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."
The new space is just that — new. And clean. Halpern has spent the last year or so remodeling the building, once home to a bakery and a furniture showroom, from the studs. I wondered aloud to longtime improviser David Pasquesi if that might hamper the renegade spirit of the sketch and improv scene. The pristine digs won't stay that way for long, he told me. "Have you been backstage at many places?" he said. "Backstage is always the worst place in the building. Go into any beautiful theater — backstage it's a s---hole." His performing partner TJ Jagodowski put it this way: "The green rooms (at iO) will all eventually develop that smell and look the same: spilled and rutted."
The old bakery will be home to the Del Close Theater, iO's main space, which will seat 170. Two smaller theaters — one named for iO alum Chris Farley (seating 80) and the other named for the Harold, a seminal improv technique developed by Close (seating 100) — are upstairs. A fourth space on the ground floor (the largest, with a capacity of 225) will be home to the Mission, a new sketch and improv theater run by Jagodowski and Pasquesi, both nationally known improvisers. They will pay rent and operate independently of iO.
Though he has been gone for 15 years, Close is still a presence at iO, and not just symbolically: In the old venue, Halpern had a shrine, with old photos and Close's ashes, and she is reconstructing it in the new one, to be located somewhere in the theater that is named for him.
With the finish line in sight, Halpern is eyeing a soft launch the second or third week in August. A grand opening, with celebrity alumni (including "Modern Family" Emmy winner Eric Stonestreet, "Daily Show" correspondent Jordan Klepper and "30 Rock's" Jack McBrayer), is set for Aug. 29.
The centerpiece of iO's new building is the bar on the main floor, a big, inviting hangout space that will be a major draw, even during the day. Halpern wants it to feel like a clubhouse — for students, performers and anyone who just wants to be around talented people. "When I was there, the funniest things in the city were happening at iO," said Cecily Strong, who was hired on "Saturday Night Live" (also in 2012) after performing in an iO showcase. "It's such a hungry atmosphere. I was there every night of my life, practically."
That was true even 25 years earlier, when Neil Flynn (ABC's "The Middle") and movie director Adam McKay ("Anchorman") were at iO. Flynn told me he saw a notice for a show and called for tickets. "Charna answered the phone herself because the operation was quite a bit smaller back then, and she suggested, as maybe she did to anybody that called for tickets, that I take classes. I took her up on it and, professionally speaking, it's the best decision I ever made."
Those years were instrumental "to a kind of insane degree," he said. "Playing the janitor on 'Scrubs' was aided by an improv background. The creator of that show, Bill Lawrence, had seen me improvise (at iO West, the theater's LA outpost, where Flynn still performs), so he gave me almost complete freedom to offer alternative lines. The improv background was a huge factor in that."
There is a tremendous amount of crossover among Chicago's different comedy institutions, which include The Playground, ComedySportz, pH Productions, Chemically Imbalanced Comedy, MCL Chicago (formerly Studio BE) and the Pub Theater. "Some go (to iO) first and then get good and go to Second City," Halpern said. "Some take classes at different places in town simultaneously. Some go to Second City and then come here." A sizable number of performers hired for Second City's e.t.c. and Mainstage are, in fact, iO veterans.
"You only get good at this work when you have tons of reps," said Second City Executive Vice President Kelly Leonard, "and what iO has done, specifically with its focus on long-form improvisation, is give young performers really valuable stage time to go out and fail; be brilliant; fail again and be brilliant. And we benefit from that because they help season the talent."
McKay is among those who performed at both theaters, but there is noticeable iO DNA in his film work.
"Without a doubt it had a huge influence," he said. "To me there's no difference between the written script and the improvisation you do on the day (of shooting). Whether it's the actors improvising or me yelling out lines, it's all a continuation of the process, and that all comes from Del and Charna and Chicago. I'm always surprised when comedy directors don't do it."
Now more than ever, Chicago is the place to study comedy.
