When the iO Theater moved from its longtime home in Wrigleyville to a new multi-million dollar facility in Lincoln Park in 2014, it appeared that the improv-focused performance space and training center was on incredibly stable financial ground. But the closure of iO's Los Angeles outpost in 2018 after a dispute with a landlord revealed that things weren't so rosy for the comedy institution, and the shutdown of large performance spaces in the face of a pandemic seems to have provided the final nail in the coffin. Last night, in an email sent to performers and producers, iO creative director Kevin Knickerbocker confirmed that the iO Theater is closing, citing a message from owner Charna Halpern that blamed "financial issues." "I am embarrassed that this is the way it ends," Knickerbocker stated.
The closure comes at a time when comedy theaters and training centers are not just reckoning with loss of revenue due to an inability to stage live performances, but also accusations of racist culture perpetuated within theaters that makes it more difficult for performers of color to succeed. Last week, Second City CEO Andrew Alexander stepped down, admitting in a letter that he "failed to create an anti-racist environment wherein artists of color might thrive." Last Thursday, a group of iO performers posted a petition, refusing to perform at the theater until Halpern issued a public apology for the institutional racism she perpetuated and shared decision-making power with other employees within the theater.
iO Theater performance team Free Street Parking (which is made up of BIPOC performers) sent an open letter to Halpern spelling out their demands, and they received a reply from the owner late last night, claiming that the economic effects of the pandemic had made it impossible for the theater to reopen. The decision seems to have been one that took other members of the iO Theater management team by surprise. In an email to performers that was also sent late on Wednesday night, Knickerbocker confirmed a sudden change of heart on the part of Halpern, explaining, "...as of Monday, the plan was to work to reopen. The first I heard of plans to close was this afternoon."
With alumni that include famous folks like Stephen Colbert, Tina Fey, Bill Hader and Seth Meyers, there's certainly a chance that iO might be rescued by a former student with deep pockets, but it's more likely that the building (and perhaps the business) will be sold outright. According to a 2016 interview that Halpern gave to Inc., the 40,000-square-foot venue was a $7 million project—and until live performances can resume, it's difficult to imagine anyone investing in the space. Still, it's a theater with an established community of performers and supporters, many of whom are reckoning with what will come next now that the lights have gone dark.
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