iO Theatre: Improv Comedy at its Best
Everyone asks me the same question when I tell them that I moved to Chicago to study improv comedy. The question rarely comes out as a question half of the time, but as an assumed, rhetorical statement, worded something like, “Oh, you’re performing at Second City?” It used to make me cringe when I heard it. It wasn’t that I had anything against Second City; the comedy nerd in me despised the assumption that Chicago’s largest comedy institution was also its only. I would grind my teeth, wondering why society at large had failed to spend the majority of its high school and college days buried in comedy and its history thereof. “Many performers that you know and love from film and TV studied at multiple theaters all over the city,” my brain would scream, “can’t you see the larger culture?” But now I politely explain that, no, I am actually studying at iO Theatre in Wrigleyville. iO, formerly the Improv Olympic, is the longform improv heart of the city. Second City tends to get all of the glory, and when a tourist comes to Chicago it the go-to place to go for laughter. That theater has produced some of the best comic minds in the last half-century. What many people don’t realize is the long list of brilliance that has come through iO as well, people like Tina Fey, Stephen Colbert, Seth Meyers, Vince Vaughn, and Amy Poehler, to name a few. Second City is a sketch comedy powerhouse, of this there is no doubt. But if you want to see or study improv comedy there may be no better place in the world than iO.
iO Theatre has existed in its current location since 1995 but has been training improvisers in the art of longform since 1981. In the past, much of improv was used as a tool to develop ideas that could later be written into sketches or bits. Co-founders Charna Halpern and Del Close collaborated to bring together many of these ideas and moves to create their vision — a long, improvised piece that was a performance in itself and not merely a means to a separate end. What they created was The Harold, a structured piece of improvisation that can still be seen six nights a week at the theater and off of which countless other forms have spawned into existence. The original structure of the Harold began with a group idea builder where the troupe would attempt to take an audience suggestion, typically a word or phrase, and draw out a strong theme from it. Then they would improvise a show in roughly three acts. From the theme the troupe would perform three distinct scenes, and then an unrelated group game. After this, the three scenes would be revisited. This could be accomplished in a variety of ways: a time change where we saw the characters earlier or later in life, a scene with a similar premise as the first scene but with different characters, or in any number of other connective ways. After that there would be another group scene, and then a final round of revisiting the original three scenes. The hope was always that by the end of the piece the greater theme from the opening would have been explored to its final outcome.
Two floors of stages house shows every single night of the week. The lower floor is the Cabaret and consists of a semi-circle stage surrounded by tables and chairs and a fully stocked bar in the back. Harold teams, made up of selected alumni from their training program, frequently perform as opening acts for shows that break from the traditional form and take on a life of their own. The Deltones improvise musical scenes, Cook County Social Club melt from group scene to group scene, and TJ and Dave create a single scene one act, often playing multiple characters each. Upstairs is the Del Close Theatre, named after the late co-founder, an eccentric and brilliant professor of improv. His praise has been sung by the likes of Chris Farley, Mike Myers, and Billy Murray. His is a more traditional theater space with doors and curtain entrances to the stage and another fully stocked bar. The upstairs also houses Harold teams along with another cadre of unbelievable shows. Felt is an improvised, bawdy puppet show; The Improvised Shakespeare Company performs an entire play in the style of the bard; The Armando Diaz Experience features a guest monologist and a rotating cast of improv all-stars riffing off of their stories and opinions.
The theater is also a training center and produces fantastic improv comedians year in and year out. Their program consists of several levels, through which they slowly work you into their signature form, the Harold, and then empower you to develop your own form. Don’t be intimidated by a lack of experience. Many strong players currently performing at the theater began their training at iO with no previous improv experience. The levels are designed to build off of the fundamentals, as even a veteran of any art form can benefit from a strengthening of their core.
iO Theatre is celebrating its 30th anniversary this September and there are so many shows worth fighting hoards of cubs fans for. It is an intimate space that houses some of the best spontaneous theater in the city. You never know if you are watching someone you may see on TV or in the movies a year or two from now, but for the real students of comedy it’s about more than that. The performers at iO love what they are doing; they live and breathe improv comedy. The real thrill at iO is watching live theater of the heart, performers who work day in and day out at an art form appreciated by so few, but loved so deeply by those who do. It became one of my first families in the city and I couldn’t imagine a more worthwhile place to spend my time.