Requiem for a Building

The iO Theater I knew and loved is now closed.  After nearly 20 years at 3541 N. Clark, Charna Halpern is stepping aside for the Cubs’ bulldozer.  I’m sure the spot will make an excellent CVS or whatever.

Over the past few weeks, there’s been an outpouring of nostalgia on social media.  It feels like we’re all remembering our ex-girlfriend who’s getting married to some other guy.  “She was great,” we’ll say, thinking back on our relationship with rose-colored glasses.  And she was great.  But there’s a reason she’s not marrying you.

For a select few, iO has been all it’s advertised to be: a community, a family, a clubhouse, a springboard to fame.

For the huge majority, it’s been a place where they spent a year taking classes, spending thousands of dollars to chase a dream.  And then they were shown the door.

For me, it falls somewhere in the middle.  I always wanted to turn the corner and feel like it was home, but iO is a very fickle lady.

Last year, I had a conversation about this with Kevin Mullaney.  He spoke about Malcolm Gladwell’s book, “The Tipping Point.”  Gladwell argues that organizations start to unravel once they get bigger than 150 people.  The social bonds necessary for an efficient group start to fray as more people get added.

In some ways, iO’s success is its biggest problem.  By the time the theater dismissed me last year, there were about 30 Harold teams.  Each team had ten players.  And there were a shrinking number of performance slots for those teams.  We’d get two shows a month.  It’s impossible to improve when you perform that infrequently.

Yes, a handful of performers got lots of stage time.  And they probably deserved it.  But I wonder if the theater would have been better served by promoting and nurturing the younger performers, trusting that the most veteran folks would have no trouble finding stage time elsewhere.

I’ll be damned if that place wasn’t magical, though.  It’s a beacon for brilliant misfits around the country.  Improvisers have a shorthand.  When I’m around them, I feel like I’ve been reunited with my long-lost tribe.  Plop me down at a dinner with non-improvisers and I feel like the conversation grinds to a halt.

For six years, I got to perform on iO’s stages.  I laughed so hard, my sides hurt.  I fell in love with those people and that death trap of a building.  It was a candle of originality amid the darkness of drunken frat brother Wrigleyville conformity.

Every time I think about that phone call where I was dismissed, my heart breaks.  Was I that bad?  Did I suck?  What could I have done differently?  Should I have spent more time at the bar, making friends who could have shielded me from that decision?  Or did I trust too much that this was, as advertised, a “theater of the heart” – one that would reward my love with loyalty?

I miss improvisation every day.  Specifically, I miss being with those teams on those stages.  There is no feeling in the world that compares to having your friend jump out and save you when you feel lost.  It creates an unbreakable bond of loyalty.  You want to save them in return.  And so it goes, back and forth – a daredevil trapeze act that gets higher with each performance.

iO is not perfect.  Moving to a bigger building may alleviate the problem of limited stage time, but the sense of community will fray further as more people pour in searching for a golden ticket.  I really hope Gladwell is wrong, and that there can still be intimacy and support and camaraderie in a larger venue.

Regardless of iO’s future, I loved my time as part of its past, and I spend an exorbitant amount of time thinking how I can rekindle that old flame.

Thank you, iO.  If you weren’t so special, these memories wouldn’t sting.

For two very polarized remembrances of that theater, check out blogs from my pals Ryan Dolan and Ben Johnson.


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