Sometimes it takes a crisis to expose the tightness of a community and its spirit of generosity and altruism. That has been the case since the improv comedy institution iOWest closed its doors suddenly, leaving a whole bunch of hard-working improvisers and comedy teachers scrambling to find a new creative home.
iOWest, which had a generous, custom-outfitted space on Hollywood Boulevard with three theater stages, classrooms and a front bar/lounge, had become a fixture of the city’s comedy theater scene, with a large rotation of polished improv teams performing live in any given week, and many players who’d gone on to land roles in commercials, TV shows and films.
The closure in late February after 21 years came without warning, mostly due to financial difficulties stemming from the high rent and changing patterns in L.A.’s improvisational landscape.
But the response from a handful of other improv theaters/schools, to make sure that displaced students and teachers felt welcome and immediately integrated, has been heartening — particularly in an industry known to be competitive, at times even somewhat hostile.
Marissa Madsen, a frequent improviser and online sketch video creator, found a new home at Westside Comedy Theater, just off Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade. The founders/owners of Westside trained at iOWest and had been teachers there.
“I had done the whole program at iOWest,” Madsen says, “and Westside has four levels, and I wanted to jump back in at level three and not start again at the bottom, and they were super accommodating and said, ‘If that’s where you want to be, then we’ll have you do that.’
“I think the general spirit of improv in the first place is that it’s selfless and you’re working together to create something beautiful,” Madsen adds. “It does kind of feel like a departure from people trying to get famous and see a real result — you know, the people whose agent told them to do it.”
Improv schools can vary in terms of what level class a newcomer is allowed to enter. Many times a school will strongly prefer or require that a new student who’s done a lot of time at another school still start at the 101 level. Improv schools also have specific prerequisites or occasional performing skills tests, every few levels, to help ensure the quality of play and stage performing that goes on.
At Westside, following in the iOWest model, students need only show a functional grasp of the basic tenets of improv in order to move up in the program. At the Groundlings, by contrast, moving up levels often requires being judged as showing star qualities as a performer.
“In other theaters they have a strict regimen,” says Nathan Ballard, who moved to L.A. from Kansas around 2006 and started at iOWest in 2010, taking a couple of Groundlings classes along the way. “And they want to mold you into something. At iOWest they were like, ‘You bring your strengths to the table and we’ll do something with them.’”
Ex-iOWest students also were given discounts at Westside and Pack Theater on Santa Monica Boulevard, on Hollywood’s Theater Row.
“The funny thing is most theaters came out of iOWest, so everyone had a general feeling that we all played with these people,” says Nick Armstrong, who started at iOWest in the early 2000s, played on prominent house teams and is current artistic director at Westside. “We need to help them because they don’t have a home.”
A lot of the early inspiration for this inter-theater cooperation came from interns at iOWest lamenting online that their hours worked there — often in exchange for classes — now were useless.
“They’re students — it’s an honor and a duty to teach,” says Brian O’Connell, another veteran iOWest improviser, originally from North Carolina, who worked as everything from bartender to bar manager to Harold (long-form) team performer at iOWest before leaving to co-run the Pack Theater. “And your students should come first, second, third, fourth and fifth in your life. I’m honor-bound to make it a good experience. Some students would never get to graduate now.”
O’Connell is teaching a free class for interns with Armstrong and sketch/improv mainstay and Pack co-founder Eric Moneypenny. Miles Stroth is teaching a free master class.
“Nick said we can turn this negative into a positive,” O’Connell says. “A lot of people are angry and lashing out, but let’s not let this be the story. The L.A. community came together and helped each other. A lot of people love to shit on L.A., ‘You guys do improv for agents and managers, you don’t care about the art of improv.’ Um, not true.”
iOWest expanded from its Chicago headquarters (called iO) to Los Angeles in 1997. While Second City predates iO in Chicago by around two decades, the two institutions have since had a lot of crossover membership — in both cities.
“One hundred percent, it was a shock,” says Chicago native Megan Reisberg, a former iOWest improviser, of its demise. “We just had a meeting for the performers, and the artistic director said we had to make changes to bring in a new audience. We were all so pumped up to make changes to the teams and do new things and then we heard, and it pulled the rug out from under all of us.”
iOWest’s doors closed on Feb. 24; an online notice went up that Second City L.A. was having long-form auditions on Feb. 28. About 150 to 200 people were at the audition, most of them from iOWest, including Reisberg, who joined the group.
“My whole team at Second City is iOWest people I’ve known at least a year,” Reisberg says. “I believe there might have been only two schools that didn’t offer this olive branch to us. All these schools were offering special help and saying, ‘Come in, we’re all family.’”
With the closure, new spinoff theaters can be expected and one is already taking shape, spearheaded by iOWest and Beer Shark Mice veteran Paul Vaillancourt.
Vaillancourt is calling his new venture Revolution Theater, and its logo is an agitprop fist, its slogan “Comedy for the people.” Revolution currently has well-established shows Friday nights in NoHo’s Raven Playhouse on Lankershim, and a growing program of improv classes held at another space.
“iO closing was a wake-up call for everybody,” Vaillancourt says. “Since it’s closed people have gotten more shows, more stage time, all over the place. I’m just hoping to be a part of that — the new homes for people.”
Vaillancourt feels that choosing one’s own family, a word that he — and many others — use to describe iOWest, is a very new thing. “People say L.A. is very isolating and lonely but I’ve always had this community to be part of, which I love so much.”
[Editor's note: The teacher of the Pack master class was incorrectly identified as Nick Armstrong; it is Miles Stroth. We regret the error.]