Chicago iO, The improvOlympic, will not reopen after the pandemic: An End To Another Comedy Institution

First the UCB closed up its doors in New York City. Now comes word that the Chicago theater that gave birth to the Upright Citizens Brigade also will not reopen. Charna Halpern, co-founder and still head improviser in charge of improvOlympic (aka iO), confirmed today that Chicago’s iO Theater will not reopen once the pandemic ends.

“This pandemic has made the financial struggle too difficult and I can’t even see the light at the end of the tunnel at this point,” Halpern wrote in an email Wednesday replying to the all-BIPOC group, Free Street Parking. “Over my 40 years, I have met many struggles to keep going and I did it to keep a place for my community to have stage time. But at this point in my life, I can’t continue the struggle to stay open.”

Halpern and the late Del Close had founded improvOlympic in 1981, splintering off from The Second City. By the time they found a permanent home in Wrigleyville in 1995, Halpern had become “the Comedy Mother” to hundreds of talented improvisers and sketch actors, several of whom had made the leap to stardom via Saturday Night Live. It was Adam McKay who called Halpern “Comedy Mother” in a 1995 article in the Chicago Reader. That article spells out the early history of Halpern’s adoption of iO.

Cut to June 2020. Three months into the COVID-19 pandemic, Black, Indigenous and People of Color in the comedy community began demanding change at major comedy institutions — starting at The Second City, where CEO Andrew Alexander responded by announcing his resignation. The UCB 4, who already announced they were shuttering their NYC theater and school, followed suit this month with an announcement that they would seek nonprofit status and form a board to take over operations from the four co-founders. Amid all of this, a petition emerged announcing a boycott of iO. It has garnered more than 2,500 signatures in just over a week since launching on June 9.

Halpern responded the following day, writing:

Thank you. To anyone who has commented or emailed or signed the petition about racism and discrimination at The iO Theater and especially to those that wrote the petition, thank you. We are only capable of improving when we are able to take a note, so I open my ears and my heart to your concerns and critiques.

My heart is being pulled and broken in so many different directions right now. I have been outraged at the police brutality and the violence against the Black Lives Matter movement. My heart breaks again to see and hear the experiences of BIPOC performers that have been uncomfortable, discriminated against, pained, and felt unheard at iO. As the owner of iO I must take responsibility for the failings in every department, and for my own failings. I am sorry.

I started iO 40 years ago to legitimize improv as an art form and to create a safe space for all artists to be creative. I realize now that despite my goal to foster an environment of support and positive embrace, I have not been engaged or active enough in supporting the BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ members of our community. The world has changed greatly in my time and only I am responsible for my lack of adapting with these changes.

I am sorry for ever patting myself on the back for incremental change. I am sorry for ever thinking small reforms were enough to fix systemic and institutional problems in our culture. To any BIPOC or LGBTQIA+ member of our community, I am sorry for ever making you feel less than, or underappreciated, or unimportant. I would never willfully use my words or actions to discriminate against someone based on their race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or gender identity, but I must realize that over the years my actions have undoubtedly been hurtful and damaging. Ignorance is not an excuse. I want to acknowledge that ignorance and hold myself accountable to grow and change. I am sorry for not acting more effectively to criticism and calls for change in the past. 

Over the past two weeks, and really for years, as I’ve read criticism and complaints about iO online, I can’t help but feel sad. I take it personally and my emotions get the best of me and I get resentful and angry. I often wonder if anyone appreciates the work we have done at iO for the past 40 years. I realize now that this criticism and critique, and calls for reform come from a place of love. I wouldn’t receive the critical comments and messages if people didn’t want the theater to change for the better. There wouldn’t be a petition signed by 1,500 and growing if they didn’t care for iO and want it to improve. I feel grateful and thankful for having a community such as this that will hold those accountable who can affect that change. Anyone who wants to perform at iO should be able to do so without the guilt that they are supporting an institution whose morals and ethics don’t align with their own. For all of the reasons here I happily commit to working towards the demands laid out in the petition.

I want to be transparent with you about the state of the theater. The future of iO is fragile. Our forced closure caused by Covid-19 has taken a large financial toll on the business. But we are working now on a way to determine how and when we will be able to finance the decentralized power structure you suggest, as well as the hiring of a BIPOC Diversity & Inclusion Coordinator. Every day that we cannot open, the financial situation gets worse, and there is only so much time we have before the business will not be able to return. Management and I are currently making available every resource to be able to reopen in some capacity when we get permission from the city. Until then we will start discussions on creating the proposed committees and creating a more equitable decision-making process. Regarding all seven of the petition’s demands, we only ask for your patience while we try to stabilize the future viability of the theater. 

Our return, if and when it occurs, will likely be slow, and clumsy, and strange, but I pledge that it will also be open, transparent, and anti-racist. It is now our job to prove to the community that we are worthy of their talent and support as we get back on our feet and work to grow into a better version of iO. 

But the financial burden on Halpern proved too much. As she told The New York Times via email: “The county is continuing to make us pay property tax. The mantra from the city is ‘We are in this together’ but the county mantra is ‘You’re in this alone.’”

Sean L. McCarthy

Editor and publisher since 2007, when he was named New York's Funniest Reporter. Former newspaper reporter at the New York Daily News, Boston Herald and smaller dailies and community papers across America. Loves comedy so much he founded this site.

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