Chana Halpern, the driving force behind ImprovOlympic, makes a lousy first impression. Take my word for it. During one of her classes on the fundamentals of comedic improvisation, she abruptly stopped a student in the middle of his first scene and demanded he immediately fork over the tuition fee. I was that student, and at the time it seemed downright rude.
But what might come off as unabashed egoism or crude, mercenary behavior is actually a highly developed survival instinct. In a business based on making it up as you go along, Halpern’s not only survived but thrived; and the theater and school she founded has made Chicago even more important as a center for improv and comedy theater in the last decade.
Standing barely five feet tall, Halpern can nonetheless be intimidating. She’s confident on the surface, perhaps even a bit arrogant. Like a good improviser, she shows no fear.
“Forget your first, second, third, fourth meeting with Charna,” says Dave Koechner, a former student who’s just been hired by Saturday Night Live, “and then you just might be charmed.”
Halpern’s not a great artistic innovator in the vein of improv pioneers Viola Spolin, Paul Sills, or David Shepherd. But during the past 15 years she’s provided the rare opportunity for new talent to develop in a nurturing atmosphere. She’s not a star like some of her former students–including comedians Mike Myers and Chris Farley–but her tenacity has allowed others to succeed.
Forever dealing with a new group of students, the 43-year-old Halpern has inadvertently embraced the role of improv matriarch, carrying on the tradition of Josephine Forsberg at Players Workshop and Joyce Sloane at Second City. Adam McKay, another ImprovOlympic veteran joining Saturday Night Live next season, calls her “the Comedy Mother.” Halpern regards her students as “my 200 children.”
On this night Halpern’s throwing a party to celebrate the opening of her new headquarters at 3541 N. Clark, which holds two theaters on separate floors. In many ways the new building represents ImprovOlympic’s arrival. After years as an itinerant theater organization, it finally has a home of its own.
The place is packed. Generations of her students, some now actually making a living as actors, have come to support their first producer. WLUP radio host Brian McCann takes the stage to help inaugurate the large upstairs theater. McCann’s done well for himself, and Halpern makes sure everyone notices. Fortunately, he’s funny.
Then Halpern walks out wearing a black velvet dress with sparkling fringe. “Thank you for coming,” she says clutching the microphone. “This couldn’t have happened without the help of. . .” The list of people is extensive, reflecting a long struggle to make a lasting career out of improv theater.
Charna Halpern was raised in west Rogers Park, where she graduated from Mather High School. Her father Jack worked for the Cook County sheriff’s office and ran the men’s shaver counter at Carson’s on State Street. In 1974 she got a degree in speech and English from Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. Halpern says she wasn’t interested in theater while in college, but was “pulled into it” out of necessity. Whenever actors were sick or quit shows, they always found a willing replacement in Halpern.
“I never got a chance to rehearse,” she complains. “Every time I was in a show there was a disaster.” Even serious drama wound up as comedy. “I was in a Sartre play, No Exit, where you realize you’re dead. I wasn’t supposed to believe it, and I’m supposed to stab this girl. My knife broke when I picked it up, and everyone started laughing.” She says her stage career was soon “put on hold.”
Returning to Chicago, Halpern took a teaching job at the House of Good Shepherd convent, a Wrigleyville school for girls considered juvenile delinquents. “It was the most rewarding thing,” she says. “Girls came hating you and left loving you.” Halpern knew she had found her calling as a teacher.
In 1980 Halpern’s father took out a loan to buy a McDonald’s in Dixon, Illinois (it was his first franchise; he now owns three). Attending the grand opening, Halpern noticed a local radio reporter from WIXN doing a less-than-inspired job covering the event during a live broadcast. She comandeered the microphone and started interviewing customers, all the while promoting her dad’s business. That night she received a phone call from a radio station in Janesville, Wisconsin, the parent company of the Dixon station. They offered Halpern an on-air job in Dixon. “I couldn’t take it,’ she recalls. “I thought, ‘I’m a teacher. I don’t know how to do anything else.'”
Upon returning to Good Shepherd, however, she discovered the government grant that paid her salary would not be renewed for a fourth year. By the time the nuns managed to scrape up the money to pay her salary, Halpern had decided it was time for a change. “This is was the kick in the pants I needed-. It was time to try something different.”
