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iO Theater

Coordinates: 41°54′31″N 87°39′06″W / 41.9085°N 87.6517°W / 41.9085; -87.6517
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iO, or iO Chicago, (formerly known as "ImprovOlympic") is an improv theater and training center in central Chicago, with a former branch in Los Angeles, called iO West and in Raleigh, North Carolina called iO South. The theater teaches and hosts performances of improvisational comedy. It was founded in 1981 by Del Close and Charna Halpern.[1] The theater has many notable alumni, including Amy Poehler and Stephen Colbert.[2]

The theatre closed briefly in 2020,[3] though the building was purchased in 2021 and reopened on November 3, 2022.


iO concentrated on "long-form" improvisational structures, in contrast to the "short-form" or "improv game" format of Theatresports, ComedySportz or the television show Whose Line Is It Anyway? The iO's signature piece is the "Harold", and the theater featured other forms of improvisation, as well as sketch comedy and stand-up comedy.[citation needed]

The building had four performance spaces:

  • The Del Close Theater - This was the second-largest of iO's theaters, and was located on the ground floor of the building. It hosted some of iO's premiere shows, such as Virgin Daiquiri, The Improvised Shakespeare Company, and The Deltones.
  • The Chris Farley Cabaret - One of two cabaret-style theaters in the building, this hosted many different types of performances, mostly improvised and mostly non-Harold.
  • The Jason Chin Harold Cabaret - Named after a revered teacher at iO (who died on January 8, 2015) this theater predominantly featured performances of the Harold from house teams at the theater which specialized in that form.
  • The Mission Theater - The largest theater at iO, formerly run and managed by T. J. Jagodowski and David Pasquesi (AKA "TJ and Dave") featured some of iO's most iconic and longest-running shows such as The Armando Diaz Theatrical Experience and Hootenanny, The Musical Armando, and Whirled News Tonight.


The ImprovOlympic was created in 1981 putting competing teams of comedic improvisers on stage in front of audiences. This was the brainchild of David Shepherd who originally created the format in 1972 in New York with Howard Jerome. David Shepherd used the Theater Games, created earlier by Viola Spolin, as a way for teams to compete. The first ImprovOlympic classes and shows took place at The Players Workshop in Chicago, where Charna Halpern was an improv student. Charna Halpern became David Shepherd's assistant, and eventually the producer of the competitions. There were also competitions at a network of local bars and clubs.

In 1982, the ImprovOlympic moved from The Players Workshop to its own space at Thomas Goodman's CrossCurrents theatre, 3207 N. Wilton Street.[4] Teams began to form out of every major improv troupe in Chicago. Shows began shifting to a long-form approach by 1983.

In 1995, the ImprovOlympic moved to its location on Clark St. in Chicago.[5]

An additional theater, iO West was opened by Paul Vaillancourt in Los Angeles, California in 1997. It was managed by Colleen Doyle and Zach Huddleston, before closing in 2018.[6]

In 2001, the International Olympic Committee legally threatened the theater over its use of the name "ImprovOlympic" and the name was subsequently changed to "iO." On September 2, 2005, iO held its 25th anniversary show at the Chicago Theatre in downtown Chicago.[7] The wireless microphones went dead shortly into the show, but the improvisers rallied and played using wired mics for the rest of the performance. Celebrity veterans of the iO program who returned to play included Mike Myers, Tim Meadows, Amy Poehler, and Ike Barinholtz. The opening to the Harold piece performed was conducted by the most veteran iO house team The Reckoning. "Masters of the Harold"[8] and "Stand outs"[9] a DVD of The Reckoning is included in the book Art By Committee[10] a sequel to Truth in Comedy.

In August 2014, after almost 20 years in Chicago's Wrigleyville neighborhood, Charna Halpern bought a building in the Lincoln Park neighborhood and moved the iO Theater to its new home at 1501 N. Kingsbury St.

