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iO makes a big move into founder Charna Halpern's 'dream theater'

The legendary improv comedy company leaves behind two decades of history as it enters a shiny, cavernous space in Lincoln Park.



"I can't wait for this to be done," Charna Halpern says. "I'm so exhausted." The matriarch of the iO Theater is hurriedly walking through what will soon be the remarkable new home of her renowned improv comedy enterprise. But right now, it's a construction site. Halpern pauses for a moment, scans the dusty floors and plywood piled around the room, and exhales deeply.

It's early July, and though it'll be another month until the doors are open to the public, Halpern is enthusiastic about the tour she's giving to Stacey Smith, a regular performer with iO musical improv group the Del-Tones. With her purple eyeliner and bobbed hair perfectly in place, Halpern skillfully maneuvers the space; she's been at the Lincoln Park building every day since construction began in early January and has committed all of its intricacies to memory.

The vaulted wood ceilings and brightly colored box office at 1501 N. Kingsbury are a far cry from the cramped stages and dingy entrance at iO's Clark Street address, which served as the theater's home for nearly 20 years. The lobby's centerpiece, a hulking cherrywood bar, is almost as large as the old location's cabaret theater. As she scoots around, Halpern nitpicks a few particulars ("This isn't the blue I picked out! It looks like Blockbuster!"). Asked if the theater was fashioned after her own designs, she looks around and smiles. "Yes," she says. "I did it all."

Halpern did collaborate with an architect to revamp the 40,000-square-foot warehouse space, which formerly housed a furniture maker and a bakery. A bank loan covered the lion's share of the $3 million overhaul, she says, with some unforeseen overages coming straight out of Halpern's pocket. The place is massive enough to hold up to 14 classes at once during the day, and at night four stages will host shows at 8 PM, 10:30 PM, and midnight; the ample square footage also allows for special events and festivals. Along with the performance and educational spaces, the new iO is decked out with a beer garden, restaurant-grade kitchen, three bars, and an area for corporate events and parties that will surely see its fair share of Chicago improviser weddings.

As a performer, Smith is impressed with the size of the designated space for the green room—and with the bathrooms, of which Halpern is particularly proud.

"Enough stalls!" she says. "Look at that! Isn't that incredible?"

"And you can't really write on them," says Smith, carefully inspecting each one.

"No, I don't want anyone to write on them."

"But I learned everything I know from the bathroom stalls at iO!"

A few weeks later, during the final performance at 3541 N. Clark, an examination of the bathroom stalls revealed that Smith was onto something; they displayed a wealth of knowledge, everything from secret confessions—"I have a huge crush on Jimmy Carrane and haven't told anyone yet!"—to sound advice—"Give yourself permission to be the funniest person here"—to what might be the most recent scrawl, a heartfelt love note to the theater—"Thanks for everything 'old' iO. We're all slowly learning to be unafraid of being ourselves."

Halpern and Del Close at the iO theater on Clark in the mid 90s - COURTESY IO
  • courtesy iO
  • Halpern and Del Close at the iO theater on Clark in the mid 90s

iO was around for 14 years before landing in the Wrigleyville location, and in that time Halpern says she and her collaborators bounced between 14 different theaters. The organization started in 1980 as the ImprovOlympic (a legal skirmish with the International Olympic Committee in 2001 resulted in the abbreviation). Halpern taught and performed short game improv, similar to the style still upheld by ComedySportz. She had heard that legendary improviser Del Close wasn't a fan of hers or of short form, but never one to shy away from conflict, she approached him to teach a class at the theater anyway. "I went up to him and said, 'How would you like to make $200 and some pot?' " Halpern recalls. Close agreed, as long as he could do whatever he wanted.

Close schooled Halpern in the Harold style that he had been developing since the 60s. The road map for long-form improv, it's based on a team of improvisers creating three scenes, then returning to the scenes in the show's three "beats," eventually tying together characters, themes, and situations from each scene in the show's conclusion. Before long, Halpern had ditched her short-form roots to team up with Close and found their long-form improv theater in 1981. In 1999 Close died of causes related to emphysema, and Halpern has steered iO solo ever since.

