iO past, present, and nonfutureJack Helbigon August 4, 2020 at 8:45 pm

Charna Halpern and Del Close founded iO (then called ImprovOlympic) in 1981. - COURTESY IO

How did you find out about iO closing?

If you are like me, you found out on Facebook. Or maybe it was Twitter, or some other social media platform. I found out when David Razowsky, an iO alum and former artistic director at Second City Los Angeles, shared a Facebook post with the words: “This makes me so sad. I would not be having as full a life as I do now had it not been for ImprovOlympic. This is a huge loss.”

The post was a screenshot of an e-mail Charna Halpern, founder and sole proprietor of iO, sent June 17 to small, up-and-coming BIPOC comedy troupe Free Street Parking. It began as a response to an open letter they had sent her, setting forth ideas for opening up iO to BIPOC performers and writers: “Thanks for your letter folks. I have always been open and interested in involving my community in change and growth in my theatre. One can’t grow a business this big without doing that.”

But a sentence later Charna abruptly dropped a bomb. “[I]ts not looking like iO will be able to open its doors. The pandemic had made the financial struggle too difficult and I can’t even see the light at the end of the tunnel at this point.”

The moment I read the shared post I sent a DM to Charna: “say it ain’t so, Charna this makes me sad if its true.”

She replied: “Im sad too. This pandemic has killed me and theres no real end in sight for theater.”

There it was. Right there. iO was dead.

And how did the people who had been working at iO right up to the shutdown, the performers and box office personnel, the waiters and bartenders and cooks, find out?

“They found out from an Instagram post,” Shelby Plummer, former creative director at iO (from 2017 to 2018) tells me. “Everybody on management was under the impression they would reopen.”

“The community is really hurting right now,” Plummer continues, adding that she created a GoFundMe campaign “to help staff members of iO who are struggling. Help them get through a few more months if their unemployment benefits end.”

iO’s closure triggered a deluge of social media comments and articles not just in the Chicago dailies, but across the country, in the New York Times and New York magazine. The closing was at least as cataclysmic as Upright Citizens Brigade (which grew out of iO in the 90s) closing theaters in New York and LA. It may be more cataclysmic, because UCB still exists as an organization (and still owns a space in LA it intends to keep).

Lots of folks weighed in on Twitter, mourning iO, lambasting the organization for its flaws and foibles. Stories circulated about harassment, sexual predation, evidence of racism, some of them outright acts of libel (one post listed by name improv teachers, at iO and elsewhere, who actively attempted to hook up with students). A few snarky criticisms of improv culture and cultish improv teachers appeared for a time under the name Haunted Ghost of Del Close @HauntedDel: “While alive I created a school of improv that acted more like a freaky fraternity than a place of learning. Now I’m in hell.” But sadly, the ghost was silent after a few days of posting in late June.

Others were kinder, defending Charna and iO. Long-time improv teacher and director Michael Gellman posted on Facebook: “Charna kept a difficult to succeed business going in a tough town for years. She ain’t perfect (who is) and she made mistakes along the way but she also helped thousands and kept Del alive and creating for longer than he would have without her.”

And then others tried to capitalize on the closure to advance their own agendas. A young writer, Shaun Cammack, a grad student at the U. of C., published a column in the Chicago Tribune that used iO’s closing to try out the latest right-wing echo chamber buzzword (“cancel culture”) and to blame iO’s closing on a group of uppity BIPOC improvisers, making demands in a petition (I Will Not Perform at iO Until the Following Demands Are Met) on a financially strapped Charna in the middle of a pandemic. Cammack incorrectly reported that the petition asked Charna to “step down.”

When I asked Charna if the petition circulated by five BIPOC improvisers played a role in her deciding to close iO, her answer was unambiguous: “No no no no no not at all.”

The five originators of the petition–Olivia Jackson, Daniela Aguilar, Cherish Hicks, Jackie Bustamante, and Tommy Nouansacksy–also repudiated the idea that they were in any way responsible for iO’s closing. In an open letter posted in social media they stated, “This petition was created out of love for our community, specifically the community at iO. That building was a creative home for so many incredible performers, many of whom were not treated with the respect they deserved. We were so looking forward to iO post-pandemic and more importantly, iO post-petition. We really believed that our demands were going to be met and that iO was going to become the warm, inclusive, welcoming place that we thought it could be. We cared about iO and wanted it to be better for us, for our friends, and for folx to come.”

