Howard Jerome is one of improv’s unsung heroes. With David Shepherd, he co-created the Improv Olympics, which premiered at the Space for Innovative Development in New York in 1972. Howard and David brought the format to Toronto in 1974, where they participated in Homemade Theatre’s annual Improv Festival. Larry Mollin, the artistic director of the festival and his company, overhauled the Improv Olympics, making it more theatrical and sports-like, with professional and non-professional leagues. With Willie Wyllie, who participated in the festival with his high school team Stage Fright (which Howard coached), Howard co-created the Canadian Improv Games in 1977, where he now carries the title of “Old Man Improv.”
His association with David Shepherd began in 1971 when Howard responded to an ad in the NY Post placed by David looking for "community makers to correct ailing communities." Together, the two collaborated on how to build a community out of improvisation, leading to the formation of their non-profit organization, Community Makers. As the two explored improv as a peoples theatre, gathering interest from other performers, Community Makers became Group Creativity Projects. Under the banner of their new organization, the Responsive Scene, the precursor of the Improv Olympics, premiered in 1972 - first as a stage show (with the audience participating as writers, directors and actors) and later as a summer radio series on WRVR-FM in New York. Howard is also a recognizable character actor, appearing in films such as Barney’s Version, Lucky Number Sleven, Naked Lunch and Canadian TV shows such as Puppets Who Kill, Across the River to Motor City and the animated series Almost Naked Animals.
This interview was conducted in 2004, as part of a proposed book on the history of the Improvisation Olympics. The project never got off the ground, but I felt that the insights Howard provided here should be shared with the improv community.
Michael: How do you see the connection between a sports event and an Improv Olympics match?
Howard: There’s a spectacle aspect to the match. An unpredictability. You really didn’t know what was going to happen. Whether it was going to be good or not. And that was kind of an exciting thing. And there was always the influence of the fans. In some way or another. Laughing, booing. To urge or to purge. Whatever. (Howard looks through an original 1972 program for the Improvisation Olympics – a match between his team “Jerome’s Bombers” and David’s “Soul All Stars”) “The SOULS limited the time on camera of their strongest player, Shepherd, who was not playing to win!” Just re- reading this makes me laugh.
|Howard with his Improv Olympics team, 1972.|
Michael: I guess the similarity you have with the Homemade Theatre is that in the beginning at the Space For Innovative Development, the matches were played by professional actors.
Howard: Yeah – the first of us were professional actors, or aspiring actors, in one way or another. All of us.
Michael: It seems to me that what you did at the Space for Innovative Development, was a continuation of the work from the Responsive Scene stage (and later) radio show.
|David Shepherd (center) and Howard (far right) in the Responsive Scene stage show, 1972.|
Howard: We were more interested then in human nature than in human creativity. The games have gone into the realm of creativity for creativity’s sake. Which is pretty much what happened in Canada. There isn’t much need for story, story, story. Although, some wonderful stories do get told.
Michael: How have you trained for the Improv Olympics? Was training useful?
Howard: I’m an ex-jock. So training for me is wonderful. In fact, I was always a better player in training than in playing. I really like the discipline of it. The testing of yourself in training. I love it. So for me, I like working out with improv stuff. Stretch physically and emotionally. If I had to be specific about the exercises – I’ve done so many that I can’t remember which teacher I learned them from. So for me, the training kind of blends into one another. In warm-ups, I think we did “Sound and Movement” bringing how you feel – a sound of how you feel and adding a movement to it. Then giving it to someone, who transforms it into what they’re feeling and how to move with it. So there were physical things – I remember doing warm-ups where you move energy – pushing energy around. Another warm-up was the transforming thing – where you transform things in space. Objects, scenes.
Michael: I remember warming up with a lot of Spolin games. Like the Orientation game, where one player comes in and starts an activity. Another comes in and adds something to the activity. The third player comes on and says something which establishes where the players are.
Howard: Right. Building of where games. Filling the space. Sounds. I think we made sounds together – weird sounds. And gibberish. I just saw Cirque du Soleil – a lot of gibberish was used there.
Michael: It was funny that Larry Mollin mentioned using the antiquated quarter inch reel to reel video. That was the first thing that I remembered about the matches at the Space for Innovative Development. Taping the matches, then watching them afterwards.
|A 15 year old Michael Golding taping the Improv Olympics at the Space for Innovative Development, 1973.|
Howard: It was so exciting because it felt like we had broken the hold of the TV creators. Suddenly we had the cameras. We could say or do anything. We could make our own shows. It was a revolutionary activity. It was so exciting. I’m gonna be on television, mom!
Michael: The Space for Innovative Development was an exciting place because so much was going on there in all the various rooms. Vivica Lindfors was doing her one woman show. There was a dance company in another studio. Musicians.
Howard: The whole place was filled with creative talent. The Nicoli Dancers were there. The Chicago Project. The Murray Lewis Dance Company. The Multi Gravitational Dance Company. The Video Pirates. A building filled with cross creativity.
Michael: I always had the feeling that we weren’t suppose to be there. That a corrupt janitor would let us in when no one was looking. "Don’t make any noise and clean up after yourselves!"
