Overseeing the months-long, problem-fraught build-out of her new “mansion” at 1501 N. Kingsbury has left Charna Halpern worse for the wear. But there’s much to be proud of, she says, when it comes to the multimillion-dollar, 40,000-square-foot education and performance space that her venerable improv bastion iO Theater (former training ground of Mike Myers, Chris Farley, Adam McKay, Cecily Strong, Dan Bakkedahl and numerous others) now calls home, so the headaches have all been worth it. Mostly.
“The emotional toll has been the worst,” says the ever candid Halpern, who established iO as “ImprovOlympic” with improv oracle Del Close back in 1981 and for nearly two decades occupied a no-frills rented space on North Clark in Wrigleyville. “I think I’ve gained 50 pounds. I’m a stress eater, I’ve discovered. And I haven’t slept in a very long time, because I’ll wake up at 3 in the morning and go, ‘Wait a minute, did I make a hallway into the green room so [actors] don’t have to walk into the theaters? Wait a minute, do we have house lights?’ Because there are things that were forgotten sometimes by the architect, so then I’d wake up and I’d text my poor architect and he’d yell at me, and I’d say, ‘I didn’t think you were going to see [the messages] before you woke up. I just have to do it now before I forget.’ ”
The strain got so bad, she admits, that “There are many times I thought, ‘This is too much for one person.’ ”
Nonetheless, she proclaims, “I’m still here.”
The theater’s star-studded grand opening, slated for Aug. 29 and 30 and featuring a host of prominent iO alums such as “30 Rock’s” Jack McBrayer and “Anchorman” star David Koechner, is when Halpern says she’ll at last let down her guard and stop fretting — at least for one night.
“I will get drunk the night that we open,” she says. “They will be scooping me off the floor.”
Shortly before her planned Aug. 12 soft open, amid the bustle of improv classes and continuing construction, Halpern gave the Sun-Times an extensive tour of her nearly finished new digs. Here’s an exclusive first look. Afterwards, scroll down for a gallery of photos.
PHOTO GALLERY BY RICHARD A. CHAPMAN/CHICAGO SUN-TIMES
The Harold Cabaret
The Del Close Theater
The Mission Theater
The Box Office
The Chris Farley Cabaret
An iO classroom
The iO Event Space
Charna Halpern onstage in the Del Close TheaterVideo: iO Theater owner Charna Halpern talks 20 years on Clark St.