Which is not to say Charna embraced wholeheartedly the ideas in the petition. She told me she had been willing to meet with them, but added that she had no money to hire anyone new, and added that, “This is a pandemic! You are telling me to hire a group of people? I just can’t do that right now! They don’t understand business! They don’t!”

Talking to Charna reminds me that the iO that died last month was a very different place than the one I knew back in the late 80s and 90s.

I first met Charna in the early 80s when she and I were both students at Josephine Forsberg’s Players Workshop. It was there she met David Shepherd, who had been touting the idea for years of turning improv into a competitive sport by creating an Olympics of improv, with teams of improvisers competing against each other playing Viola Spolin’s theater games. (An idea successfully launched by Shepherd and his followers in Canada, and by others, under other names, in the U.S.)

Shepherd wanted to do an improv-based show built around the Jonah Complex (which is Abraham Maslow’s term for fear of success), and Charna agreed to work with him on that if they also collaborated on the Olympics of improv.

Shepherd and Halpern eventually parted ways–Shepherd, cofounder of the Compass but not part of the team behind the more successful child of the Compass, the Second City, struggled with his own Jonah Complex. But Halpern was still noodling with Shepherd’s basic idea when she famously met Del Close. Halpern remade ImprovOlympic around Del Close and the Harold, a kind of longform improvisation conceived and named in the 60s at the Committee in San Francisco.

Charna continued to call it the ImprovOlympic (the International Olympic Committee had not yet forced them to change their name to iO), and it was a scrappy mom-and-pop organization. Maybe “scrappy mom and distracted, emotionally distant dad” organization is a better way to put it, because ImprovOlympic was all about Charna keeping things going and Del showing up for classes (where he served up equal doses of monologuing and inspiration) and standing in back during shows, frequently popping out for a smoke, grumbling under his breath.

Keeping things going back then was what Charna excelled at. Back then iO had no fixed abode. Until they landed their own space on Clark Street, half a block south of Wrigley Field, iO moved a lot. Here is a partial list of the places ImprovOlympic called home between 1981 and 1995: Second City (in a space that later became Second City’s ETC space), Exit (a punk club on Wells up the street from Second City), CrossCurrents, Cotton Club Chicago, Orphans, Kiku’s, At the Tracks, Ciao, Papa Milano, the Wrigleyside.

Just a ragtag group of young improvisers, led by a quirky, energetic woman with a nose for business and a fierce instinct for survival, working with a sometimes brilliant, sometimes just there, chain-smoking, former addict with dozens and dozens of stories of his drug-fueled meetings with various exotic celebrities, which he would reel out in his classes. Former students of his used to tell me about a game they would play where you would improvise a monologue in which you randomly matched a drug with a famous person with an iconic place in history: “I remember taking _____ with ______ at __________.” As in, “I remember doing mushrooms with Hugh Romney, aka Wavy Gravy, at a Grateful Dead Concert.” Or, “I remember dropping acid with Timothy Leary and Neal Cassady at Ken Kesey’s Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.” (Both of these examples are fictional, though likely.)

The iO that died in June was a lot of things–a popular improv school, a theater complex (the building on Kingsbury has four working theater spaces), a celebrity factory (the walls of iO are covered with photos of younger versions of now-famous actors and comedians, Chris Farley, Mike Myers, Tina Fey, Rachel Dratch, Adam McKay, Aidy Bryant, Amy Poehler, Jason Sudeikis among them, posing with their Harold teams), a shrine in a cult built around the memory of Del Close–but it was not a mom-and-pop operation.

In the end iO was a big business with a huge complex on Kinsgbury carved out of a furniture store/warehouse and an industrial bakery. In that iO space are four operating theaters, a huge bar and kitchen, meeting rooms for classes, a beer garden, and a large party room, all of it unusable in a pandemic. iO went from bustling to unsustainable in March.

iO moved into the space on Kingsbury in 2014 after they were forced out of their location on Clark Street in Wrigleyville.

