Thirty-two years ago Charna Halpern approached Del Close with an offer. He was already a renowned director in the world of comedy, and working at Second City. She had just launched the ImprovOlympic and wanted him to teach a class.
"I heard about this guy named Del, who was a genius and didn't like me," Halpern recalled, "So I went up to him and said, 'Hey, how would you like to make 200 bucks and some pot?'"
Three decades later, after such modest, not to mention illicit, beginnings, Halpern and Co. are prepping to open iO's new headquarters — bigger, newer, swankier — in Lincoln Park's Clybourn Corridor. The move was set in motion when Halpern found out that the corner of Clark and Addison (home to her venue for nearly 20 years) was slated for redevelopment. But the move comes at a good time. Years after John Belushi and Bill Murray and Mike Myers and countless others made their mark in Chicago, the city is still a beacon for sketch comedy and improv. "Saturday Night Live" executive producer Lorne Michaels comes to town on a regular basis to scoop up talent. And the demand for classes is at an all-time high, higher-ups at many comedy institutions say.
iO outgrew its old space.
It was time to step things up.
A week ago I sat down with Halpern in the office of her new building on Kingsbury Street. The ceilings are high, and the exposed brick and rough-hewn posts give the place the look of a converted loft. The walls were bare except for a bulletin board that held various floor plans from her architect. The room was empty but for the two folding chairs we dragged in with us. The furniture had not yet been delivered; the bar not yet stocked. But there were students enrolled in her Summer Intensive, a program populated by international performers (including Stefan Pagels, "the MacAulay Culkin of Denmark," as Halpern put it), and they were already settling into the classrooms.
Four minutes into our conversation, Halpern's cellphone rang. This happened again and again as we talked that afternoon, and each time she would give an exasperated shake of her head before taking the call. Expanding her operation to this size and scale — 33,000 square feet, more than double her old space — has been a considerable undertaking. "My life is like a Rubik's Cube," she said into the phone.
The theater complex will include classrooms, a beer garden, a window-lined event space (it's easy to picture couples renting it as an urban, rustic-industrial alternative to the trend of weddings in barns), offices and a full kitchen that will offer pub food.
The old venue, which was once a training ground for Tina Fey, Amy Poehler and Ike Barinholtz (a trio currently filming the house party comedy "The Nest"), will be knocked down and redeveloped. This is why Halpern bought the new building in 2012. It might have been time for iO ( http://ioimprov.com/chicago) to leave the neighborhood anyway. Stepping out on the sidewalk at 1 a.m. last month after the final show at the former digs was a jarring sensation. The unruly crowd that fills Clark Street on weekend nights — looking to keep the party going — isn't Halpern's audience.
"I wasn't planning on leaving; I had a great location," she said. "But now I'm glad I moved because the neighborhood has changed so much in just two years. There's a very strange element walking around that wasn't there before. There was a stabbing at Irish Oak (bar).
"And it's just really hard with the Cubs. People always think that because the Cubs are there I'm making a lot of money off the walk-by traffic, but you don't. In fact, those are not the people who are going into the theater; they're the ones who are peeing on the theater. They're not going to come in and sit down and be quiet and watch an improv show. They're screaming and getting drunk — or drunker."
The phone rang again. This time it was the landscaper and he was outside. "I'll meet you in the alley, do you know where that is?" Halpern asked, explaining that it was next to the strip club next door called VIPs. "All you guys know where that is." She paused. "No? Yeah, you're not going to sell me on that one."
We trudged out the side door and down the alley to meet him. Halpern pointed out the overgrown weeds she needed cleared. He asked what kind of business was going inside the building. He had never heard of iO, and Halpern was too distracted to explain.
"It's an improv theater," I told him. "A lot of people who go on to careers on 'Saturday Night Live' start here." He considered this for a moment and decided it sounded interesting.
As Halpern and I walked back inside and climbed the stairs to the second floor to look around, we passed a construction worker sitting on an overturned bucket eating his lunch. "Hey, when are ya gonna open?" he asked. "I wanna come!"
These two middle-aged men aren't emblematic of iO's typical crowd, but they were intensely curious, which suggests the new space has the potential to attract a broader audience than the one that frequented the threadbare haunt in Wrigleyville.
At Second City you get polished, high-energy scripted revues. Shows at the Annoyance Theatre (which itself just moved into a newly renovated space in Lakeview) embrace the seamier side of life. But iO (which shortened its name years ago — Halpern can't recall when — due to legal pressure from the International Olympic Committee) has built a reputation as the epicenter of long-form improv. What is long-form, anyway? You might describe it as improvisation with theatrical aims — character, story, real stakes — not merely a "Whose Line Is It Anyway?" jokey approach. And it was developed by Close, a charismatic and voluble character who died in 1999 of complications from emphysema.
"This was a man who used to be an alcoholic, and he kicked it," Halpern said. "He was a cocaine addict and a heroin addict, and he was able to kick both of them. But cigarettes he couldn't kick, and that's what killed him."
In the old iO building, a certain grubbiness and transgressiveness was part of the charm.
"I think that made it cool to me," said "SNL's" Aidy Bryant, who performed on iO's house team, Virgin Daiquiri, before joining the NBC sketch show in 2012. "There was something a little bit gritty about it that appealed to me. That late-night comedy club lifestyle, that's what I wanted."