When I talked with iO Theater proprietor Charna Halpern late Saturday night, she didn't seem particularly nostalgic about the Wrigleyville location she was leaving after nearly 20 years. "I'm not sad," she said. Not even a little bittersweet. Next week she moves to a much larger, gut-rehabbed space in the Clybourn Corridor. She was ready to go, and I could understand the sentiment. The old building was falling apart as we spoke. The air conditioning in the downstairs theater had already conked out earlier that evening.
But first, before Halpern and the gang could pack up everything and head into their future, there was one final show to be done in the grubby theater at Clark and Addison, located at a fulcrum of drunken antics that iO has long since outgrown.
The room was packed (not unusual for a Saturday) and the mood a little uncertain. What were we saying goodbye to, after all, but a building? And not a particularly nice one at that. So long, threadbare carpeting and noisy refrigerator motors behind the bar. So long lousy acoustics and bare-bones lighting grid. So long cheesy, gold-trimmed arch on the upstairs stage, with its useless faux-window that never led to a more creative scene, ever.
The people, the classes, the sketch and improv shows — all of it will continue in a substantially nicer setting, starting next month (iO will go dark this week during the move, with a soft opening in the new space planned for the first week in August).
And yet I wasn't surprised to hear the performers on stage, comprised of iO's old guard — many of whom have known Halpern for 10 or 20 years — express some wistfulness for their dumpy, soon-to-be-ex-environs.
For the occasion, Halpern jettisoned the regular Saturday night slate in favor of one super-sized rendition of "The Armando Diaz Experience," an improv form originally devised many years ago by Adam McKay and David Koechner: A monologist tells short personal stories, which the ensemble then uses as inspiration for improvised scenes.
"Armando" has been a weekly staple at iO since it was created, and it was an ideal vehicle for this send-off. Story after story centered on the theater, which Halpern founded with the garrulous improv guru Del Close, who died in 1999. Many of the night's monologues featured brief Del anecdotes, including this one: Because he had undergone chemical aversion therapy for alcohol, the boozy odors in the air after a weekend of shows always made him retch, until one of his students started coming in every Monday morning and dousing the place in bleach. Or this quote, which summed up Close's philosophy in a nutshell: "He once told me the three most influential things in his life were psychotherapy, psychedelic drugs and improvisation."
The tone was sardonic at first, the improv pretty good if not particularly sharp. The performances were looser than normal, like a slumber party gaining its second wind long past bedtime. The monologues were the centerpiece because they divulged a few secrets. The building was a warren of quirks, we were told, with a jury-rigged phone system and a mafia-owned cigarette machine. And it was most definitely not up to code. No longer incriminating, there was a certain glee in revealing all of this so publically.
Gradually, though, the monologues became more sincere, tipping into misty-eyed reverence. At least two performers referred to Halpern as their second mom, and the reasons are plain to see.
The theater — home to iO's administrative office as well as its training center — was a launching pad for so many, a number of whom were eventually hired at Second City (including Michael Lehrer, a Rahm Emanuel doppelganger recently of Second City's e.t.c. ensemble, who was wonderfully tart on Saturday night) as well as a long list of current and former "Saturday Night Live" writers and performers.
But just as importantly, iO's Wrigleyville location became a clubhouse and second home to students and performers — a beacon for talented weirdos, the focal point of their social lives, a quiet place to take a nap during the day when an apartment was uninhabitable — not to mention an easygoing place for audiences who might want to grab a beer with someone they just saw on stage. A place so cozy and informal that one of Halpern's large dogs would invariably saunter by, occasionally a bit too close to the stage. Not that anyone cared. That won't be happening at the new space, Halpern told me, and a piece of my heart broke when she said that.
Change is always hard, even when you're trading up from a battered used car to a gleaming new SUV, which is basically what iO is doing. "This was not our best show," longtime Chicago improviser Noah Gregoropoulos said at the night's end, and rightly so, "but it was a fun celebration of what we do here." He's right, and that is just fine because the story goes on.
Gregoropoulos isn't particularly sentimental (one of the reasons his dry humor is so effective), and it was smart to have him close things out before handing the stage over to Halpern, who looked out over the crowd and took a deep breath.
"We'll all continue doing these things," she said, "I'm just giving you a bigger building!" Right. Yes. Of course. And then she set the tone for the future. "When we're in the new space and someone walks in and they look overwhelmed, I want you to walk over, put your arm around them and say, 'Welcome.'"
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