On June 18, 2020, it was announced that iO would be closing permanently. Controversy ensued regarding whether the closure was due to financial difficulties or allegations of racism that had emerged in the form of an online petition that began circulating only a few days before.[11] Halpern stressed that the reasons were strictly financial, highlighting the property taxes bills of nearly $100,000 that "would have had to come out of her personal savings" as the theater was not making any income as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and acknowledging that, if not for the pandemic, she would not be closing.[12] "I'm 68 years old," she said. "It's scary for me. We're in a pandemic right now and there's no end in sight. Even if we were able to open at half capacity it was not going to work."[13]

In July 2021 the theater was bought by Scott Gendell and Larry Weiner of Chicago. The duo intend to resume shows and classes and the theater officially reopened on November 3, 2022.[14][15]

Notable alumni[edit]

This includes people who have performed or taught at either iO West or iO Chicago:[16]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Obejas, Achy. "Comedy Guru Charna Halpern Carries On". chicagotribune.com. Retrieved 2021-05-30.
  2. ^ "Inside the new iO,where Fey, Poehler got their start". Chicagotribune.com. Retrieved 11 June 2016.
  3. ^ "Improvisation". Getting the Joke: 351–364. 2014. doi:10.5040/9781408177686.ch-021.
  4. ^ Zehme, Bill (November 14, 2017). "Charna Halpern". Chicago Magazine. Tribune Publishing.
  5. ^ "IO Chicago Theater". Archived from the original on April 10, 2010. Retrieved May 19, 2010.
  6. ^ "The Death of an Improv Theater: Mismanagement and Neglect at iO West". pastemagazine.com. 2018-03-29. Retrieved 2021-05-30.
  7. ^ "New Improv Page: I.O. Rebranding and 25th Anniversary". fuzzyco.com. Retrieved 2021-05-30.
  8. ^ "The Reckoning". Charleston City Paper. Archived from the original on 2013-08-26. Retrieved 2020-12-22. {{cite web}}: Check |url= value (help)
  9. ^ "The Reckoning". Chicago Reader. 23 September 2009. Retrieved 2020-12-22.
  10. ^ "Art by Committee: A Guide to Advanced Improvisation|Other Format". Barnes & Noble. Retrieved 2020-12-22.
  11. ^ "Petition accuses Chicago's iO Theater of racism - Chicago Tribune". Chicago Tribune.
  12. ^ "Chicago's famed iO Theater is closing". The A.V. Club. 19 June 2020. Retrieved 2021-05-30.
  13. ^ George, Doug. "Chicago's iO Theater is shutting down permanently". chicagotribune.com. Retrieved 2021-05-30.
  14. ^ "iO theater sold: Buyers plan to resume improv shows and classes - Chicago Sun-Times". 20 July 2021.
  15. ^ Jacobs, Julia (19 July 2021). "Chicago Comedy Institution iO Theater Will Reopen After Sale - The New York Times". The New York Times.
  16. ^ "Alumni Archives - The iO Water Cooler". Iowatercooler.com. Retrieved 11 June 2016.
  17. ^ "Stephen Colbert". Avclub.com. 25 January 2006. Retrieved 11 June 2016.
  18. ^ "Chris Farley Biography". Biography.com. Retrieved 11 June 2016.
  19. ^ a b c d e f g h "APA - Comedy/Spoken Word/Branded Properties > Improv Olympic". Biography.com. Archived from the original on 18 June 2016. Retrieved 11 June 2016.
  20. ^ "Tina Fey - The iO Water Cooler". Iowatercooler.com. 10 April 2013. Retrieved 11 June 2016.
  21. ^ "Kate Flannery". Thelampshades.com. Retrieved 11 June 2016.
  22. ^ "Second City vs. Groundlings vs. UCB: Where Do the Most 'SNL' Cast Members Come From?". Splitsider.com. 14 March 2013. Retrieved 11 June 2016.
  23. ^ "Comedian Seth Meyers". Funny-business.com. Retrieved 11 June 2016.
  24. ^ "Mike Myers". M.IMDb.com. Retrieved 11 June 2016.
  25. ^ "Amy Poehler - The iO Water Cooler". Iowatercooler.com. 14 March 2013. Retrieved 11 June 2016.
  26. ^ "Amy Poehler". IMDb.com. Retrieved 11 June 2016.
  27. ^ "Breaking News - How Jason Sudeikis Landed 'SNL'". Saturday-night-live.com. Retrieved 11 June 2016.