What’s your favorite event? Describe a scene that it generated.
Howard: Emotional Hurdles are always interesting, regardless of how you go from emotion to emotion. There’s a scene I remember that we did in jail – the emotions were in a group scene. Go from anger to joy. Be genuine with both. A card game was going on, someone was accused of cheating. A fight breaks out. Things got very serious very fast. Screaming, yelling. Then guards come running in with Billy-clubs out ready to stop the impending riot only to discover that we were just role-playing. And that’s when things switched to joy – the inmates laughing at the guards who thought this was real. The role-play was so real the guards believed it. That was wonderful emotion jumping that was influenced by something that happened outside. It provoked such joy with the inmates. They laughed and laughed. Free and loose. Free and loose. I like emotional stuff. Jumping through space was always interesting. Physical things. Continuing a scene or a relationship or dialog through a variety of spaces. Have a scene develop from a bar to a kitchen to the bedroom. Three locations that influences what happens. You don’t talk about the space other than what you have to.
Various kinds of work-outs with sound and movement fascinated me. One I recall, I can’t remember where it came from, you know how some people are led around by their groins, others by their stomachs, elbow, left foot. When you put that in your body interesting, bazaar characters emerge. Strange stuff. Shadowing a mirror with each other was another game I liked.
|Training a team of inmates for the Improv Olympics, 1972.|
Michael: Propose a new event bringing a new skill.
Howard: Well, for me it has to do with peace. I don’t care if you want to call it a scene or a story, or something, but each team has got to do something about peace.
Michael: The Peace Event.
Howard: The Peace Event.
Michael: Suggest an affinity group that could be comfortable and do well in the Improv Olympics. In this case, I think David would add in parenthesis “With the exception of professional actors.”
Howard: (laughing) Right. Well, the work we did in industry. When we took improvisational stuff into corporations and having people for various lengths of times, giving them improvisational skills, learning some games and then exploring issues within the company. Like, “These two managers don’t get along.” or “This guy isn’t pulling his weight.” It had a functional purpose in a corporate setting, exploring relevant issues in a creative way.
Michael: Aside from playing and coaching, what other functions matter in tournament play?
Howard: Well, David taught me really basic kind of stuff. You should be able to be seen and heard. And we found that out in Washington Square Park where no one could see us or hear us. We turned over a garbage can, I climbed on top of it, and suddenly people could hear and see us . Lo and behold the show could start. There was focus. There’s all the logistical things – you know this. Does anyone have a three prong adapter?
Michael: That’s what David taught me. You should always give everyone in your group a job – it keeps them connected. Like, someone is responsible for setting up the space, another to bring refreshments, someone brings in a sound effects tape, stuff like that. Otherwise you’re doing all the administrative stuff yourself and can’t concentrate fully on the play.
Howard: He’s absolutely right. So the co-creativity goes into co-productivity as much as possible. Everybody is a co-producer in whatever way they can.
Howard: It didn’t often happen enough that way, and it still doesn’t happen enough that way. We always end up schlepping more than we have to.
|Howard Jerome, David Shepherd & Michael Golding at the 2002 Canadian Improv Games.|
Michael: How important is scene-to-scene scoring?
Howard: Everybody has a different opinion on it. For me, I think the scoring is more like professional wrestling. It’s only there for show. And, it doesn’t really matter to me who wins or loses. It’s only a show. As an audience member I didn’t really care about the competitive element, as long as the show was good. I always felt that was the important thing. So the element of win/lose was moot. That being said – I’m a very competitive guy. I love putting out the best I can. Being inspired to go further than what I’ve just seen on stage. I’m very highly competitive in that way. It’s like “Damn, Michael. That was good! Now, watch this!” That’s the attitude I go into my work with. I want to be on top of my game. I want to be as creative and inventive as I can. Not to vanquish the other players. Just to be in the zone. Get in the flow. There is that stuff in improv, just as in sports. Being in the flow of the zone you’re in. I do like the scoring – for Adults. It might be an adult only thing. I like the round by round scoring. A lot of people don’t. It adds to the thing. Other people think “No no, don’t do it – because if a team is behind in the match they’ll stop trying. So, keep everything in suspense until the end.” Other people say the audience needs to be involved in the judging of things. And my response is, you have to check it out with your audience. Why should I make that decision?
I just applied for a job. On the application I wrote “I’m a pretty creative guy. Probably so are you . But, we’re not more creative then everybody else put together. Therefore, let us harvest and invite the best, the most interesting responses to the needs of the organization. Why not? Harvest the genius of the people in our company.”
Michael: Does competition lower the quality of play?
Howard: That’s not been my experience. The worse that happens, and it’s a bad thing, people lose their spontaneity in relying on formats and sure-fire things. And that’s the worse thing that can happen. And it’s happens more than I’d like it to happen. The real elements of improvisation are so heavily screened through the formats there isn’t a whole lot of room for spontaneity or adventure. That’s the biggest danger there. What about you?
|Howard prepares to present the Howard Jerome trophy at the Canadian Improv Games.|
Michael: I feel pretty much the same way. In my experiences, it happens more with teenagers. I agree with Larry Mollin about bare-bones improv. Two people on stage building a scene together is more interesting as opposed to five people simultaneously on stage going through the motions of a pre-set format designed for instant gratification. No surprises. No danger. No risks.
