Charna Halpern is the owner of iO and one of the most influential people in improv. After 19 years at iO's Clark Street location, tonight iO opens at its new home of 1541 N Kingsbury. Please join Charna and the rest of the Chicago improv community at iO both tonight and on August 29th and 30th for their grand opening. Here's a bit about the new space and the journey it took to get there.
When you first started iO, what were some of the biggest challenges you guys faced?
I didn't have my own place. We were thrown out of about 10 places. We started opening at bars and bar owners realized they could make more money off concerts and such, so we kept getting thrown out. Andy Richter used to say the only reason he was on a team was because he had a truck. The sets would fit in his truck, so every time we had to move, we'd load up his truck and move to the next place. Then I got my place on Clark Street in 1995 - a place I built and my name was on it - that's when you're real. I remember having a panic attack that first month trying to figure out how I'd pay $3,000 rent and then out of nowhere there was a line down the block. I couldn't believe it.
At what point did you know that iO was going to need a new home?
In about 2007 or 2008 I found out. At the time I thought I only had a year and then I realized I had some time to find the right place.
What was that process like?
It was hellish. I went to a lot of buildings and none of them felt right. But when I walked into the place we now have, I knew right away. It looked like a giant ski lodge, wood beams, sky lights and brick walls. I just knew.
Tell me a little bit about the new theatre.
It has four theatres. One is TJ and Dave's called The Mission. They will be doing a sketch revue, music and a ton of secret things that they won't tell me. But it's within iO, so that's exciting. It's nice because they can do their own thing but they're not leaving me.
So they will be running that theatre, but it will be part of iO?
Yes. It's their theatre, they're paying rent and their staff and they're programming it. You buy your tickets at the iO box office, but they're running everything else. They wanted their own theatre but they didn't want to compete against me, so they asked if I was buying a big space, if I'd build them a theatre and I said, "You bet, absolutely."
So I have three theatres. There are big bathrooms and dressing rooms with showers, it's amazing. We have a huge round bar that seats a couple hundred people. We have lots of classroom space, two event spaces, a kitchen with a staff of six people that will be supplying food for the theatres as well as catering corporate parties, weddings and other events. We have an outdoor beer garden - we have three bars in total. The bars are outside the theatres so people can just hang out there.
Wow, that's so exciting. Obviously, everything is getting bigger, but what else will change?
We haven't talked about ticket prices yet. I won't change them too much. People come because they're not too expensive, so they won't change too much. We'll hire more staff, janitorial services, etc. Our bills are growing, our expenses are growing and hopefully our income will grow.
Hopefully. You've given yourself so many opportunities for income growth, so it seems promising.
That was the idea. At the old space, we had great hit shows on the weekends but they're so successful, I couldn't close them. So people have come to me with great ideas for a show on the weekend and I haven't been able to take them because I can't close these other shows, so now we'll be able to put up more shows. We'll be able to do festivals - we're going to do a muscial improv festival - and more.
That's so exciting, congratulations! With all these changes, what is the one biggest thing you want to make sure stays the same in the new space?
I want to keep it that homey-rowdy fun place. The old days people were able to hang out after 10 p.m. because we didn't have midnight shows. However, with the new bars outside the theatres, no one has to leave, people can hang out again. There's the event space and couches and the bar - I want that again. I want people to want to come to iO just to hang out and see who's there, it'll be a party every night. That's actually how I came up with The Living Room - David Koechner and all the guys would hang out late and laugh and talk and do bits. I thought we'd just try putting it on stage. We put a table on stage with beer and a couch and we'd just hang out and talk and do bits. That's where that form came from.
On the flip-side, what will you miss most about the Clark Street location?
Its history. This is the place where we really started and became real. It's sad that it's getting knocked down, but I've had so many problems with the place, I'm kind of glad to be out of there. It's an old building. The hassles won't be missed, but the history will be missed.
Join Charna at iO's soft launch tonight and again during their grand opening weekend -- August 29th and 30th. iO alums will be coming back and doing their old shows, it's guaranteed to be a weekend not to be missed.
Interview was conducted on July 15, 2014. Read the full interview at LifesAFunnyScene.com.