A year ago this month, iO matriarch Charna Halpern was frantically scuttling around the construction site that would become the new home of her Chicago comedy institution. She was dealing with financial stresses and a tight deadline in the final stages of iO's move from Clark Street in Wrigleyville, the theater's home for more than 20 years, to a cavernous new location in Lincoln Park. Today, she sits calmly in her office surrounded by her dogs Bear, Stella, and Mia.
But the transition hasn't been without trials. Just last week Chicago improv legends TJ Jagodowski and Dave Pasquesi gave up control of the Mission Theater, originally created to be their sandbox, to focus on performing instead of producing. While the Mission's alternative programming continues under Halpern's watch, she's also dealing with a more serious issue: unforeseen expenses related to the new theater—window frames, keg lines, bringing the building up to code—have left Halpern $7 million in debt, she says. Still, Halpern adds, "mortgages are paid on time and the banks are happy," and iO's future is not in peril.
On a day-to-day basis, things are going according to plan, Halpern says. "I said, 'This is my vision, let's hope it works,' and it is. It's working. People are coming and eating and drinking and hanging out and playing [board] games; I leave here at 10:30 on a Wednesday and it's packed."
The 1501 N. Kingsbury location, which has more than twice the performance space of the previous theater, has allowed iO to be more ambitious. Along with the theater's signature improv shows, there are now regular sketch, variety, and experimental performances. At the Clark Street location there was room for only two classes to be in session simultaneously; now seven or more can take place at any given time.
This weekend's programming is a perfect example of the benefits of the new space: along with regular Harold shows, iO hosts the first ever Musical Improv Festival and welcomes back alums of team Beer Shark Mice, which features David Koechner and Neil Flynn. A festival would have been impossible in the old space, Halpern says, let alone one happening concurrently with a three-night run of a special show. This is something that might have stressed out Halpern in the past, but she's cool as a cucumber; the last year, she says, has proved the theater's range of event possibilities, from a 12-hour comedy marathon to a barn dance to a political rally.
"I sometimes think about the old space," Halpern says. "When it's really hot out I think if we were at the old space, the air conditioner would have broken. Here it's nice and cold and beautiful and everything works. When it's raining I think, at the old place we would have been putting buckets out in the theater, and now everything's fine, nothing's leaking. It's the difference between a shack and a mansion, so it's hard to miss it."
What's in store for iO next year? "I'm so busy thinking of now. As an improviser, we're always in the now," Halpern says. "Things that happen to me are always so much more interesting than the things I planned, so I stopped planning. That's what improv is all about." v
After this story was published, Halpern called to clarify that the "debt" of which she spoke is related to the theater's mortgage and the loans she received to secure and build out the theater, not her personal finances. "I’m paying off the mortgage, I’m financially stable, and I have a great investment," she said.