Sunday, July 20, 2014
Farewell, 3541 N. Clark
In the wee hours of Sunday, July 20th the famed iO (formerly Improv Olympic) theater in Chicago shuttered its doors on 3541 N. Clark, its home since the mid-1980s. It was the concluding chapter in a 4 1/2 year struggle to keep the theater in its Wrigleyville space. Ultimately, the growth of the Chicago improv scene in the past decade, as well as plans to turn the area directly south of Wrigley Field into a massive retail space, spearheaded the move to a new, larger space on 1501 N. Kingsbury, a mile and a half west of Second City. Though this onetime garment factory will not be with us for much longer, its place in Chicago theater history is irreplaceable: scores of comedians, improvisors, and actors learned their craft and performed here, making their way to SNL, MADtv, and even movie stardom. For a lot of regulars on the Chicago improv scene (including myself), it was like a second home.
If the Second City Training Center was the first chapter of my improv story, than iO physically and peripherally dominates the rest of the book. The first show I saw at iO was The DelTones in March 2010; I tagged along with four or five other Level E classmates for some group bonding. Little did I know that three of the performers that night (Tara DeFrancisco, Lyndsay Hailey, and Craig Uhlir) would later become my instructors, or that less than a year later I would be interning at iO on Saturday nights.
On April 30th, 2010 --five days after my first Level 1 class with Tara D-- I was unceremoniously replaced at my job. An almost Sisyphean job search, paired with financial woes and family health issues, made for a very trying summer. For a while, my weekly commute from Downers Grove to Wrigleyville was my only reason to wake up in the morning. As my radio dreams faded, improv class became a badly needed creative outlet as well as my catharsis. This was when I first truly experienced the close-knit improv community and its positive, cream-rises-to-the-top mindset. Eventually, I started taking writing classes at iO and participating in Lyndsay's Hangover Clinic on Saturday mornings. The myriad free shows I attended between 2010 and 2012 were both entertainment and an education. In spite of my personal struggles, for the first time in years, I felt like I was flourishing at something.
Fast forward to August 2011. It was the last night of 5B shows, and after our last set we all headed up to the Annex for pizza and beer. Overall, I thought our seven week run went well, though I thought my overall performance was merely okay. (It also helped that was in a level that was deep with improv talent, as 19 of us would eventually play on Harold teams at one point or another.) One of my teammates, a very diminutive young woman, stood on the chair next to mine to remind everyone that she was hosting a wrap party at her coach house in Roscoe Village. When someone asked for an address, I yelled out the directions I had memorized earlier that day: "Take the Red Line to Belmont, than get on the 77 bus west to Wellington..."
At that very moment, the entire room started chanting "Stu-S-A." I was gobsmacked, blushing, and at a complete loss for words. After a solid minute of cheering and chanting, and I stood up and took a bow, not realizing I hadn't even removed the satchel off my shoulder. I have never received an ovation that like that before or since. I couldn't work up the nerve to say thank you until I posted on Facebook the next day. It's not clear who started the chant; I assume it was the aforementioned girl, though I guess I'll never know now. I still get people from those classes saying "Stu-S-A" from time to time.
With that said, I will be leaving a treasure trove of memories at 3541 N. Clark, and I wish iO Chicago nothing but the best as they move from Wrigleyville to Kingsbury and Blackhawk. My sincere thanks to my instructors Tara D, Kate Duffy, Barry Hite, the incomparable Lyndsay Hailey, Lisa Linke, Craig Uhlir, Noah Gregoupoulos, Charna Halpern, and Nate Herman for their sage wisdom and encouragement, and to all the people I met and encountered in the House That Del Built.