She took the radio job in Dixon, but moved back to Chicago after one year and began working for an audiovisual company in Arlington Heights. Not long after her return, Halpern went to a party and met comedian and screenwriter Tim Kazurinsky, a former member of Second City, who thought she was funny even though she was inebriated. -He suggested she audition for- Second City sober. She didn’t know anything about auditioning, much less improv, but agreed to give it a shot. Though she didn’t get the job she was encouraged to take some improv classes.
Surprisingly, Jo Forsberg’s Players Workshop was the only place in town that taught improvisation at that time; it was loosely affiliated with the Second City, but it couldn’t guarantee its students special access. This was in the days before the Second City established its own training center and director John Michael Michalski started the now-defunct Improv Institute. Halpern could see the options were limited for a beginner. Fortunately she learned that Second City founder Paul Sills was returning to teach a workshop. She auditioned for the class and was accepted. While studying with Sills, Halpern became interested in the use of games as improvisation exercises.
Of course Sills’s mother Viola Spolin has been recognized as the popularizer of improv games, which she helped develop in the 1920s while working for Hull-House recreational director Neva Boyd. Boyd used the games to teach immigrant children to adapt to a new country; Spolin employed the same playful approach to encourage creativity and self-knowledge. Applying her ideas to the theater, she noticed that games freed participants from the pressure of “acting,” encouraging more spontaneous and heartfelt behavior.
Sills brought these ideas to the legendary Compass theater while at the University of Chicago. The Compass was founded in 1955 by David Shepherd, who wanted to form a theater based on the commedia dell’arte tradition of traveling bands of actors who use no script, just a loose scenario suggesting possible direction. All dialogue was extemporaneous, and actors took their cues from audience reactions (and eventually audience suggestions). Shepherd wished to wed the idea of the commedia troupe to the populist cabaret theater of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, wittily playing off news of the day in songs and sketches.
Shepherd also conceived of the ImprovOlympic, a large competition between improv teams, but he lacked the financial backing to get it off the ground. The idea might have died had it not been mentioned in Jeffrey Sweet’s oral history of the Compass and the Second City, Something Wonderful Right Away. Reading that book, Halpern became intrigued with Shepherd’s ImprovOlympic. She had long been bothered that Chicago had so many talented improvisers who were left in the cold if they didn’t make it into Second City. She had formed a group with other students from the Sills class; they called themselves Standard Deviation, and scrounged to find places to perform. As luck would have it, Shepherd was in town auditioning actors at the Organic Theater for his improvised play The Jonah Complex. Halpern was driving home to Arlington Heights when she suddenly be remembered the audition and Shepherd’s idea of the ImprovOlympic.
She knew she could make the improv competition work. “I had never seen anything so clear,” she says, describing her epiphany. “Because there were so many improv groups at Players Workshop that had nowhere to play, I realized that if I did this we could have a place to play anytime we wanted. This was what I was meant to do.”
Halpern pulled off the highway and turned her car around, heading back to Chicago for the audition at the Organic. That night Shepherd handed over to Halpern the idea and name of ImprovOlympic and, oddly enough, also gave her a part in his play.
The play had a short run. ImprovOlympic lasted longer.
Bernie Sahlins, the former owner of Second City, initially tried to discourage Halpern from pursuing her vision of a new improv company, saying that only a few producers had ever survived financially. But he offered her a makeshift space for ImprovOlympic behind Second City’s main stage. That space has since become Second City’s E.T.C. theater, but it was still raw when ImprovOlympic moved in. It was located in the recesses of Piper’s Alley, the Old Town shopping mall that was once home to small boutiques, artsy stores, and head shops set along a cobblestone path. The space was stripped down, the seats were bleachers, and as an improvising producer Halpern hit upon an odd form of promotion. Realizing the power of a carpet company’s jingle, she managed to get audiences to chant her phone number.
In 1983 Halpern moved her base of operations to CrossCurrents, a bar and cabaret space located near Belmont and Wilton, just east of the el tracks. ImprovOlympic was gaining steam. Twice a week improvisers would gather to vie for the prize of performing on Saturday night. After each team took a turn, Halpern would ask the audience to rate its effort.
ImprovOlympic stayed at CrossCurrents for seven years, but the time spent there introduced Halpern to the vagaries of landlords and the unpredictability of working in spaces that were not her own. One night, for example, Halpern was presenting the Ben Hollis Show, a late-night offering that followed the format of a TV talk show.
