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Chicago’s iO Theater owner says comedy hub will not reopen

Charna Halpern, also the company’s co-founder, says the closing is the result of the COVID-19 pandemic mandated shut-down.

The exterior of the new iO Improv Comedy Theater at 1501 N. Kingsbury, is photographed in 2014.
The exterior of the new iO Improv Comedy Theater at 1501 N. Kingsbury, is photographed in 2014.
Sun-Times File

iO Theater, the longtime North Side comedy hub, is closing its doors indefinitely.

Charna Halpern, the owner and co-founder of the company formerly known as ImprovOlympic, told the Sun-Times on Thursday that the revenue loss brought on by the March mandated shutdown of all theaters (and other non-essential businesses in Illinois) was the deciding factor.

Halpern added that she was “heartbroken” most over the inability to continue the teaching arm of the theater, whose famous alums include Tina Fey, Mike Myers, Chris Farley, Amy Poehler and Stephen Colbert.

iO Theater owner and co-founder Charna Halpern is photographed in 2014.
iO Theater owner and co-founder Charna Halpern is photographed in 2014.
Sun-Times File

Halpern, the sole decision-maker at the company, said her main financial woe is a looming $100,000 property tax bill that she is unable to pay while iO’s income is reduced to near zero. Halpern owns the building and is in discussion with potential buyers of the site at 1501 N. Kingsbury.

“I can only do so much,” said Halpern, 68. “This isn’t a time to start over. It’s not like the other 15 times I’ve been thrown out of a theater. I was young, I could start over, I didn’t have to worry. But, you know, this isn’t the time.”

There are no proposals on the table to keep iO alive elsewhere or under new ownership. “If someone wanted to start an iO and deal with me, I’m not saying no to that,” she said. “Right now my big concern is to get out of this financial problem.

iO and Halpern were also the subjects of recent change.org petitions alleging racism at the company and demanding changes, including “decentralizing theater decision-making, distribution of power more equitably especially with regards to BIPOC, and creating a more genuinely inclusive space for QBIPOC.” The petition also called for Halpern to “publicly acknowledge and apologize for the institutional racism perpetuated at iO as well as her individual history of racism.”

Responding to those demands in an open letter to staff, students and performers last week, Halpern indicated her intention to work toward change, saying in part: “I want to be transparent with you about the state of the theater. ... 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. ... 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.”

She said her decision to step away was unrelated to the racial discussions.

Diversity issues also are roiling Chicago’s other giant of improv shows and classes, Second City, where executive producer and co-owner Andrew Alexander stepped down earlier this month in response to accusations of institutional racism.

iO’s closing comes in the wake of another Chicago theater venue shutting its doors. On Tuesday, the Mercury Theater announced it was closing its doors permanently due to the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown.

Created by Halpern and David Shepherd in 1981, iO became a laboratory for revered improv guru Del Close and has continued teaching Close’s concepts since his death in 1999. The Kingsbury site, where iO moved from Wrigleyville in 2014, houses a restaurant-bar in addition to multiple classrooms and theaters for sketch and improv shows.

“I’ve always been putting money into the theater,” Halpern said. “There’ve been times after we pay taxes — in the beginning of this year, we didn’t have enough money for payroll and I took money out of my own pocket. Because I love my theater. It’s my baby.”