“I wanted to buy the space [on Clark Street],” Charna tells me, “but the landlord [her cousin] said, ‘Honey, I got plans.’ The landlord bought up all of Clark Street. I was making money. I wasn’t paying property taxes. I was very happy. We tried to get landmark status. We got a petition together. My cousin said, ‘Charna, don’t cause me trouble.'”

So she moved the operation to a former industrial district south of North Avenue, west of Halsted.

“The space was massive,” Plummer tells me, “[Charna] went from a two-space theater, with a lot of walk-in traffic, people would go to a game and then after go to a show. I think 70 seats a piece when they were in Wrigleyville. On a weekend it was not hard to sell out the whole theater. In the new space they had two theaters with a capacity of 120, and two with I think 80. They were open every night of the week. And two shows working every night. At the beginning there was no foot traffic. When I started there was no marketing budget. ”

That space, and a handful of online classes, are all that are left of iO.

Closing something as big and complicated as iO is a messy business. And there are a lot of loose ends to tie up.

One of the messier loose ends involves the summer intensive, a yearly summer improv camp of sorts for adults. Improvisers from around the world would come to Chicago every summer for an immersion in the world of improv–five weeks of workshops, five days a week, and all of the iO shows in the evening you could stand. The price of the intensive, $1,300, did not include food, lodging, or transportation (all of which was the student’s responsibility).

Montrez Hawkins, an actor and improviser from Atlanta, Georgia, found out about the summer intensive from a friend.

“It sounded like paradise.” Hawkins recalls, “I set my sights on that goal.”

Hawkins, who works in the hospitality industry in Atlanta, started saving up.

“I signed up in February,” Hawkins continues. “Had I known what was about to go down I would have held onto it.”

Hawkins was paying for the intensive in installments. He had only paid $800 to iO when the city shut down.

“I was thinking, I will probably get a refund if they shut down [for the summer],” Hawkins continues. “I didn’t hear anything in March and April. In May, I got a note that said, ‘Just so you know, we are keeping an eye on the situation. The moment we are able to open the business, we will see about giving refunds.'”

Hawkins says he wrote a letter to iO stating in strong terms he wanted his refund. The next day he got a note from iO manager Stacey
Malow-Williams “that made no reference” to his letter.

The letter from iO stated that “iO will be closing its doors permanently,” and that “due to the Covid-19 shutdown and the lack of cash flow, we have run out of money.”

iO could not offer a refund, but they were offering virtual classes instead. In another e-mail Hawkins was given an extensive list of online classes to choose from.

Hawkins was enraged. “They were not giving us the option [for a refund].”

So Hawkins posted the following online: “I worked my ass off to pay for that Intensive @iochicago. I sacrificed so much. I turned down taking improv classes before quarantine to make sure I can make it there. I turned down improv and scripted shows so I can work my shitty serving job on weekends for 14 hours. You think online improv classes are worth $1,000??? IT’S NOT.”

Hawkins’s posting was reposted by others, and was part of the social media firestorm that flared up after iO closed.

Hawkins isn’t sure how many others are in the same boat. He says there were 35 members of a group on Slack created around the summer intensive; at least one student had planned to come to Chicago from Europe to study at iO.

Hawkins’s initial posting was in late June. I e-mailed Hawkins in late July to see if he had heard anything from iO.

His reply: “Nope. Not one drop of news. No statement about alternatives to online classes or anything. The last email I got is the one I forwarded to you about availability for online classes.”

When asked about the summer intensive, Charna sighs in frustration, “It’s a lot of money. I have to find a way to pay them back. It is not going to happen right away. But I have to find a way to pay them back. I am hoping that comes from the sale of the building. The online classes are not going to work out.

“I have no income. But the bills keep coming. I am supporting the theater out of my own pocket. I am 68. People kept saying, ‘When are you going to retire?’ Now it is time. We are in a pandemic and we don’t know how long it will be. No one knows. I’m retiring. I am retiring from the biz. I am 68 years old. I am ready to retire from the biz and stop the stress. I had a good long run, I had a 40-year run. There are a lot of young people. They can pick up the ball and take it from here.” v

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