The show (whose host went on to anchor Channel 11’s Wild Chicago) was beginning to develop an audience, and this night’s full house included Jonathon Brandmeier and several other local celebrities. While the show was in progress, sheriff’s deputies arrived and notified Halpern of a judgment against the bar’s owner. If $2,000 wasn’t paid immediately, they would throw the crowd out and lock the doors. Halpern couldn’t allow the show to be shut down, and she couldn’t afford the negative publicity. So she handed over that night’s receipts, not making a dime but saving her reputation.
After CrossCurrents went bust, ImprovOlympic began its “gypsy phase,” spending the next few years shuttling between several spots–the Ivanhoe Theater, such bars as At the Tracks and Orphans, and the restaurants Ciao and Papa Milano. In 1992 Halpern landed a two-year stint at the Wrigleyside bar on Clark. A year later she leased a renovated building on Belmont. It was around this time that Halpern began to operate the ImprovOlympic as a comedy repertory company, hosting several productions in rotation (she was still at the Wrigleyside as well). A falling out with the landlord on Belmont finally convinced Halpern to take the plunge and invest in a permanent home.
It’s an early Wednesday morning at Halpern’s place following the gala opening of the new theater. At Halpern’s side is her wonderfully gentle dog of nine years, Gracie, a collie and husky mix. The kitchen table is covered with paperwork; doggy toys are strewn around the room. The phone rings; someone wants tickets for Friday night’s show. Business calls come directly to Halpern’s home, and she usually answers them personally. Her apartment has become a kind of clubhouse for an inner circle of improvisers. For those she deems familiar enough, it’s the after-after-party hangout. On occasion she’s been known to lend her students money, buy them a meal, and, like a good mother or psychotherapist, embrace them when troubled. Adam McKay recalls a desperate point in his life a few years back. “I was really broke and was thrown out of my apartment. I considered moving somewhere else.” Yet McKay knew he was developing as a comic, and at that point in his progress it seemed vital to stay in Chicago. Halpern knew this as well. “She put me up in her place for a month and a half. She didn’t have to do that.”
Halpern teaches an improv class at the University of Illinois at Chicago. On occasion Jeff Richmond, a musical director at the ImprovOlympic and Second City E.T.C., accompanies her to class. Richmond warms up the vocal chords of the musically challenged students, while Halpern quietly observes from the back of the room. Despite her often frantic manner, Halpern is the model of patience, the basis of all improv: Take your time, something will happen.
Once it’s her turn, Halpern talks to the students and dispenses advice. She drops namescelebrity namesbut she has every right. She does know these people. Her stories are riddled with now-famous folks who helped define her past.
“Dan Castellaneta, you know, Homer from The Simpsons, was on that team. . . . You have to have that commitment. Chris Farley had that commitment. . . . Mike Myers was amazing.”
It’s 6:30 on a Wednesday night. Halpern is at the front door of the ImprovOlympic, collecting $190 from each student enrolling in an eight-week class. She’s meticulous when it comes to the money. She’s extremely kind to me, a hanger-on, but then I may supply publicity.
While Halpern wears the manager’s hat, her artistic partner Del Close sits in the lobby, talking about modern Paris and shitty London food. The 60-something Close has been an improv hero for nearly four decades. Legend has it that Close was apprenticed in his early teens as a fire-eater and magician in his native Kansas, and at first he appeared to be a strange addition to the early Second City. His approach was more confrontational, in the mad intellectual mode of Lenny Bruce, and his dark humor was seemingly at odds with the troupe’s more mainstream concerns. Working with Elaine May at the Crystal Palace in Saint Louis, the Compass’s satellite space, Close helped formulate three principles of improv: don’t dispute what’s been said (you’ve got to play along); assume the active voice instead of the passive; and find the character in your own inclinations, never wear it as something outside yourself.
Although the word “genius” is frequently affixed to his name, Close has had an often troubled career. Because he was typecast as a druggy bohemian, Hollywood never knew what to make of him. As a director at Second City, he began to train a new generation of more daring improvisers. John Belushi credited Close with teaching him the value of surprise. The prevailing philosophy at Second City was that improvisation was a valuable method for developing written material. But Close was among the first to respect improv as something valuable in its own right, freeing the performers to come up with a new show every night.
