nicolas Cage. Tattooed up one forearm are Chinese characters that must be some Zen saying related to improv that probably means “I [Heart] Del Close” — who’s considered kind of an improv deity, by the way.

The other students in the class, mostly 20-somethings, are all actors, except for one woman who has quit her corporate job to try something new. A few have experience with Improv Olympic in Chicago and other groups in Boston, another hotbed of spontaneous theater. The magic word among them is “Emerson,” the Beantown college name they drop the way would-be novelists mention “Iowa Writers Workshop.” Jeff asks us to say our names and tell why we’re taking the class. Now, if we were any other group of strangers in a classlike setting, this would take no more than several minutes total. But this is not just any group of strangers. These handsome humans are actors. They don’t just proclaim, “My name is Sandy, and I thought it would be fun.” They share their emotional back stories: “When I was 2, I used to give soliloquies from my crib; it was then my mother knew performing was my calling.” One spritelike woman tells about her day job as manager of “one of the best restaurants in Los Angeles” and how she gave up acting but recently came to the realization that she can no longer stay away from performing, and relates a very long, very detailed story about an incident at work. Her story isn’t terribly interesting, but her delivery could make Vanessa Redgrave weep.

With introductions over, Jeff commands us to hop onstage, which is actually just a wooden floor, so at least I don’t have to worry about falling off and improvising what a broken arm feels like. I realize that the last time I was on a stage was to accept my high school diploma, which still bears the stains from my sweaty palms.

Jeff starts us off with a warm-up called “scrambling,” which is just like it sounds. The actors, who are used to — and adore — being onstage, have an advantage over me, but I scurry in random circular patterns like a pro. Next is “Pass the Clap,” an exercise where we stand in a circle and, using eye contact to determine the recipient, clap hands simultaneously with that person. It has to do with alertness, so that you know when you are being addressed in a scene, I think.

It’s Tuesday and I Suck

By the second week, the one student older than me is no longer in the class. I am now the Methuselah of Level 1.

We do several rounds of “It’s Tuesday, and . . .” This two-person scene game starts off with somebody completing the phrase, and then the partner repeats the last part of the line. The goal is to reveal the relationship between you and your partner. The goal is not to be funny. In fact, improv, I quickly learn, is not about being funny. This comes as a surprise to me. Jokes can kill a scene, Jeff tells us. Funny, he promises, is what comes out of the relationship that you develop in the scene. This is the first of many times we will be told improv’s no-no’s, which include talking about the future or past, denying what your partner says, and simply listing things.

One of the keys to successful improv is giving your partner “gifts.” Rather than say something like “It’s Tuesday, and I’m going to the store,” you’re better with “It’s Tuesday, and you’re a conceited jerk.” Since you’ve called your partner a conceited jerk, he now has something concrete to work with. That is a gift to him; he can and should take off on being a conceited jerk. Simple.

When it’s my turn, I boldly start the game: “It’s Tuesday,” I announce, “and I am going to get my gun.”

I think this a provocative line to start an improv scene.

I am wrong. For a myriad of reasons. I talked about doing something rather than what’s going on between the two of us. Did I mention there are a lot of “don’ts” in improv?

Yeah, But Did Marcel Marceau Chop Carrots Like This?

Today I learn what separates actor types from the rest of us. Case in point: The tall, thin blond in a belly-revealing “Hello Titty” T-shirt gets chilly. She puts on her sweater. The sweater is cropped as short as the T-shirt, thus exposing the same area of her impossibly flat stomach.

We add “activity” to our scenes, meaning we have to do something other than just stand there. Jeff tells us it doesn’t matter what activity we choose; we’re just trying to make the scene livelier. I panic a tad, since I was not told there would be mime. Most of the actor students, of course, have this activity stuff down. Some pretend to intricately style hair, others mock working out at the gym or dancing. What do I do? I chop carrots. And occasionally stop to stir a pot of something. Stirring is easier, so I do that a lot.

But no matter what the activity or environment, improv is about relationships between scene partners. “Two people in hell,” Jeff tells us, “should not be just about the scene but about the relationship.” I enjoy imagining Hello Titty girl on an Arctic plain.

