The iO theater, a mainstay of the Chicago comedy scene, is not making it out of the pandemic alive and will be shutting down permanently. iO co-founder and owner Charna Halpern confirmed the news to the Chicago Tribune, saying that while there is no set closing date for the theater yet, it will not reopen and she will put the theater building at 1501 North Kingsbury Street up for sale. Like many other venues, iO has been closed during the coronavirus lockdown since March, and Halpern said the theater has been struggling financially, which resulted in her decision to shut it down permanently. “I’m 68 years old,” she told the Tribune. “It’s scary for me. We’re in a pandemic right now and there’s no end in sight. Even if we were able to open at half capacity it was not going to work.” She also explained to the New York Times that she can no longer afford to pay property tax on the theater. “The mantra from the city is ‘We are in this together,’” she said, “but the county mantra is ‘You’re in this alone.’”
The iO news comes at a time where Black and POC improvisers, including those at iO, have been organizing to demand their theaters address systemic racism. On June 9, iO performer Olivia Jackson started a change.org petition in which members of the iO community pledged not to perform until a list of demands regarding inclusion and diversity were met. Halpern responded to the petition on June 10 with an apology, but her commitment to address performers’ concerns was made with the caveat that the theater’s future was uncertain. “Every day that we cannot open, the financial situation gets worse, and there is only so much time we have before the business will not be able to return,” she wrote. “Regarding all seven of the petition’s demands, we only ask for your patience while we try to stabilize the future viability of the theater.”
iO’s “only all-BIPOC team” Free Street Parking sent Halpern an email this week backing up the demands in Jackson’s petition, and Halpern responded on June 17 with an email confirming the theater would shut down. “I have always been open and interested in involving my community in change and growth in my theater. One can’t grow a business this big without doing that. Unfortunately, it’s not looking like iO will be able to open its doors,” she wrote. “The pandemic has made the financial struggle too difficult and I can’t even see the light at the end of the tunnel at this point. Over my 40 years, I have met many struggles to keep going and I did it to keep a place for my community to have stage time. But at this point in my life I can’t continue to struggle to stay open. I have taken the work this far and I now feel like you are all a community where you are strong and united enough to find a way to take the work further.” Halpern told the Tribune that the decision is unrelated to the change.org petition, but “but one of the demands was [for] me to hire advisors, with a salary, and I wasn’t going to be able to do that.”
Formerly known as ImprovOlympic, iO began in the ’80s and moved into its first permanent space in Wrigleyville in 1995 before relocating to Lincoln Park in 2014. The theater is home to a long list of famous comedy alumni including Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, and Adam McKay.