Halpern has christened the ImprovOlympic’s upstairs space the Del Close Theater (“the closest he’ll get to having his own Jonestown,” she jokes), but their union was far from chummy in the beginning. Close didn’t like the competitive, game-oriented format of the ImprovOlympic. “He hated it and was constantly bad-mouthing it to everyone,” Halpern says, recalling that Close considered her “a twit.”
Close acknowledges that “the mythology tends to dominate that I hated her,” but he dismisses it as a simple aesthetic disagreement. Halpern was fostering a competitive atmosphere, while Close encouraged improvisers to relax, allow the jokes to come to them, and remain open to experimentation. Perhaps Close was accurate in denigrating ImprovOlympic’s gimmicky nature (for example, an all-rabbi improv team), but he made one mistakehe had never actually seen one of Halpern’s shows.
In 1983 Close hosted a Halloween improv night at an art gallery. Halpern, who’s been known to talk animatedly about things like flying saucers, was disturbed by Close’s “creepy energy” during a mock seance. Strangely, she feared that Close had not taken the necessary precautions to ward off evil influences. She didn’t see him pray beforehand. Halpern had heard stories that Close was a “witch,” and she ended up attacking him for being irresponsible.
“I can’t believe you have the nerve to evoke demons without protecting the room,” she said.
Nonplussed, Close replied, “I protected the building.”
“I don’t think you can do that,” charged an indignant Halpern.
“Yes, I can!” screamed an angry Close as she stormed out of the gallery.
One afternoon about three weeks later, Close entered CrossCurrents and walked into a scene straight out of a Hollywood western. Halpern was the only other patron at the bar. Of course, there had to be a showdown, an artistic gunfight. Never one to miss a business opportunity, however, Halpern decided to defuse the confrontation by tossing a bone to Close–$200 and some pot in return for his teaching a three-hour class.
He taught her class that night, and the two went out for coffee afterward. They talked about their respective approaches to improv, and discovered their overall visions were not so different after all. Close wanted to encourage longer improvised shows, rather than the quick sketch-blackout format favored by Second City. Halpern convinced him to attend one of her shows, and soon they were partners in crime, starting a platonic relationship that might as well be a common-law marriage.
“It’s nice to have a woman in your life that you actually respect,” Close says. He admits to having a tendency to “behave” women out of his life. Halpern, however, is a bit more resilient. She acts as Close’s ground crew, taking on the jobs of manager and baby-sitter, running interference for him with misguided agents and casting types. “She falls into the same category as Camille Paglia or Elaine May–the amazon,” Close says. “Charna’s the tiny amazon.” He places her in the “Amelia Earhart school of feminism”: she’s completely feminine but absolutely tough as nails. Consequently they take turns at active and passive roles. Usually she’s the aggressive one, while Close is more reserved. She handles the business, the public, and the inescapable nonsense that filters into their lives. Close is the former fire breather, the inspired actor, the eccentric who would live without a telephone if it weren’t for Halpern. “Between the two of us,” Close contends, “there’s probably one and a half human beings.”
Students who enroll in the ImprovOlympic want to get onstage. All of them think they’re funny, and most want a career in comedy. It takes true commitment to succeed, but that’s up to the individual.
Halpern says, “My mother constantly asks, “If improvisation is just getting up there and talking off the top of your head, what could you possibly be teaching people?”‘ The answer is how to start. Rules are improvisation’s dirty secret. By playing games with prescribed boundaries, actors are forced to read between the lines and look for opportunities. Above all, you’re taught to trust your fellow teammate unconditionally. ImprovOlympic is team-centered. “If two heads are better than one,” Halpern says, “eight can do even better.”
Tonight’s class consists mostly of twentysomethings, ten men and six women. They congregate near the bar, as Halpern looks through her ledger to see who will be going on to the next level of classes. Then she begins asking individual actors what’s happening in their professional careers. Do they feel they’re making progress? Some students also study at Second City’s training center, and she encourages them, understanding the value of learning different approaches to improv.
Sitting on a chair at center stage, Halpern pops gum with her back teeth while explaining that tonight is the last class of the first training level. These students will have to make it through two more eight-week sessions before they can begin to study with Close. After the grounding in a more regimented approach to improvisation, students are encouraged by Close to stretch their limits. His elaborate games like the Drake and the Harold get improvisers to interweave scenes and bring cohesion out of multiple ideas to create extended, more conceptual improvised theater pieces.