Halpern recalls a location on the near north side allegedly run by the mafia. The wise-guy building managers, she says, were great despite their shady reputations, and always served a spread of food for the improvisers. When it came to the performances, though, they could get a little pushy. The teams would often do an iO standby that's still in rotation today called "the Dream," in which an audience member talks about his day and the improvisers turn it into a scene imagining that person's next nightmare. "A guy came up and said, 'Otto wants to see the Dream,' " Halpern says. "And I said, 'Oh, we already did it.' And he said, 'Do it again.' " 

In 1995, iO moved to the theater on Clark, inside what was once the Swedish American Club. Over the next two decades comedians including Tina Fey, Stephen Colbert, Amy Poehler, and countless writers for Conan O'Brien, The Daily Show, and SNL would cut their teeth there. The first performance was the Armando Diaz Theatrical Experience and Hootenany, a monologue-based long-form show that was the brainchild of Armando Diaz, Dave Koechner, and Adam McKay.

Halpern, lower left, circa 1995 with the original Armando cast, including Matt Besser, Jimmy Carrane, Armando Diaz, Peter Gwinn, David Koechner, Susan Messing, Brian Stack, and Matt Walsh - SUZIE GARDNER
  • Suzie Gardner
  • Halpern, lower left, circa 1995 with the original Armando cast, including Matt Besser, Jimmy Carrane, Armando Diaz, Peter Gwinn, David Koechner, Susan Messing, Brian Stack, and Matt Walsh

Nearly two decades later, Armando would be the fitting final performance in iO's hallowed halls, with a cast built of past and present performers, students, and teachers who considered the space home.

On July 19, a block normally occupied by drunken Cubs fans was instead lined with sentimental members of the improv community, patiently waiting for the doors to open for one last time. "What's going on in here?" some passersby asked. They'd just left the Blake Shelton concert that was still going strong at Wrigley Field. When told it was the final iO performance in this theater, they shrugged and continued on to Red Ivy.

The block is the proposed location for a luxury hotel, part of a plan from the Cubs-owning Ricketts family to revamp and expand Wrigley Field and the surrounding area. Realizing that iO's theater would be a casualty of the development, Halpern rallied people in the comedy scene and area residents in the spring of 2010 to protest the project, which didn't yet have City Council approval. She hopes the larger space in the new hood will see fewer besotted baseball fans crashing her shows.

Inside the theater, the farewell night's performers mingled with old-timers and loyal fans in the crowded space between the stage and the bar. It was a gathering more akin to a family reunion, with everyone catching up about current jobs (lawyer and Groupon employee among them), weddings, newborns. In classic iO tradition, the alcohol was flowing. "You know what I want," a performer said, approaching the bar. With a smile and head nod, the bartender wordlessly began making the drink, pouring with a heavy hand. Before long, the compact theater reeked of booze. iO alum Jason Chin says it's a smell reminiscent of the improv theater's earliest days.

At the time Chin started taking classes, Close was undergoing aversion therapy—the smell and taste of alcohol would make him vomit. After a weekend of doing brisk bar business, the theater reeked of booze, and Close's notes to his Monday evening classes were punctuated with gagging and wheezing.

And so Chin became the venue's de facto janitor. "Class was at 7, I would get here at 5:30 and sweep and mop the entire room so it would smell like bleach instead of the vomit-inducing alcohol. In many ways I like to think of myself as iO's first intern."

Stories like this dominated the final night's Armando, the theme of which was 3541 N. Clark. Performers poked fun at the windows and doors leading to nowhere that were built into the Del Close Theater's set; perfectly good chairs were snapped in half as an homage to all the broken furniture housed in the building over the years; and before the night was up, at least one person had declared his love for the theater while standing atop the bar.

"This place was mostly assembled out of love, which sounds nice but it is not up to code," says Peter Gwinn, a former writer for The Colbert Report who managed the building for 11 months in 1997.

Tina Fey and Rachel Dratch, two of iO's most famous alums, paid homage to their old stomping grounds at the theater's 20th anniversary show. - COURTESY IO
  • Courtesy iO
  • Tina Fey and Rachel Dratch, two of iO's most famous alums, paid homage to their old stomping grounds at the theater's 20th anniversary show.

Many recall the theater feeling like home, and not entirely because of the shabby green rooms and makeshift offices. "I remember the first time Charna remembered my name," says current performer Ryan Archibald, now in his late 30s, who first came to iO as a 20-year-old. "I walked into this room, and she was in here taking attendance and looked right at me and said, 'Ryan, great to have you back.' And I've been coming back constantly ever since, my entire adult life. Every time I talk to my folks they ask how iO is doing and how Charna's doing because it's a part of their family now, too."

