This year, inspired by Bill Arnett’s post about reading Richard Scarry books as Harolds, I started kicking off improv class with a picture book. My middle school students were, in theory, too old for picture books. (I’m not sure anyone’s too old for picture books, actually.) But starting class off with a picture book helped them all focused on the same thing and gave me useful shorthand to use in my side coaching.
The Book: Sandra Boynton’s Blue Hat, Green Hat
Improv relevance: Pattern-based games, heightening, pacing, rule of three (loosely), reincorporation
Follow up exercises: Anything pattern-based. There are eight thousand pattern games, and everyone’s version is wrong except yours, probably. That’s fine. Pick your favorite pattern warm-up, then try breaking the pattern on purpose. Incorporate building and breaking the pattern into openings, scenes, and games.
Shorthand I took: “Is this a hat or an oops?” (Did you step on stage to show us more examples of the same thing, or did you step on to change something?) “Look for the oops!” (Players on stage, heighten. Players off stage, get ready to edit.)
Each page has four animals, each wearing the same kind of clothing in different colors. The turkey is always last, and the turkey is always wearing the clothing wrong.
After we’ve seen this pattern three times, it speeds up. We see one animal wearing something, then the turkey’s “oops” right away.
We the clothing pattern six times before — finally! — the turkey gets it right. He’s wearing everything we’ve seen him mis-wear throughout the book, and he’s wearing it all at once. But then we see that he’s worn this outfit to a pool, when everyone else is in a swimsuit. Oops.
By the second page, the book has promised us that the turkey will always mess up. Establishing a pattern lets us vary, heighten, and eventually break the pattern.
I’m not sure that improv games — I mean particularly the organic, non-scenic pieces of a Harold — need to be any more complicated than that. Establish the pattern, speed up or heighten the pattern, break the pattern. As we get more adventurous, the patterns get more sophisticated and the variations get wilder, but it’s the same core idea.
As I said above, I followed this book up with pattern-based warm ups. I also led a Conducted Story inspired by the principles the students pulled from the book:
- Establish a pattern, then break it.
- Show something about three times, or show three versions of a thing.
- Stories feel over when something from earlier comes back at the end.
This gave us some of the best stories I’d seen so far from any group, kids or adults. Giving the students a framework made their stories more creative, not less. The players loved this exercise so much so much that they used a version of it, minus the conductor and plus some physicality, as their Harold opening.