Halpern takes a seat in the first row. Tonight’s first game is called the Secret. Each actor is supposed to use subtle clues to get his partner to figure out a specific piece of information. One actor is handed a slip of paper that says, “I want her to break up with me,” while the other gets a note that says, “I want him to realize I’m pregnant.” He can’t cut to the chase by saying, “I know you want to break up with me,” and she can’t simply blurt out, “Hey, I’m pregnant!” By actually creating a scene and establishing a relationship, the actors provide information to guide each other to discovering the secret.
Halpern occasionally interrupts the actors to point out a missed game move or to stop remarks that reveal too much information. At scene’s end, she briefly recaps the mechanical workings of the scene, always accentuating the positive.
In tonight’s class, a handful of actors “get it.” They’re turning into competent or pretty good performers. The others may not be there yet, but they still get unflagging encouragement from Halpern. Bad stage work is studied closely to determine where it went wrong, yet Halpern is always supportive. Under pressure to think on their feet, fledgling improvisers need positive reinforcement. But in improv, the process of learning never stops.
Halpern sticks by students with a desire to learn, even when it appears hopeless. “I’ve seen people come out of their shell,” she says. “Most become bolder.” Invariably at the start of a workshop, some students will walk off the stage in frustration, lacking confidence in their abilities. After several weeks, however, those same students may have found the inner strength and confidence to give an assured performance.
Here, at the conclusion of the first level, the class members have started to exhibit real signs of support for each other; they’ve learned the necessity of trust and the value of community. Halpern comments on the way actors enter a scene, how to take their partner’s lead, and how to recognize the subtleties of game moves, such as reintroducing a certain phrase. Slowly the students learn the ways improv can make them better actors, both on and off the stage. Halpern repeats the goal of the improv cult: create something positive onstage. “Although people tend to turn off this idea, we believe we can at least save our corner of the world, not the whole world,” she says.
A new generation of performers is easing away from the notion of improvisation as a tool for honing a finished product, instead moving toward a view of improv as an art form in its own right. The more common this philosophy becomes, the closer the ties among various members of the improv community. Actors now regularly move between ImprovOlympic and Second City. “Everyone’s supporting each other to make this art really happen,” Halpern says. “Taking care of each other–that’s what happens in this community.”
With the new theater on Clark, it looks like Halpern has no plans to leave town. But she’s always had ambitions for ImprovOlympic to go beyond Chicago.
Back in the mid-80s Baron’s Barracudas were the reigning house improv team. One night Halpern greeted them with “We’re going to London!” Someone had seen the show and wanted to send the team to England, but Halpern’s enthusiasm was premature. When things didn’t pan out, some members of the team felt betrayed. They thought Halpern was leading them on because she was making money off their performances. Looking back, it was a preposterous situation: Halpern barely made enough to pay rent and keep the theater afloat.
Shortly thereafter, comedian Bill Murray and director Sydney Pollack appeared on the scene with plans to produce an improvised movie, once again raising expectations. Workshops were held with Close, the Barracudas, Pollack, and Murray. But the project never came to fruition, and the disappointment was enough to bring about the breakup of the Barracudas soon after.
In the late 80s ImprovOlympic’s competitive format was becoming problematic: the hypercompetitive atmosphere sometimes interfered with improvisation. Yet the gimmick continued to generate interest. Halpern brought together teams from Yale, Northwestern, and the U. of C. for a great collegiate playoff game, and the New York Times covered the main event in Chicago. Actor Michael Douglas read the article and had his office call Halpern. She was flown to Los Angeles and was treated like royalty. But she soon found Hollywood has a way of taking everything that’s right and making it wrong.
She accepted an option contract that gave her $10,000 in return for signing her soul over to Douglas’s production company for one year. Near the end of that year a writers’ strike hit Hollywood, and the idea of making a TV show with actors who don’t need writers must have sounded appealing. Halpern got a call and flew back to LA.
Then everything Close had warned her about started to come true. They ignored her opinion. They fired her best people. They hired LA’s preeminent “dick joke” comedian to write and perform. The denominator was being lowered as the laws of TV muscled in.