"So many people described her as their second mother that Charna started hysterically lactating during the show," Noah Gregoropoulos said during the final Armando. He performed on opening night at 3541 N. Clark and holds the distinction of appearing in more Armandos than any other improviser. "I was not going to be sentimental about this place, but now I'm actually going to feel a little sentimental. We have grand ideas, and we have people who go on to do great things, but what we do in this church is very simple and beautiful. It has carried on what Del spent his life fighting for, which is that improvisation is an art form. It's not just a parlor game, it's not just a writing tool, it's an art form, and I think we've made it one."

As she did at the Clark Street location, Halpern honors Close's influence at iO's new location with a theater dedicated to the improv giant. She named another theater in memory of Chris Farley, one of iO's most famous alums. "I really wanted to do that," Halpern says. "I dream about my Chris all the time, and sometimes I really think he's coming to me. They're really funny dreams where he just fucks with me. It's so hysterical, and I laugh so hard."

The Harold Cabaret theater will continue showcasing Harold teams, and the fourth theater, called the Mission, will be run by TJ Jagodowski and Dave Pasquesi, whose two-man long-form improv show, TJ & Dave, has been an iO staple since its inception in 2002. The pair have been on the lookout for a theater of their own for a while (they were scouting locations from an old factory to a bank vault to "an old place that Dahmer took his last people from," Pasquesi jokes). When the opportunity to have a space in an established theater arose, it seemed ideal. It's the only part of Halpern's "dream theater" she won't have any say in. "They won't tell me what they're doing, so I have a feeling I'm not going to be happy," she says with a smirk. "But it's their theater so I can't do anything about it."

TJ Jagodowski and Dave Pasquesi have free rein of their own theater, the Mission, in iO's new space. - COURTESY IO
  • Courtesy iO
  • TJ Jagodowski and Dave Pasquesi have free rein of their own theater, the Mission, in iO's new space.

Along with the comedy duo's signature show, Jagodowski and Pasquesi will bring a new brand of performance to the iO. Their flagship debut is an as-yet-unnamed sketch revue that will run most nights (some will be reserved for musical residencies and special performances). They describe the show as evergreen in that it won't be rooted in political or social satire or current events. Tuesdays will be a curated night of music, films, variety shows, and experimental acts that don't fit neatly in stand-up clubs or traditional theaters.

The duo didn't get too weepy about their final performance in the Wrigleyville theater on July 16. "It would be weird if it was like, 'There goes ImprovOlympic,' and it's the death of everything," Pasquesi says. "But it's not. It's 'We're going to take a couple weeks off, and it's going to look nicer.' "

"All the good stuff about that place is kind of in our bones now, and that travels," Jagodowski says. "Now we have a cool place where you can be in the green room or have a drink at the bar without disturbing someone else's show."

Students were the first to perform in the new space when the doors opened for classes during the final week of July. A soft opening is scheduled for August 13, with at least six shows on the schedule spread across three theaters; the Mission starts previews of its sketch revue soon after, on August 15. The official opening is scheduled for Labor Day weekend, when past and present talent will gather for shows, workshops, panels, and partying.

Halpern's theme for the weekend is "iO then and now," and she'll be dropping successful alums into the current casts of shows that the seasoned performers appeared in during their time at iO. For example, Cecily Strong will guest with the Del-Tones and Jordan Klepper will step into Whirled News Tonight, along with Eric Stonestreet, Jack McBrayer, Scott Adsit, and other comics stopping in to do guest spots.

Dave Koechner will be among the returning alum performing at iO's grand opening on Labor Day weekend. - COURTESY IO
  • Courtesy iO
  • Dave Koechner will be among the returning alum performing at iO's grand opening on Labor Day weekend.

And Halpern isn't excluding comedians whose roots run to theaters other than iO. George Wendt, who came up in Second City, has become notorious for crashing Halpern's celebrations. He's shown up uninvited to iO's 15th, 20th, and 25th anniversary parties, closing out the nights. She's conflicted whether to extend Wendt an invitation to the upcoming bash. "I don't want to break our streak," she says. "I'm afraid if I invite him, he won't come."

It's that open-door policy that Halpern hopes to carry over to 1501 N. Kingsbury. Having made room for 300 at the bar, she wants to evoke the early days on Clark Street, when comics would stop in for a drink even when there wasn't a show and people would poke their heads in just to see who was hanging out. Performers like Smith are already settling into the space. "It's going to be a home to so many more people," she says. Noticing showers in the green room, Smith realizes how literal a home this might be. "We're all going to be living here. The water pressure at my house is not that good."

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