Shoving Harold Into High Gear
shove the long-form improvisations known as “Harolds” into a higher gear.
In a Shoves show, you might see a man who tried to push someone off a ledge
repeatedly instead fall off himself. A totally insane boss might invite you to
walk “the fine line between eccentricity and insanity” with her. The whole world
may transform into one where all events inevitably take twists like those in
Hitchcock movies. One monkey might get jealous of another for evolving before he
can. And it may be revealed that the president started the Iraq war because he’s
turned on by the sight of protestors outside the White House.
The Harold form can seem unclear to the uninitiated, but for those in the know,
the Shoves, while following the conventions of returning to scenes and
characters over the course of a 30-minute performance, adeptly incorporate
references and never miss a step.
Formed in October 2004, the Shoves are about two-thirds of a prior troupe housed
at the Upright Citizens Brigade theatre, Dillinger, and one-third of another
troupe, Police Chief Rumble. Ex-Dillingers Zach Woods, Erik Tanouye, Brett
Christensen, Risa Sang-urai, Sarah Burns and Lennon Parham joined ex-Rumblers
Angeliki George, Bobby Moynihan and Charlie Sanders.
Since they formed, the Shoves have grown into the must-see group at the UCB’s
Tuesday night “Harold” shows. The level that the Shoves have reached, however,
is harder to create than it looks, members of the group explain.
If a scene isn’t going anywhere, Zach says, “we can recognize that sooner than
the audience and do something before that becomes to clear to everyone.” That
could include someone jumping in as a new character or otherwise altering or
adding something to the scene so it does say something.
In the group’s effort to continually improve its improvisational skill, they
work with Peter Gwinn, a performer from Chicago who has authored books on improv,
and now is based in New York. “He has really helped us to see the Harold as a
whole structure, from suggestion to opening to connections,” says Brett.
References to all things cultural are often handy fodder used by many improv
groups, but part of the Shoves appeal is their aptitude in deploying such
references. Zach and Lennon credit Erik with the most encyclopedic knowledge
that feeds their shows. “We’re all in similar generations in our cultural
knowledge,” says Erik. “But we overlap enough to get each other. … Hopefully the
show is still entertaining even if you don’t know the references. They’re based
in stories that people can understand.”
Erik goes on to say that he will watch TV shows that are outside his interests
for the very purpose of getting fodder for the group’s performances. Zach adds,
“We can say something and make it look like the tip of the iceberg of what we
know, even if that’s all we know about it.” Erik explains, “We had ‘Rap Math’
and I used the only Jay Z lyric I know.” Charlie sums up, “The cool part is
we’re everyone’s total intelligence put together.”
Shoves’ members know they’re on to something good with this group. “It’s not
that our brains are any quicker,” says Risa. “It’s that everyone is more willing
to trust each other.”