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Me, and Improv, and the Harold Team

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I remember the day vividly. I can see the blue-carpeted stairs that are oddly shaped and feel like you could fall down them at any moment, as I walked up them to meet with our coach. Our fearless leader who was the expert, that guided us through rehearsals, gave us loving and direct notes when that ever elusive Harold we were chasing derailed in front of our eyes, under our feet and in front of an audience, but still loved us anyway, had called us to a meeting. Bounding up the stairs excited at the prospect of new information, a change, who knows what, I entered the loft at iO to find her sitting there waiting. Oh, this is a meeting between just her and I. Oh.

The rest of it is part blur and part emblazoned in my memory. “We’re making some changes to the team” and “You’re really the heart and soul of the team . . . but . . . we’re kicking you off of it” are the sentences that live in my head still, to this day. I left, devastated, shocked and so, so mad. I was so mad that I left iO West for almost 10 years. I really almost left comedy forever, because I felt like my improv family had kicked me out, abandoned me and declared me not good enough. I know that this sounds dramatic, but when I first moved to Los Angeles I was only 21 years old. I had recently graduated from college and packed up my Ford Explorer 2 with all of my belongings and I began a life here in La La Land.

Moving to Los Angeles was a lot harder than I ever thought it was going to be. I remember sleeping on a couch of a potential new roommate who had insisted that his current roommate WAS moving out and that I could live there very soon, he promised, and in the mean time if I wanted to share his bed, he was A-OK with that. I left the next day and moved in with a much less threatening, small Asian girl in Sherman Oaks, who actually had a room open. The first month I spent a lot of time on the phone with my best friends, crying, wondering if I had made a huge mistake. Thankfully, interning at ACME Talent & Literary in 2002 led me to iO West, Improv Olympic West, at that time. My buddy Jason was taking classes there and after hanging out with me at ACME for a bit declared, you should try improv! You’d be really good at it. So, I did. And I was.

My first year at iO was so much fun! I was blessed with a class full of talented improvisers that went through the entire year-long program together. I had amazing teachers like Paul Vallaincourt, Pete Gardner, Jeris Donovan, James Grace, Craig Cackowski and Bob Dassie. I learned how to be my best self in improv. As Paul once said, “To improvise is to become more than human, and yet ultimately utmost human.”

I interned at the theatre, I took classes, I was a part of multiple student groups and I was on a Harold team! I had done it! I auditioned! I made it! I was placed on a team we christened “Assisted Living”. It was full of talented players like Irene White, Mike Coen, David Iserson, and others. We weren’t a perfect team, we had our troubles, growing pains, we evolved into an almost completely new group with Chris Garnant, Amy Procacci, Rob Delaney, Jake, Mike, and others. What I know now is that a team that undergoes a lot of changes in its players most likely won’t survive, and its no ones fault.

I remember going home after hearing that 4 of us had been kicked off the team and that 4 others would remain a team, getting 4 new players and a new name, and just laying on my bed in tears. How can you be the heart and soul of a team and then be asked to leave it? How does that happen?

I’m not recalling this so that you’ll feel sorry for me. I’m writing it because what I know now, I wish that I would have known then. I KNOW that Harold teams are fleeting; very rarely do they result in the magic of King Ten and exist for 10 years. It’s never personal when you get asked to leave a team. It’s just not working. Its not clicking and something about the way you play, your personality or maybe even your availability no longer lines up with the rest of the team.

The lesson that I learned, that you, young improviser don’t have to, is that improv life goes on and there WILL be another team. I wish that I wouldn’t have let my emotions and my feelers get hurt so badly that I just left iO West. I wish that I would have just taken a small break and returned home to try again.

I continued my studies at Second City’s Conservatory and performed on a house Grad Group there as well. I returned to iO West in 2013 and auditioned for another Harold Team. Walking into iO West again to rejoin the community was a strange one. I felt like the adult at a kid’s party. Who were all of these shockingly good looking funny people? When I started improv it was still a relatively unknown art form that mostly nerds and pretty fat girls did. Now, it’s huge! Thanks to the success of UCB, Amy Poehler, Tina Fey and every agent in town insisting that you need improv on your resume, improv is hip now. It’s so trendy, there’s even an INDIE Improv scene. I laughed out loud the first time someone told me they were on an Indie Improv group, until I realized that they were serious. I walked through the bar at iO, grateful that Crowley was still behind the bar and that James Grace gave me a polite wave, and even with all of that awkwardness, I still knew that I was home.

To my joy, I was placed on a DCT house team, that named ourselves DCT (I voted against it, just FYI) and again stumbled into the awkward, hello, who are you, how do we make our minds meld together to form an exciting and entertaining 25 minute show, joy that is a new Harold team. I LOVED this new team and though we were all very different we resolved to be the best! We were broken up 4 months later. A small blow, but with my maturity and hindsight in my corner, I saw it coming and was able to shake it off.

Next round of Harold auditions, I was placed on The Dilemma, an existing Harold team in need of some more people. Another improv milestone, joining a team of already tight players and trying to find your place, completed. I enjoyed being on The Dilemma and 8 months later when we were broken up, I left iO West again. This time I didn’t leave because my feelers were hurt, or I was upset that James had given us the axe. I left in pursuit of the next thing and I know that that decision was right at the time.

Being on a Harold team can be exhausting. But when it works, that magic, when it just so happens that every member of your team pretending to be a marionette controlled by the same puppeteer on stage all drop at the same time without looking at one another. . . that . . . ohhhh that, is the heroine of improv. It’s what keeps us coming back for more, chasing that group mind high. There’s nothing like it.

When is the next round of Harold Team auditions? I’ve got a heart and a soul looking for a home.

Elizabeth Mihelich

About Elizabeth Mihelich

Elizabeth was born in Pueblo, Colorado, brought up on movies like Airplane!, Naked Gun and Clue! She quickly developed a razor sharp wit and repartee that sometimes only her siblings and cousins can truly understand. She loves to laugh and cause others to dissolve into laughter. After a childhood of running down dirt roads barefoot, creating chalk cities on the driveway and running a roller rink in the garage, she attended the University of Northern Colorado. She has a degree in Theatre: Directing and Journalism: Telecommunications. Elizabeth is graduate of iO West and Second City’s Conservatory. Elizabeth is also a screenwriter and producer. Her short films, "Always Remember Me", “Just Like the Movies”, “Circle Yes or No” and “Tactics” can be seen online and in film festivals. Most recently, Elizabeth has been a Line Producer on great projects like, "It Happened Again Last Night", "What Metal Girls Are Into" and "Weather Talk". A One Stop Shop. Actress. Writer. Producer. Humanitarian. Accomplished Hugger. Consistent Dreamer.