Comic Chris Farley was one of the ImprovOlympic actors who made the trip with Halpern, sitting with her through numerous meetings. At one point Farley turned to Halpern and apologized; then, seizing the opportunity and damning the rules of smart improv, he stood up, pulled his shorts over his massive belly and into the crack of his ass, and danced around on his toes, singing “the monkey-dog-boy dance.” It wasn’t intelligent comedy, but Douglas’s crew laughed hysterically. The pilot was shot but never broadcast. She wouldn’t sign a final contract, figuring she’d seen enough of Hollywood for the time being.
Though the TV show fell through, ImprovOlympic continued to receive national attention. Southern Comfort hired Halpern to organize a national competition. She traveled to a handful of cities and trained would-be improvisers, who then performed at various nightclubs. Halpern picked the top three teams from Boston, New York, San Francisco, Minneapolis, and Chicago. The Chicago team Blue Velveeta went to Los Angeles and won the national competition. Then the liquor company flew Halpern and Blue Velveeta around the country to do more shows under the corporate name. Many of the actors involved in the competition eventually moved to Chicago to study at the ImprovOlympic. Halpern’s enterprise continued to grow, finally taking root in its new theater.
It’s 10 PM on a Friday night at the ImprovOlympic. One show has already finished, and Halpern’s standing near the stage. It’s been a long day. After teaching her class at UIC, she returned home to find a summons from the city involving minor building code violations that she thought had been resolved long ago. But now she has to forget her problems because there’s another show to emcee. She turns on the charm, smiles, and sells the product, working the audience like the proprietor of a mom-and-pop shop.
After making her introduction, she hangs in the back, watching her actors perform and taking notes. Halpern’s always reevaluating who stays on a team and who must rethink his vocation. Can this person follow the improv rules? Does he fit with the other actors? Is he ready to be on the stage? Tonight’s two teams are revved up, and their adrenaline carries them through the tough spots. Halpern cues the light booth to fade the lights and end the first half of the show. A few latecomers arrive, and she directs two ushers to seat the stragglers.
The show ends with the Dream Game, an improvised interpretation of an audience member’s day. Halpern asks for a volunteer. A speechwriter from Louisville steps forward, and Halpern peppers her with questions. The improv team listens and then re-creates and exaggerates the story.
Halpern rounds off the evening by plugging the theater’s other shows. Then she says, “You too can do this,” explaining that improv classes are available. She drops a few names, and thanks the audience for coming. Maybe they’ll come back–some of them as students.
Putting the new theater together has been exhausting. Halpern’s cousin Steve Schultz was going to tear the building down for a parking lot. But she got to him first. The building needed work, but she thought it was perfect for ImprovOlympic. The first floor now has a cabaret space with a bar for more traditional improv shows, while the second floor has a larger playhouse to hold the theater’s scripted musicals and longer revues. Its seats were taken from the old Chicago Stadium.
It looks so good it’s hard to imagine the trouble it caused Halpern. The initial renovation bid was $30,000. She agreed, keeping $10,000 in reserve as a safety net. But the contractor miscalculated, adding an extra five to ten thousand each week to the original price. The final cost came in at $90,000.
But Halpern figured she was in it for the long haul; once she was in debt, she couldn’t pull the plug. She kept borrowing money and crying a lot. After the renovation was complete, she learned the contractor never had a building permit, so she was prohibited from obtaining a liquor license and passing city inspections. Even though the renovation was complete, she was forced to hire a new set of architects and contractors to secure the necessary permits. Her legal bills were growing, and her nerves wreaked havoc on her stomach. As her anxiety grew, Halpern had visions of a future selling Happy Meals in Dixon.
Her problems multiplied once she started dealing with City Hall. “It was unbelievable,” she says. “One office would tell you one thing, and then another office would tell you something else.” She passed an electrical inspection one day and then was told she failed it the next. Dates were incorrectly entered into the city’s computers, requiring her to take days off to straighten things out. Bureaucrats were erecting new hurdles every day, but Halpern was a quick study.
After she appeared to pass every test, a city inspector told Halpern she couldn’t get a new liquor license in Wrigleyville unless the previous tenant surrendered theirs. The former tenant, the Swedish American Club, wouldn’t release their license since they were relocating. After another round of negotiations, a city commissioner sided with Halpern and ordered the Swedish group to relinquish their license. That same day Halpern got her license at noon, and beer was delivered for the theater’s opening at 6 PM. The evening progressed without anyone the wiser. That’s the life of a producer.