In one scene, my partner and I are told that we are at a bowling alley. I am focused on giving my partner a gift. So I tell him, “You’re so defensive,” which I think is a good one, since he can now act superduper defensive, and Jeff will reward us by telling us we did something right. My partner, an actor who resembles a young Al Pacino or an old Andy Garcia, but is even better looking, doesn’t respond to my gift at all, and the scene dies.

I give and I give and I give — and what do I get? Nada. I can’t work with these people!

Buns ’n’ Lust

In Week 5, we do scenes called “Start in One Emotion, End in Another.” I am assigned “gloomy to lusty,” and we are supposed to be at a backyard barbecue. I do “gloomy” with woeful abandon. “Everything is black and rotting,” I whine as I pretend to flip burgers. “These hot dogs fill my soul with sadness.” This is fun. But now I am supposed to gradually turn “lusty,” which I find much harder. Suddenly, for some mysterious reason, I tell my partner we should go to Chippendale’s, which I somehow associate with lust. After the painful scene ends, I want to shoot myself for not using something about hamburger buns to make my transition to lusty. That would have been a natural! But that’s the thing about improv — anybody can be a Monday-morning improv quarterback.

Later, in another scene, my partner — an actress who had a part in Old School — plays a customer in a hurry to my slow-moving store clerk. She is so convincing at being in a rush that I actually just insist she leave the store, and I end the scene abruptly. I stop myself from applauding her performance.

You’ll Never Improv in This Town Again

Everything I improv turns to fake crap on Week 6. First, we do scenes called “Touch To Talk,” where you have to touch your partner in some way before you say a line. Everybody softly taps shoulders or cheerfully socks arms. I decide to be different, dammit. I start my scene by poking my partner in the belly, as if to tickle her. Then I do “got your nose!” — the way you fool around with a toddler. She takes my cue and plays along in the role of a giggly child, and I congratulate myself for my improvised creativity.

Jeff: “Okay, the problem is when you have a scene with a child, the child can only make childlike choices.” Children in improv are a no-no. Jeff goes on to explain that drunk, crazy and stoned people are also no-nos if they are so drunk/crazy/stoned that they can’t make adult choices. My bad No. 1.

My bad No. 2 comes when we are told to give monologues based on a suggestion. The monologues will provide the inspirations for subsequent scenes, “if this was a real Harold.” I get “The News,” so I tell a story about watching the news after 9/11.

Jeff: “If this was a real Harold, we probably wouldn’t use this monologue, because there’s nothing funny about 9/11.”

My bad No. 3 comes at the end of the class, when Jeff gives us all notes on today’s work. Most students get comments like “Don’t be afraid to fail bigger.” To me, he presses his two index fingers against his chin and says, “Libby, try not to rock back and forth from foot to foot. Your nervousness is making us nervous watching you.” Ouch.

Bleeding for My Art

I have my first improv injury in Week 7! Two scratches down my right forearm. It happens after the suggestion “chinchilla.” “How do you like my new coat?” I begin. “It took 42 chinchillas to make.” This establishes my character as a fur-wearing elitist bitch, and it even gets me a laugh. My partner, Miss Hello Titty, plays an animal-rights activist and pretends to rip off my coat, which I am stroking like a chinchilla believer. Scratches ensue. I rush home after class to treat the wound with peroxide. You never know where these actors have been.

Who Do You Think You Are, Anyway?

“If you quit, I won’t have anyone to abuse. You’re the worst one on the team.”

No, that’s not Jeff humiliating me, but my partner to me in one of my finest scenes. The suggestion is “soccer,” and he’s my coach berating me. I respond with how I’d much rather be at ballet class than soccer practice, but I can’t help feeling that his line is the real truth.

After the last class, I press Jeff to give me a grade, even though that’s not done. He gently tells me that if he were grading us by improvement, “taking into account the skills and experience you came in with, I would most certainly give you an ‘A.’ Your comfort level onstage, your command of the techniques, your overall performance ability, improved by leaps and bounds,” he explains. “Compared to other improvisers, I’d give you a ‘C.’ In the biggest picture, I don’t know that anyone coming out of Level 1 is really performance-ready.”

By the end of the class, we have yet to actually perform a Harold. Level 1, Jeff explains, is all about learning to do scenes. If we sign up for Level 2, we will learn how to connect scenes. Some time and money shelled out later, I presume, we may even perform a Harold, but I think I’ll leave the big H to the star kids.