What The Shard knows about the third beat of your Harold

Credit: Grant Ritchie via Unsplash

Third beat connections and callbacks are a trap.

A slick callback to a moment earlier in the show that perfectly ties together our different strands can be one fun way to end a show (there’s loads). Unfortunately, these are as rare as rocking-horse mud-pies.

More often, we force a callback too early, and don’t get the uproarious laughter and instant standing-O we were reaching for. Now we have to plough on with this third-beat scene we interrupted before it had a chance to be something. Then some callback bingo until the merciful soul on the tech-desk reaches for that most glorious of interventions: a pity blackout.

A Harold might be 25–30 mins long. The last time the audience saw a move can’t be long enough ago to be that impressed by it coming back. Audiences have longer memories than improvisers, since they have the considerable advantage of not having to actually do the Harold, be ‘in the moment’, conjure up a spacework coffee mug, edit the show etc etc. They remember when you entered as a waiter trying to sell a caravan during that really clear and connected break-up scene, and they don’t want to see it pump the breaks on another perfectly good scene again 6 minutes later.

Worst of all, the collective scrambled for a blackout-worthy callback often gets in the way of good scenework at the end of the show, the last impression we leave an audience.

You invested too much time and coins on courses to scramble for an early ending to every show. Furthermore, in a lot of theatres lights are in the hands of the heroes on the tech-desk, and they’ve got other things on their mind up there, cuing up the outro music and doing bits with the other performers sat next to them. Take responsibility for the content of your own show.

I promise you this: No non-improviser audience member ever came away thinking ‘why didn’t they connect the lawyer who only represents clowns to the lottery-winning pirate scene at the end, instead of that caravan-waiter?’. They’ll remember how they felt, and they’ll probably most remember how they felt at the end.

So what’s The Shard got to do it with it? Good Harolds, like good skyscrapers, are built on strong foundations, and are built patiently.

The Shard in London (3 years to build), starts from a wide base, tapers towards the top, but the sides never actually meet. In a Harold, our 3 strands might never meet either. But our second beats might have more in common with each other than our first, our third more in common with our first. If the third beats bring too much together too quickly, we don’t get a sweet open-air viewing platform on the top floor.

Or to get even funkier — think of this twisting beauty in Malmo, Sweden (4 years to build). Imagine a Harold that has independent strands that circle round the same theme, occasionally crossing as our tag moves, lines of dialogue or physical moves might repeat or respond to each other in unexpected ways. Coooollll.

Credit: Pierre Chatel Innocenti via Unsplash

So, how can my team end our show if not by a blackout after a triumphant callback?

  1. Try adjusting your default position going into the third-beat: Play as if there are no connections to be found, ready for three full scenes. If we get to the third strand without a blackout, then great — we’ve had three great third beats instead of one clumsy one. All three strands were created and played by the same set of improvisers. For a coherent team in charge of their show, these will relate enough to each other without forcing it.
  2. Have a high bar for callbacks: If you know what’s coming back at the start of the third beat, challenge yourself not to use it. It doesn’t belong in a scene we’re yet to discover. You already decided you were bringing back caravan-waiter after the second group game, didn’t you? Naughty. A shared moment of genuine discovery by improvisers and audience is the most fun we can have in any scene. The best callbacks are the ones we didn’t see coming until they happen.

Patient and committed scenework got you this far into the show, trust that it’ll see you home. Remember on a sunny day, you can see your house from the top of The Shard if you squint hard enough.

Shaun Lowthian is an improviser, actor and writer based in London. Performing and teaching with DNAYS, The Free Association & The Homunculus. shaunlowthian.com