Founded in 1981, iO (Formerly ImprovOlympic) is the world famous flashpoint of comic creativity that spawned an entire generation of America’s best and brightest entertainers. Over 5000 people have trained and performed at iO’s Chicago and Los Angeles theaters, including some of the most recognizable names in show business; Mike Myers, Chris Farley, David Koechner, Adam McKay, Tina Fey and many, many more.
Charna Halpern held a belief that improv was capable of more than the short games and competition-style shows that dominated the scene through the 1970s. It was then that she met legendary director and improv luminary Del Close. Their shared vision for a deeper, more robust form of improvisation based on trust and agreement would be rounded into shape and set in motion when they developed the Harold at iO (then ImprovOlympic). With Del serving as the mentor and Charna the guide, longform was born and the two would change the face of improvisational comedy.
It was Del’s belief that performers needed to have the utmost respect for one another- that if they treated each other like geniuses, poets and artists, they could become that on stage. This philosophy and the famous “yes, and!” notion that agreement is vital on stage helped iO establish itself in the community, and with that the Chicago improv scene was born. In short order iO grew from a ragtag nomadic group of comedic artists into a nationally recognized artistic institution, a destination for the world’s most talented comedians to study and experiment and work. In 1995, iO moved into its current location on Clark Street in Chicago and iO West opened in Los Angeles in 1997. Charna and Del would co-author “Truth In Comedy”, hailed by Bill Murray as “The most important group work since they built the pyramids,” and considered by many to be the bible of improvisational comedy.
Emphysema claimed Del Close’s life in 1999. His last words to Charna were:
“Tell them we succeeded where others have failed. We created Theater of the Heart, a theater where people cherish each other to succeed onstage”
Charna and the dedicated faculty of iO have spent their lives spreading this message and fostering the further development of improvisation as both an artform and a philosophy. Their success resonates far beyond the realm of entertainment. The American embassy in Cyprus hired Charna to teach her lessons in agreement to the Greek and Turkish Cypriots, helping them raise the borders and live as one people. The particle physicists at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider brought Charna to Swizerland to help a disparate group of physicists from all over the world work together. It was the lessons of improvisation that helped avoid disaster, as the Collider was turned on without causing a planet-swallowing black hole. Having conquered the worlds of global politics and particle physics, Charna turned her attention to MTV’s The Real World, serving as an on-air coach to season XX’s cast of show-biz dreamers. This, it goes without saying, is considered iO’s greatest achievement.
A second book, Art By Committee, was published in 2006 as iO celebrated its 25th Anniversary. iO’s Training Center spreads Del’s vision to 500 new students every year, and iO alumni continue to thrive in the entertainment industry and all walks of life. The story continues, day in, day out. The stars of tomorrow are learning the secrets of the Harold in our Training Center, while the sharpest minds in comedy are pushing the envelope, continually experimenting with the form and delighting audiences seven nights a week at our theaters. This is the fruit of Del and Charna’s labor, and that of the over 5000 people who have called iO home. Improvisation is an artform in and of itself, and iO is its home.
Charna Halpern has been teaching performers how to work together for more than 25 years. Having founded the world famous ImprovOlympic Theatres (now iO) in Chicago and Hollywood, Charna’s theaters are the meccas of training in the art of improvisation and act as a recruiting stop for television shows like Saturday Night Live, Late Night with Conan O’Brien, The Daily Show, The Colbert Report and MADtv, supplying both coasts with writers and performers.
Her first book, Truth in Comedy, which she co-wrote with her late partner Del Close, acts as a guide for teaching and performing improvisation to theaters and groups across the world. Specializing in creating a group mind with hilarious end results, she is now sharing her secrets and skills with businesses to give them the creative edge they need to compete in the corporate world.
Charna and her work is featured in Season XX of MTV’s hit show The Real World.
Del Close was born and raised in Manhattan, Kan. and attended Kansas State University, after touring with a side show act for a period of time in his teenage years. In 1957, at the age of 23, he became a member of the St. Louis branch of the Compass Players, the direct precursor of The Second City, which opened in December, 1959. Most of the St. Louis cast went to Chicago, but Close chose New York and a budding career as a hip, young stand-up comic in competition with Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, Bob Newhart, etc. That same year he also appeared in the Off-Broadway musical, The Nervous Set, of which an original cast album exists.
Close came to Chicago in 1960 and more or less made it his home for the rest of his life, always gravitating back there after a few months or even years elsewhere. Perhaps he understood instinctively the advice Paul Sills gave Stuart Gordon some years later: “Come to Chicago, they Close directed and performed at The Second City until he was fired (major substance abuse problems) in 1965. He spent the next five years in San Francisco eating acid and touring with the Merry Pranksters on their famous psychedelic bus, creating light images for the Grateful Dead, and working with The Committee, a North Beach equivalent of Second City which Close helped organize. It was at The Committee that he first began seriously to develop his ideas and techniques of long-form improvisation, although Second City had experimented with long-form as early as 1962.
