iO Theater

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iO, or iO Chicago, (formerly known as "ImprovOlympic") is a theater and training center located at 1501 N. Kingsbury in Chicago, Illinois (formerly 3541 N. Clark St.). The theater both teaches and hosts performances of improvisational comedy. It was founded in 1981 by the late Del Close and Charna Halpern. iO concentrates 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 features other forms of improvisation, as well as sketch comedy and stand-up comedy.

In addition to five performance spaces, the building also has multiple classrooms for use by the theater's training center, as well as a large private event space available to rent for various functions. There is a large full bar located on the first floor, a smaller one located upstairs, with food available from the kitchen downstairs.

The building has 4 performance spaces:

  • The Del Close Theater - This is the second-largest of iO's theaters, and is located on the ground floor of the building. It hosts some of iO's premiere shows such as The Armando Diaz Theatrical Experience and Hootenanny, Whirled News Tonight, The Improvised Shakespeare Company, and The Deltones.
  • The Chris Farley Cabaret - One of two "cabaret" style theaters in the building, this theater hosts 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 features performances of the "Harold" from house teams at the theater that specialize in that form.
  • The Mission Theater - This theater is adjacent to the main iO complex, but is separately run and managed by T. J. Jagodowski and David Pasquesi, or "TJ and Dave".

There are performances both upstairs and downstairs every night of the week, with the exception of some holidays. Shows can consist of either a Harold or a "show". Shows can be special limited runs (typically 1– 2 months) of a particular group / piece, or they can be open runs of long standing formats using regular performers at the theater (e.g. The Armando Diaz Theatrical Experience and Hootenanny, which has the same format but a different cast every week). A typical "Harold performance" consists of 2 or 3 groups doing a Harold; newer teams usually open the night and more veteran teams give the final performance(s). On some nights, usually in the downstairs theater, they will play the short form game "The Dream" using an audience volunteer after the second Harold of the night, and then play the short form game "Freeze" after the final Harold. A "show" slot typically, but not always, has a Harold team open for them, usually one of the newer teams.

There are approximately 35 Harold teams at iO at this time; the exact number fluctuates up and down when old teams are cut from the roster and new teams are created. New teams in the past have come from the final performance level class (5B), from open auditions, and from recombining performers taken from cut teams. The oldest Harold team has been together for more than 5 years, several have been around for 3+ years, and there are many that are less than 6 months old.

iO has one other active franchise: iO West, located in Los Angeles, California. A former franchise, iO South, was located in Raleigh, North Carolina.


1981 - The ImprovOlympic was created, putting competing teams of comedic improvisers on stage in front of audiences. It was the brainchild of David Shepherd, who used early Viola Spolin theater games 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.

1982 - The ImprovOlympic moved from The Players Workshop to its own space. Teams began to form out of every major improv troupe in Chicago.

1983 - Shows began shifting to a long-form approach.

1995 - The ImprovOlympic moves to its location on Clark St. in Chicago.[1]

1997 - Paul Vaillancourt opened a companion theater, iO West, in Los Angeles, California. Today it is managed by James Grace.

2001 - The International Olympic Committee threatened the theater legally over its use of the name "ImprovOlympic" and the name was subsequently changed to "iO."

2005 (Sept 2) - iO holds its 25th anniversary show at the Chicago Theater in downtown Chicago. The wireless microphones go dead shortly into the show, but the improvisers rally and play using wired mics for the rest of the performance. Celebrity veterans of the iO program who return to play include Mike Myers, Tim Meadows, Amy Poehler, Ike Barinholtz, and many more. The opening to the Harold piece performed is conducted by the most veteran iO house team "The Reckoning."

2006 - iO begins a joint venture with ComedyWorx of Raleigh, NC to create the third iO training center, named iO South.

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

Notable alumni[edit]

This includes alumni from either iO West or iO Chicago:

See also[edit]


External links[edit]