After watching others botch the teaching of improv classes, Halpern decided to write a book on the subject. She knew the manual might be a bit outdated by the time it was published because improv forms are always changing (ImprovOlympic is constantly trying new approaches). Close said he wanted nothing to do with the writing, but she needed his input. She tried taping question-and-answer sessions with him, but the answers veered off into improvisational homilies, resulting in a lot of indecipherable tape. Halpern changed her approach; she would write the book and have Close read each chapter, adding anything he felt was missing, producing a “she said/he said” account of the improviser’s art.
She found an agent immediately, but the book needed major editing. Halpern brought in a former student, Kim “Howard” Johnson, onetime member of Baron’s Barracudas and the official biographer for the Monty Python comedy troupe (Life Before and After Monty Python and The First 200 Years of Monty Python). Their book Truth in Comedy was published by Meriwether last year, and Halpern was sent to Colorado for a weekend promotional workshop. Four participants ended up moving to Chicago to continue to study with Halpern.
She used to see the ImprovOlympic as a stepping-stone to “other things,” whether that was the Second City or legitimate theater. But now the ImprovOlympic trains more than simply improvisers. With the production of musicals, scripted theater pieces, and experimental shows (such as Pavlov’s Dogs Are Barking and The Real Real World), the ImprovOlympic is also training directors, writers, and even producers. Actors are staying with the ImprovOlympic as long as they can, and Halpern’s trying to give everyone a chance to make some money. “Now, when you become a director you get a percentage of the show. When you teach or coach a newer team, you also get paid.
“This is why I wanted the bar,” she says. “Second City can do it because they have a bar.” Liquor has always been necessary for the survival of comedy clubs, and besides alcohol can enliven an audience (“Keep drinkin’, it makes us funnier”).
Halpern now has her sights set on producing a local television show. She has a lot of talent at her disposal. For years Halpern has acted as an intermediary for her performers, trying to promote them to agents, producers, and television people. “It’s frustrating for me,” she says. “I have all these guys on the brink of making it.” Some do eventually become famous, but not usually while under Halpern’s wing. But she understands the realities of success. She continues to promote each show, both dreaming of and dreading the day Hollywood or New York seduces her actors.
Halpern has mellowed in the last few years. Even with the debt and responsibility of opening the new theater, she has paradoxically become less troubled by the future. “Before I would get worried when a house team would leave or disband,” she says. “I would think, ‘I’m finished.’ I don’t do that anymore.” Her confidence in the staying power of ImprovOlympic has overcome her fear of financial ruin.
Her company, Yes And Productions, is named after an improv axiom: say “yes and” to further the scene, never say “no.” In other words, always take a risk to push the action forward. Halpern’s heeded that advice, taking a gamble on the ImprovOlympic, but the theater and its mission have become her raison d’etre. She made the decision to follow her brass and leave secure jobs for personal fulfillment, and she has no regrets.
Dave Koechner calls ImprovOlympic “a family business wanting to branch out into chain stores,” but Halpern is trying to maintain her mom-and-pop shop in a competitive marketplace. She works 80-plus hours a week, delegating little. “I’m always trying to get her to hire an assistant,” Adam McKay says. But perhaps Halpern fears losing control. Every dime is sunk into the theater, loans need to be paid off, and many actors are counting on her to be their “Comedy Mother.”
Aside from Close, Halpern’s emotional support system is constantly changing. “My friends are my colleagues,” she says, but most of these theater folk are looking to get ahead, and that usually means leaving. Many are counting on Halpern to help them. When she doesn’t live up to their expectations, petty attacks materialize. But some stick by her, the ones who get past their initial impressions, the ones who can tolerate the way she berates them.
Halpern has made the ImprovOlympic a comedy powerhouse, helping to attract aspiring comedians to Chicago. “It used to be you’d go to New York or LA to study, but now they all come here,” she says. “Saturday Night Live knows that, the movie people know that. I’m glad I stayed here.”
Not one to rest on her laurels, Halpern is constantly looking to redefine herself and keep the ImprovOlympic fresh. Maybe the future’s in television. Maybe she’ll write another book. She may go back to performing–maybe they’ll laugh for the right reasons this time. But she’ll take the risk nonetheless. She loves improvisation and will do what it takes for others to experience its merits. When asked what a reader should absolutely know about Halpern, Del Close doesn’t hesitate: “Her phone number.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Randy Tunnell.