Close returned to Chicago in 1970, and set up a free, open-to-all workshop at the Kingston Mines Company Store, the cafe attached to the Kingston Mines Theatre Company on Lincoln Avenue (where the parking garage of Children’s Memorial Medical Center now stands). He drilled his students – everyone from acid-dropping love children to a vice-president of the Foote, Cone and Belding advertising agency – in the basic principles of improv and theatre games, and in the specifics of “The Harold”, a long-form improv technique developed by Close.
At a time when most improvisation mainly focused on creating single scenes, Del devised the Harold as something not unlike a sonata form. Several themes would be established, a community of characters would be introduced, and then the resulting scenes would play off each other in comedic counterpoint – characters from one environment moving to another and phrases and images recurring, each time accruing new meaning. Going to this from conventional sketches was like going from arithmetic to calculus. (Why was it called the Harold? When he introduced it, one of his students said, “Del, you’ve invented something, you get to name it.” Del said, “Well, the Beatles called their haircut Arthur, so I’ll call this Harold.” He later regretted the flipness. “Probably my most significant contribution and it’s got that stupid name.”)
The weekly public performances at Kingston Mines sometimes had as many as 20 performers participating. After a few months, Close hand-picked a dozen of his best, and moved operations down the block to the Body Politic for twice-weekly workshops and Sunday night performances. He named the company the Chicago Extension Improv Company, as an extension of his San Francisco work. The best-known players to emerge from the troupe were “Broadway” Betty Thomas, Dan Ziskie, Brian Hickey and Jonathan Abarbanel.
Before leaving Chicago again in 1972 to perform for Paul Sills in a Story Theatre production at the Mark Taper Forum in LA, Close and the Chicago Extension had begun to explore scenario improvs based on dreams. The techniques the Extension developed after Close left became Dream Theatre, which continued at the Body Politic over the next five years, although with different personnel. Close returned to Chicago in 1973 as resident director at The Second City, a position he kept until 1982. It was during this decade that he taught and directed a long list of TV and film comedy greats including John Belushi, Bill Murray, John Candy, Don DePollo, George Wendt, Audrey Neenan, Eugenie Ross-Lemming, David Rasche, Shelly Long, Anne Ryerson, etc.
Upon leaving the troupe, Close pursued legitimate acting opportunities with a number of theaters, including Wisdom Bridge, Remains, Goodman and Steppenwolf. He won his Joseph Jefferson Award in 1985 in a radical Hamlet directed by Robert Falls at Wisdom Bridge. Close also did TV and film work, appearing in The Untouchables and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off among others. It was during this period that Close finally beat his long heroin addiction (although he continued to smoke cigarettes and marijuana), in part truly shocked by the excesses and death of John Belushi, and in part because, as he told Jonathan Abarbanel, “I’ve decided I want to live.” Close was enjoying his new theatrical vistas, as well as a successful professional partnership with Charna Halpern and ImprovOlympic, which allowed him to concentrate on further development of The Harold, and on team improv.
Close was 64 when he died of complications due to emphysema the evening of March 4, 1999, just five days shy of his birthday. He left no survivors, although he claimed to have fathered an illegitimate child by a woman in Minneapolis sometime in the late 1950’s. His body was cremated, as he wished. His skull was given to the Goodman Theatre to play the role of Yorick in the company’s next production of Hamlet…or any other role they sought fit.
Close was one of three titans of improvisational theatre who put it on the map, refined it, and turned it into the fixture of comedic and acting technique which it has become. The first was Viola Spolin, who started the work in the 1930’s with her development of theatre games – originally for children – as exercises in imagination. She didn’t utilize them for public performance. It was her son, Paul Sills, who was able to take theatre games and use them as the basis for development of satirical revue comedy. Sills and a group of brilliant cohorts, including Mike Nichols, Elaine May, Shelly Berman, Sheldon Patinkin and others made this work the focus of various company experiments in the mid-1950?s, including the Compass Players in Chicago and St. Louis.
In 1959, The Second City opened, co-founded by Sills, Howard Alk and Bernard Sahlins. Close arrived on the scene a year later. Within three years, both Sills and Alk had left the troupe to pursue other ventures. Alk continued to work in the improv field, but died young. Sills has retained improv and theatre games within his artistic repertory – it is part of the basis of his Story Theatre – but has not devoted his career to it. Close, then, became the third titan of improvisation after Spolin and Sills, and the only one to devote his artistic life and best theoretical thinking to it. He fully understood pain and suffering as a basis for comedy, as well as the nature and limitations of the comedic form. The Harold, the scenario, long-form improv – call it what you will – is his personal legacy to the field; while his own boundless, sometimes manic drive as a charismatic teacher and director have done more to establish improvisational theatre around the world than anything or anyone else. The explosion of improv troupes and teams and classes (the Museum of Contemporary Art offers an improv class, for example), and the inclusion of theatre games and improv exercises in standard acting curricula, are the result of the work of Spolin and Sills and Close. With specific regard to long form improv and Close’s own contribution, that legacy will grow even greater through the next generation, as his students and acolytes inherit the world of comedy.