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End Of One Era, Beginning Of Another At iO

By Allison Kelley in Arts & Entertainment on Jul 21, 2014 3:00PM

Photo credit: Allison Kelley/Chicagoist

If you’ve ever been told you are funny and you have a healthy ego and/or blind ambition, you will eventually end up in an improv class. In Chicago you have your pick of storied theaters with legendary teachers and fabulously famous alumni. I came to Chicago in 2008. By way of Connecticut and a Google search of “Tina Fey,” I studied at Second City for a semester where I began the familiar improv student narrative told by one out of every six Chicagoans. In just five months I determined improv to be very difficult and worthy of all my respect. Plus, when done right, it made me silently weep in laughter.

Though I was training at Second City my teachers gave us a comedy syllabus that included shows at theaters around town. This is how I first heard of iO or ImprovOlympic depending on what you know. My first show was TJ & Dave, improv legends who’ve been performing their hour long one-act play weekly since 2002. This performance was equal parts depressing and inspiring. I knew I’d never be that comfortable on stage and yet, as cliché as it will sound, I felt alive and I wanted to see more.

Saturday night I sat in an audience of about 100 others who likely felt the same. We were all there in support of the theater’s last show in the upstairs Del Close Theater. It was of course not the last show forever, as iO will reopen Aug. 1 in a bigger venue at 1501 N. Kingsbury St. But the night marked the end of an era and a building that performers eulogized throughout the night, as if it were a living, breathing team member. Soon the building will transform into apartments where new memories will be made.

The Armando Diaz Theatrical Experience and Hootenanny is billed as “Chicago’s longest running comedy show,” and this is the group we all came out to see. The show is propelled by monologues, personal stories by performers that provide the inspiration for the resulting scenes. Saturday’s closing show was definitely all for the performers, and that’s OK. I am a fan and that’s all I’ll ever be in that world. But I was given an opportunity to sit in on some of the funniest performers shooting the shit about a place that shaped comedy indelibly, and for that I am forever grateful.

Charna Halpern, iO owner from the start, revealed the theater’s early mafia connections. Prior to landing in Wrigleyville the theater had many homes including one mob affiliated joint. One night the building’s owner impressed upon Halpern that she should “do the dream thing again,” despite already having performed IO’s famous improv game where an audience member is taken on stage and asked about their day. They performed “the dream thing” again. Others took to the stage to thank Halpern for taking them in, sometimes literally.

One performer told how he arrived in Chicago in 1995 during a heat wave that shut the power down across the city. Unable to sleep or think, the performer took to the streets of Wrigleyville, “back when you could actually walk around there.” He ran into Halpern walking her two little dogs and though his improv class did not begin for several hours, she brought him into the air-conditioned theater and gave him a couch to pass out on.

For an art form rooted in comedy, improv is very serious. To the believers and practitioners, improv is more than a performance; it’s a way of life. Performers on Saturday echoed this and the idea that with iO they finally felt a sense of belonging and connection. The fact that performers can consistently connect with audience members is the reason why iO has remained so successful, and this, thankfully, is not something that can be left behind in the move.