Describe an ideal match.
Howard: I can describe it by going to the very end of things when teenagers are laughing and crying at the same time. And there’s such an enormous outpouring of loving energy and celebration or consolation, appreciation. A magnetic quality where people rush the stage with enthusiasm to embrace one another. The ideal match has that kind of ending. And they all did during the finals of the Canadian Improv Games in Ottawa. So for me, that’s a successful, ideal match. When you have that kind of ending. Beyond that there are always astounding new bits of creativity. Tremendous individual performance whatever that is, that is memorable. And maybe a piece of content slipping though sometimes in a creative way. I don’t think you could hope for more than that on a teenage level.
Michael: What do you think the U.S. Improv Olympics should look like in the future?
Howard: I think it would be great if it becomes another thing people choose to do. Do you want to go bowling or do you want to do improv? Do you want to go to the movies? No, let’s stay home and play these theatre games. I would like it to be a regular choice that people make, to do, in terms of it’s popularity. It’s a great way to spend time with your family and friends. Improvising with one another. We did a wonderful storytelling with my godson the other day. Instead of telling a traditional Chanukah story we wound up in Sweden. It was great. We did it as a co-creative project with four other people. We were very inventive of each other. That’s one level. The other is the extreme opposite. I want to see really great improvisers going head to head with really good stuff. You don’t get that edge on the TV competition shows. Maybe you need to do an all star show.
Michael: Perhaps like Larry said before, everything has to come full circle where you just have two actors improvising a scene with a 3 minute time limit.
What is you most juicy, colorful, vivid memory of the Improv Olympics?
Howard: There are so many. Here are some highlights. A Workput event involving shoveling snow. The guys in the scene did a fairly accurate activity of shoveling snow. Then a woman came on with some lumber and nails and proceeded to build a wall or something. Then she nailed the snow onto the board and sledded it out of there. Wild flights of imaginations – individual performances are what I remember from the Olympics. Another was Sandra Oh’s improvised monologue during the Canadian Improv Games finals to her parents on how she didn’t want to be a mathematician – she wanted to be an actress. She ended up doing that same piece in a movie. Teams that squeak through. Dynasties are wonderful – like in Canada. Sir Frances Liberman High School in Ottawa won year after year because they were clearly better, more disciplined, more creative. They forced the games to be better than they were, by their existence. Those are the kind of juiciest memories I have. A vague memory of Toronto excellence with the best actors available. They had a show-down – it was wonderful, intense, and it was not the high pitched shrill “you have to get a laugh every second” thought. It was more about improv integrity than madness. What about you.?
|Canadian Improv Games, 2012.|
Michael: The most recent is the best for me. Being in Ottawa for the 25th anniversary of the Canadian Improv Games, standing next to David in the audience of the National Arts Centre as you administered the Olympic Oath on stage surrounded by teenagers. It made me feel connected to something that was historic and larger than myself.
Howard: I’d like to talk about the book a little bit. The idea of the 4th dimension was the involvement of the audience where they get to direct and participate. I remembered we learned that yes, you could trust the audience - but you shouldn’t get hurt in the process. So it was, “no you do it.” Someone suggested an activity of eating shit. And I said, “I’m not going to do that – you do it. I’m not going to demean myself for your entertainment. If you’re so interested in seeing that, you do it.”
Michael : So, the whole concept of audience involvement came from a dare.
Howard: Exactly. There should be a brief history of ancient rituals that involved group creativity processes. Then, we show a modern version of that ritual – like the Emotional Hurdles sprang from this cultural process. We need to support the thesis of group creativity as being an eternal cultural process. People reach out to each other to do something creative in history. An exploration into the nature of group creativity – its historic backgrounds, scientific findings written in the language of improvisation. This is all peppered through-out the book. Each chapter should have a “you do it” component. You can’t go on to the next chapter until you get three people to try the format you just read about. The book is about theory and practice. It needs more than just words – it needs blank spaces for creativity for the readers to do it.
Michael: It’s a hands-on handbook.
Howard: Yes. Exactly.
|Howard feeling the love at the Canadian Improv Games.|
|Co-creators Willie Wyllie (sitting) and Howard Jerome with Al Connors, National Director of the Canadian Improv Games.|
Michael Golding is a writer, director and improv teacher. He can be contacted for workshops, festivals and private consultations at firstname.lastname@example.org. Michael participated in the evolution of the Improv Olympics & Canadian Improv Games. Artistic director of the Comic Strip Improv Group in N.Y. & created the Insight Theatre Company for Planned Parenthood, Ottawa. He is a faculty member at El Camino College in Los Angeles, working with at-risk teens and traditional students. He wrote and co-produced the documentary "David Shepherd: A Lifetime of Improvisational Theatre" (available for free on YouTube). His book, Listen Harder, a collection of essays, curriculum and memorabilia on improvisation and educational theatre, is available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble and CreateSpace. Michael holds a BFA degree in Drama from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts & an MA degree in Educational Theatre from NYU’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education & Human Development.