There is a lot of talk on Tumblr in the last few days about Harold Auditions (I assume they’re happening in NY soon?). So as someone who watched literally thousands of people audition for UCBT NY Harold Teams over the last few years and as someone who can now speak frankly because I have nothing to do with auditions, I thought I’d throw in my two cents.
(NOTE: I have no knowledge of any changes Nate Dern has made to the audition process or how he personally approaches auditions. These thoughts are only based on my experiences.)
First let me state the obvious: there is no perfect way to audition 400-500 people for a Harold Team. But the same is true of all auditions. So what happens in the room is incredibly important, but it’s not the only factor. Your known body of work is also absolutely part of the equation. When Zach Woods goes into an audition for a movie now, do we assume the people looking at him pretend they don’t know his work on The Office or in In The Loop? Of course not! But that doesn’t mean he will be offered the part simply because they know his work. If that were the case, they wouldn’t need him to audition. It also doesn’t mean an unknown won’t get the part instead of Zach. The same is true for Harold auditions.
For the last few years, thanks to online class notes, I was able to see feedback from teachers on every single person who auditioned. And I always filled the room with teachers who taught a lot of classes with the hopes that someone would have at least some first- or secondhand personal experience with the people auditioning. LET ME BE CLEAR — there was NEVER a case where a person had a great audition and was penalized because of teacher comments. NEVER. It was exactly the opposite. Someone would have a not-so-great audition, I’d look at their comments, see that teachers rated them very strongly, and give them a second chance.
Why? Because I understood how important being on a Harold Team is for most of the people coming in that room. They deserved any benefit of the doubt I could give them. Of course, as with most auditions, most people do “okay” and their teacher comments are just “okay,” and that’s not good enough because there were 400-500 people auditioning and usually only 8-12 slots.
Wow! Think about that for a second. If 400 people audition and there are only 10 slots, that means you have a 2.5% chance of being put on a team. Yikes!
Now, there’s nothing you can do about your body of work during the audition. But if you haven’t devoted yourself to this artform in a very serious way, then you should probably adjust your expectations. When I was put on my first Harold Team, I was rehearsing three times a week (for three hours at a time), taking a class with Michael Delaney, performing at least once a week (and getting notes from a coach after most of those shows), watching ALL of Harold Night every week as well as tons of other improv, then going out and dissecting the performances I’d just seen with fellow improvisers to work the muscles of isolating game, heightening, etc.
I’m not saying you have to go to those extremes to be ready for a Harold Team. I’m saying you’re competing against people who have gone to those extremes.
But since the one thing you can control at the audition is what you do in the room, allow me to share some thoughts on that:
1. THEY WANT YOU TO SUCCEED. When you’ve been watching improv for seven hours straight, all you want is for a confident improviser to yes-and clearly, build a coherent scene with their partner, and create something delightful. Know that. The sincere desire of the people watching you is for you to KILL IT. How many times do you really get to perform for an audience that desperate for you to be great? I’d say probably never. So go in there confident and ready to give them what they want. They’re not looking to judge your every move. They want you to find a way to have fun so they can stop worrying about you and enjoy.
2. DON’T START A FIGHT. I can’t tell you how many scenes I watched that were just insanely boring fights right away.
PERSON 1: You stole my newspaper!!
PERSON 2: You’re a terrible roommate!!!!!!
Look, I know, when “young” improvisers panic they start fights because the rhythms of a fight are comfortable. But it’s terrible improv. Seriously — if you are still in the place in your improv where when you panic you immediately start a fight, you are not ready to be on a Harold Team. There is ALWAYS pressure on Harold Night. You have to be willing to trust the skills to carry you through.
3. YOUR ONLY JOB IS TO MAKE YOUR SCENE PARTNER LOOK GOOD. If it wouldn’t be annoying, I would write that over and over again 100 times. Before and after every audition, I’d hear excuses about crappy scene partners or bad warm-ups, etc. And that’s exactly what they were: excuses. This is improv. If you’re so great, then you should be able to improvise with anyone. Period.
I still remember vividly the first scene I did in my Harold audition. Our suggestion was “side of beef.” My scene partner initiated by punching the air, which he continued to do - violently, without acknowledging me - for the rest of the scene. He never spoke! He never made eye contact! So I did everything I could to make every single choice he had made look like exactly the right choice. Oh, in the back of my mind I was thinking, “What is he doing!? Why won’t he speak!?” But in that scene, I was the boxing coach who knew he was nervous about the big fight and I was going to get him prepped. And I tried to have fun with the fact that he wouldn’t acknowledge me by making it part of our game. Was it a great scene? Probably not. MOST IMPROV SCENES ARE NOT GREAT. And I don’t know for sure why I was called back, but I’d like to think it was because every single choice I made in that scene was in reaction to and in support of my scene partner.
You can’t control all the uncontrollable factors of an audition. So don’t worry about them. Just BE a good improviser. Listen. React. Support. Make bold choices. If you’re unsure of your ability to accomplish those goals, then you are not ready to be on a Harold Team. And that’s okay. Use the audition to get experience auditioning and have as much fun as you can. Who knows? You might get lucky!
I actually ended up doing the beats in my callback Harold with my future wife, so maybe you’ll get really lucky.