How I Map Harolds

During a mid-class break last summer a few students asked me questions about the improv show they just did in class. As I referred to my notes the students became interested in how I write out their shows. I was surprised there was that much interest. I promised I’d write out my short hand technique for logging shows and share it with them. Here it is.


I’m assuming most coaches and teachers have their own way of mapping out shows. I don’t expect people to drop what they do and pick up what I’m doing whole sale but if this gets people thinking (and if readers comments get me thinking) we’ll all do a better job of it.


Below is a page of notes from a 3 scene/game Harold. My penmanship is horrendous. (In all honesty this a fake show created from several shows to make sure that I included as many difficult-to-notate twists and turns as possible.) You can click on it to zoom in. I’ll also include an easier-to-read transcribed PDF I made of this page with a symbol key below. I use these notations for all shows, not just Harolds.


sample notes

First line is the time the show starts in minutes past the hour, :12 in this case, and the suggestion. “Orange Whip”


→ A right arrow symbol denotes an opening, game or group exploration. I try to note the technique used (such as a scene paint (scn pnt) or a we see 8 (ws8)) and a brief note on the content. I separate multiple beats in an opening with a /.


– The dash symbol is a scene. I only write a few words for each scene to jog my memory for later. Usually the first line or a quick impression of the scenes characters.


Circled entries are notes to be discussed after the show. I try to only make note of clearly strong or weak moments and choices to keep post-show notes short and narrowly focused. Deeper, more philospophical discussions can be had in rehearsal. A quick count reveals only 7 notes for this show. Perfect.


↓ This down arrow signifies that a scene or a game was transformed into the next scene rather than changed with a sweep edit. I’m actually pro sweep edits but if a player takes the initiative to try and transform something I like to note to so we can talk about it.


⌊ Down and over lines denote tag outs. I’ve included two classic tag runs as an example of how complex things can be, not to say that all tag outs must begin tag runs. The first is a scene chain tag run that finishes back at the first scene. The other is a flip between two concurrent scenes. As they occur in the show each tag scene gets a new line below and to the right of the prior scene. I use down/over lines to signify what scene birthed it. If the actions gets wild and fast I’ll quite mapping, write “TAG RUN” and sort it out later.


I picked up my abbreviation technique while working as classified ad call-taker at the Chicago Tribune. You pay by the line so people wanted things maximally abbreviated. Bd and ba for bedroom and bath.  Wbfp? Wood-burning fire place. That’s where most of my improv short hand comes from: grp scn – group scene, obj bld – object build, grp explr – group exploration, bsb brkly – Busby Berkeley, clstr fk……


The last line is the time past the hour when the show ends. : 38, giving a 26 minute show.


After the show I’ll quickly run through the show giving very brief comments until I reach a circled comment. I’ll then spend a few sentences explaining my note. That’s it. I try to keep notes at no more than ten minutes.


Having a consistent method for mapping out shows allows me to quickly and efficiently give notes. It also lets me look back at older shows that I may have forgotten and get a good sense for what happened.


Here’s that PDF of my typed notes. Much easier to read.

Harold Map