"The numbers are staggering," Leonard said. "The schools are triple or quadruple what they were. There are national management companies and agents who have employees living here in Chicago. They're here. And if they're not, they come constantly in a way that they didn't before."
You could argue some of that is because Hollywood has increasingly sought out people with these skills, writer-performers who can think on their feet and work as a team instead of letting their egos get in the way. Leonard has another theory.
"There are so many other ways to get seen or discovered on YouTube," he said, "but I think when people look at the real success stories, they see that they came from Chicago." He mentioned Thomas Middleditch, the star of HBO's "Silicon Valley," who was a key early cast member in iO's long-running hit "Improvised Shakespeare." It's no exaggeration to say that future household names are performing onstage right now somewhere in town.
"The real success stories are still embedded in Chicago," said Leonard, and the current TV roster bears that out. A good chunk of "SNL's" writing staff and cast came from Chicago stages. Same with Seth Meyers and his writers on NBC's "Late Night." Same with the deeply talented stars of Comedy Central's "Key & Peele." Same with the man who will be assuming the late-night mantle at CBS, Stephen Colbert. The list goes on: Joel Murray, David Koechner, Jane Lynch, Jason Sudeikis, Steve Carell, Vanessa Bayer. Chicago's track record as the place to hone your comedy chops is substantial and ongoing, which accounts for the ever-increasing demand for classes. Halpern has about 800 students enrolled at her training center and charges $280 for a two-month session.
The classes are moneymakers — the moneymakers, Halpern said. She estimates that 60 percent of her revenue is from the school; the remaining 40 percent comes from liquor sales, the box office and corporate events.
"(Second City founder) Bernie Sahlins gave me my first piece of advice, which was: Don't take a partner, and the money's in the classes," she said.
The money is no small matter. It never is. Halpern purchased the building on Kingsbury for $4.2 million. "The renovation was supposed to cost $2.5 million, but it's not," she said, "it's going to be closer to $3 million or more by the time I'm done."
She's on the hook to the bank for more than $7 million dollars. I asked if this was causing anxiety.
"No," she said. "I've rented the main theater to a young, hip church group on Sunday mornings. There's a company renting ad space on a sign that's on the other side of the building, on Blackhawk (Street)." She is also renting office space to casting director Marisa Ross, a recent Chicago transplant from LA (her credits include "How I Met Your Mother"), who will operate her agency out of iO, as well as to Brooke Shoemaker, who is running the local outpost of talent management company Principato-Young.
"So that, plus rent from TJ and Dave, and I'll be paying a lot less (every month) than I ever paid. I'm not panicked at all."
At 62, Halpern is at an age when most people start thinking about easing off the gas. "I know," she said, "and look what I'm doing, taking out a $7 million loan." (She's not the only one extending her footprint: Second City recently acquired the empty movie theater space in Piper's Alley.)
Over the years, Halpern's role at the theater has grown beyond that of a pure business owner. She is equal parts boss lady, den mother, teacher, reluctant therapist and well-meaning relative who sometimes drives the people around her crazy.
Four years ago, a full-blown expansion was the last thing on her mind. "I was planning to buy a big house with a lot of land in Riverwoods," she said. "I figured this is the time in my life where I could get more dogs. I sound like the crazy lady with the dogs. I only have three right now. But that's not enough. And if you get a few acres of land with a forest behind it, that's great for dogs. So I was ready to put money down."
On Wednesday I called to check in with Halpern. The stress was getting to her.
"Every time the phone rings, it's something else," she said. "I'm in hell. When I think of everything I've gone through, I'm not sure if I would do it again." The sprinkler system, for example, worked fine right up until the inspection. She was meeting with the city to work through other details. "I'm so close, and they are throwing so much stuff at me that we already dealt with."
Delays and hiccups are par for the course on construction projects. But Halpern can't afford to put off opening her doors much longer; she has payroll to make. Her ambitions are not for the faint of heart, and the expansion and financial investment mean she will be heavily involved with the theater for years to come.
She gave a sardonic laugh at that thought.
"I'll be senile, and they'll be rolling me around here."
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