This weekend, Charna Halpern's iO Chicago, once known as ImprovOlympic before the pesky International Olympic Committee decided to enforce its trademark, makes its final exit from the scruffy strip of Clark Street bars just south of Wrigley Field.
The Chicago launchpad for many a TV and Hollywood career in comedy is headed farther south — to posh, new digs located in a former antique furniture warehouse at 1501 N. Kingsbury St. Its new neighbor will be, tellingly, Whole Foods, with its wine bars and shrewd embrace of the third-space concept, rather than the old Sluggers Bar with its batting cages, dueling pianos and $3.50 Coors Light specials on a Monday.
So what does this move mean?
To some degree, the iO move is nothing more than a consequence of the real estate machinations on its periphery. Halpern's Wrigleyville joint — she was there for two decades and owns this for-profit business — was housed in a building owned by her cousin. Redevelopment plans for this block of mostly low-rise buildings, plans long in the gestation, have obliged her to vacate.
Since a shift in locale was inevitable, and since the demand for iO's improv and comedy classes has only increased with the rise of Chicago's unique developmental place in the orbit of "Saturday Night Live" and the like, it made sense to up the ante and seek out more space. So the new iO digs will have four theaters, three bars, a dedicated event space and an expanded training center.
But on a deeper level, the changes at iO are indicative of the shift to a new paradigm in a city that has so many students and early career practitioners of comedy and improvisation that they make up a self-sustaining ecosystem. You can see this not just at the new iO, but also in the new Annoyance Theatre in Lakeview, where no space is more important than the bar.
By the usual rules of retail and live entertainment, a move from Wrigleyville, with its sidewalks crowded with imbibing entertainment seekers on a Friday night, to the much quieter environs of the so-called Clybourn Corridor retail district, dominated by big-box stores selling designer furniture and accessories, would seem counterintuitive.
Thousands of people walk past the door of 3541 N. Clark St. on a Saturday night; few people are taking a stroll on Kingsbury, although that neighborhood is, for sure, changing fast.
Moreover, the history of Chicago entertainment and culture speaks to a close relationship between improv comedy and party-loving, sports bar-friendly neighborhoods like Wrigleyville. A generation ago, the Organic Theater made its name with "Bleacher Bums," a show that was created after the young guns who ran the Organic observed the thousands of Cubs fans streaming past their theater's door and decided to write and perform something that might actually tempt them to step inside. And so they did.
But the reality is that iO does not survive on its foot traffic, especially not these days. It survives — and, demonstrably, thrives — because its long history has created a culture of students, alumni, performers, hangers-on and those who find themselves happiest when occupying a not-quite-work, but not-mere-leisure, space that involves a bit of performing, a bit of watching and a lot of hanging out at the bar(s).
When those who practice and follow Chicago improv head to the new iO, with its overt clubhouse feel, they'll be occupying a third space not so different, really, from what Whole Foods offers at its upscale supermarket up the block and, of course, what the Apple Store offers at its not-just-a-store space just a few hundred yards to the north.
Increasingly in Chicago there's a lot of new competition when it comes to building clubhouses for creative types. The London-based Soho House, an upscale members club known for its prohibition of business attire and its breaking down of work and leisure spaces into something more comfortably ambivalent, is beginning operations in Chicago's West Loop, where it plans to distinguish itself from the city's many old-line clubs by attracting creative professionals from the likes of Google or Groupon, people who are seeking something beyond university affiliations, locker rooms and portraits of stuffy-looking Chicago industrialists on the walls. The new iO will represent real competition for the Soho House.
For the last 20 years or so, iO has carved out a niche as the looser end of the comedy-training hierarchy. For years, iO has been the place where actors from other comedy theaters like Second City came to play after hours. It also has historically been a club where more people could play; there are levels and competitive slots, but they are not as rigid as Second City's more hierarchal structure, wherein some rise up the ranks to the Main Stage and many do not get that chance. Stand-up clubs usually mean one person at the microphone; improv is not something one usually does alone.
This sense of iO being messier, less organized, less rigid than Second City has its roots in the famous battles between Del Close, the main creative force behind the early years of iO and a guru who believed that improvisation was an art form in its own right, and the late Bernie Sahlins.
Sahlins, who wrestled Second City into institutional maturity and found its huge civilian audience, famously insisted that improvisation, or the art of making things up as a rehearsed scene progresses, was best used as a tool for sketch comedy that would later become codified, rehearsed, tightened and (usually) fully scripted.
Most neutral observers would probably say that the shows at iO, which tend to be cheaper and less formalized and greater in number, have much less polish and maybe a higher failure rate than at Second City, but that the iO's openness allows for greater radical revelation and excitement when something really goes through the roof or a huge talent finds his or her way to the stage.
That's not to say there's no crossover; when Second City producer Kelly Leonard radically reinvented the artistic form of the Main Stage revue in the mid-1990s, he pulled a lot of performers (Tina Fey et al.) who had spent hour after hour hanging at iO.
It is an acknowledged debt, and it has served Chicago well.
Still, iO is a business, and the bar is a big part of how to keep the books in the black. Improv actors often like to drink, and they certainly like to socialize in a place where they can feel comfortable and run into friends, not to mention the odd agent who might help them get that break.
Like all institutions that train as well as produce — a list that includes Second City, Steppenwolf, Annoyance and many others — iO could be charged with taking tuition money and leading on those with modest talents. But it's a free country; those who can afford it are entitled to learn their craft and have their shot at Lorne Michaels' NBC moon. By now, surely, only fools think that the odds are in their favor.
Whether or not they like to admit it, what most improv and comedy students are actually buying is a lifestyle, a community, a network, a creative clubhouse where friendships and partnerships can lead in all kinds of creative directions. After all, the CEO of Twitter, Dick Costolo, trained in Chicago improv. You don't need to be near Wrigley Field for that, and you don't need bars with which you must compete. What you need most is your own bars, as many performance stages as possible and lots of places to hang.