  28. ^ "50 facts about comedian Bob Odenkirk". Boomsbeat.com. 17 December 2015. Retrieved 11 June 2016.
  29. ^ "Miracle workers: Scott Adsit and friends improvise at iO". Chicagoreader.com. 15 June 2012. Retrieved 11 June 2016.
  30. ^ "APA - Comedy/Spoken Word/Branded Properties > Vanessa Bayer". Apa-agency.com. Archived from the original on 29 May 2016. Retrieved 11 June 2016.
  31. ^ a b c "And Scene". Nymag.com. Retrieved 11 June 2016.
  32. ^ "Maria Blasucci - The iO Theater - iO West". Archived from the original on 2017-03-05.
  33. ^ Moynihan, Rob. SNL's "Fab Four", TV Guide, March 7, 2011, Pages 44-45
  34. ^ "Kipleigh Brown". IMDb.com. Retrieved 11 June 2016.
  35. ^ Lawton, Claire (2 October 2014). "Aidy Bryant's Made It Big on Saturday Night Live, But Phoenix Still Feels Like Home". Phoenixnewtimes.com. Retrieved 11 June 2016.
  36. ^ "Jason Winer & Kay Cannon Pilot Picked Up by CBS - The iO Water Cooler". Iowatercooler.com. 12 September 2013. Retrieved 11 June 2016.
  37. ^ "Wyatt Cenac". Iowatercooler.com. Retrieved 11 June 2016.
  38. ^ "Andy Dick - The iO Water Cooler". Iowatercooler.com. 23 December 2013. Retrieved 11 June 2016.
  39. ^ "Kevin Dorff - The iO Water Cooler". Iowatercooler.com. 23 December 2013. Retrieved 11 June 2016.
  40. ^ "Rachel Dratch To Star In Off-Broadway Show - The iO Water Cooler". Iowatercooler.com. 2 October 2014. Retrieved 11 June 2016.
  41. ^ "Jon Favreau". Avclub.com. 7 March 2006. Retrieved 11 June 2016.
  42. ^ "Neil Flynn - The iO Water Cooler". Iowatercooler.com. 15 October 2013. Retrieved 11 June 2016.
  43. ^ "iO Alumni Strengthen TV & Film Projects in 2013 - The iO Water Cooler". Iowatercooler.com. 15 May 2013. Retrieved 11 June 2016.
  44. ^ "You searched for Peter Gwinn - The iO Water Cooler". Iowatercooler.com. Retrieved 11 June 2016.
  45. ^ "TJ Jagodowski - The iO Theater - iO Chicago". Ioimprov.com. Retrieved 11 June 2016.
  46. ^ "One on One with Angela Kinsey - HoboTrashcan". Hobotrashcan.vom. Retrieved 11 June 2016.
  47. ^ "David Koechner talks improv, exploiting yourself to build great characters, and comedy by way of poly-sci". Ifc.com. Retrieved 11 June 2016.
  48. ^ "John Lutz". Ucbcomedy.com. Retrieved 11 June 2016.
  49. ^ "Jack McBrayer". Starpulse.com. Retrieved 11 June 2016.
  50. ^ "Tim Meadows". Tempeimprov.com. Retrieved 11 June 2016.
  51. ^ "Instructors - The iO Theater - iO Chicago". Ioimprov.com. Retrieved 11 June 2016.
  52. ^ Rhoshalle Littlejohn, Janice (17 April 2003). "On top of their game". Articles.latimes.com. Retrieved 11 June 2016 – via LA Times.
  53. ^ "One-on-One with Actor Joel Murray". Tolucantimes.com. Retrieved 11 June 2016.
  54. ^ Martinez, Alexandra (25 February 2016). "Miami's Villain Theater Gets a Chicago Makeover With Mick Napier From Second City". Miaminewtimes.com. Retrieved 11 June 2016.
  55. ^ "David Razowsky - Part 1 - 2/15/07" (PDF). Static1.squarespace.com. Retrieved 2016-06-11.
  56. ^ "Making it Up: An interview with David Pasquesi, improv powerhouse, busy actor and show creator - Chicago film, commercials, advertising, video, production, post, tech news from ReelChicago.com". Reelchicago.com. 14 July 2005. Retrieved 11 June 2016.
  57. ^ "T.J. Miller, Danny Pudi top Chicago Sketch Comedy Festival lineup". Axs.com. Retrieved 11 June 2016.
  58. ^ "Talking Del Close and the Early Days of Chicago Improv with SNL's Alex Baze". Splisider.com. 17 April 2012. Retrieved 11 June 2016.
  59. ^ "Alumni Return To Teach at iO - The iO Water Cooler". Lowercooler.com. 1 October 2013. Retrieved 11 June 2016.
  60. ^ "Big Slick Celebrity Weekend - June 17-18, 2016". Bigslickkc.org. Archived from the original on 27 May 2016. Retrieved 11 June 2016.
  61. ^ "SNL star Cecily Strong returns home amid dream year". Articles.chicagotribune.com. Retrieved 11 June 2016.
  62. ^ "The Quiet Genius of Stephnie Weir". Crasstalk.com. 2 November 2011. Retrieved 11 June 2016.

External links[edit]

41°54′31″N 87°39′06″W / 41.9085°N 87.6517°W / 41.9085; -87.6517