Widely considered to be the premier venue for long-form improvisational performances and classes, the iO Theater (formerly known as the ImprovOlympic Theater) was founded in 1981 by Charna Halpern and the late great improvisational teacher and director, Del Close.
Using theater games created by Viola Spolin, David Shepard created the ImprovOlympic to put up competing improv teams against each other in friendly and funny competitions. At the time, performances were being held at The Players Workshop in Chicago, where Charna Halpern was an improv student and assistant to David Sheperd. She later would become the producer of the competitions, and eventually took over operations and ownership of the ImprovOlympic name.
As the theater began to become popular amongst the improv troupes being formed in Chicago, Charna Halpern began to think that there could be more to improvisational performances. She believed 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 Second City director and improv luminary, Del Close.
She approached Del about teaching classes at her theater and he agreed. Del quickly became a constant source of inspiration to Charna and her students,and their shared vision for a deeper, more robust form of improvisation – based on trust and agreement, would be rounded into shape and with Del leading the way, the true nature and mission of the ImprovOlympic began to take place.
With Del serving as the mentor and Charna the guide, “longform improvisation” was born and the two would eventually help change the face of improvisational comedy.
The ImprovOlympic moved from space to space before eventually landing at their permanent home in Chicago’s Wrigleyville neighborhood in 1995.
With Del leading the way, the ImprovOlympic theater quickly became the mecca of improvisation and it’s approach to the art of improvisation and comedy in general, began to shape and influence the minds of many of today’s most iconic and influential comedic entertainers.
In 1997, iO alum and instructor Paul Vaillancourt convinced Charna and Del to allow him to open a companion theater in Los Angeles for all the alums that were now out west. Originally named “ImprovOlympic West”, the theater is now known at the “iO West Theater”.
Five days before his 65th birthday, Del Close passed away leaving a huge void in the improv community and the iO Theater itself. Charna Halpern promised Del that she would continue his mission and to try to make longform improvisation a true art-form that could not only benefit one on stage, but in their personal life as well.
In 2001, the ImprovOlympic (somehow) caught the attention of the International Olympic Committee, mostly because the word “Olympic” was part of our name. The IOC eventually threatened the theater legally over the use of the name “ImprovOlympic” and the theater was forced to change it’s name.
Since most of the ImprovOlympic’s students and performers always affectionately referred to the theater as “iO” (ie. “I’m heading to iO, wanna come?”), the theaters’ name was subsequently -and appropriately- changed to simply “iO.”
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 it’s new home at 1501 N. Kingsbury st.
The new iO Theater now boasts 4 theaters, 2 bars, and an expanded Training Center, a kitchen, and an Events space.