The Death of an Improv Theater: Mismanagement and Neglect at iO West

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The Death of an Improv Theater: Mismanagement and Neglect at iO West

On February 13th, Charna Halpern, co-founder and owner of famed Chicago improv theater iO, announced that she was shutting down that theater’s Los Angeles location, iO West. The theater was struggling financially, she told Splitsider, citing “a club the landlord put in next door that had shootings and fights constantly,” and bands that “rehearsed under our stages” which the landlord “put in” after the club closed. “Students and theatergoers decreased” irrecoverably under these conditions, said Halpern, who with Del Close invented long-form improv as we know it today. The theater was behind on three months’ rent; it would close eleven days later, on February 24th.

The announcement sparked an outpouring of emotion in the Los Angeles comedy community. There was sadness over the sudden loss of a beloved artistic home, one that in its 24 years served as a training ground for multiple generations of comedians. And there was intense anger among some of the theater’s staffers and performers, current and past, toward the woman whose leadership was rocked by contempt, conflict and even outright scandal. These emotions were closely linked, as community members’ surprise at iO West’s shuttering and their gratitude for what it gave them—friends, partners, careers, a place simply to do and see what they love—morphed into bitterness that they were given no chance to save it. For many, this bitterness was long-simmering. It catalyzed a deep, widespread feeling that Halpern never really cared about iO West or the artists who called it home; that the theater thrived, when it thrived, in spite of her, not because of her; and that her rarified position in the comedy world, one that includes a direct line to Lorne Michaels and his casting directors, has come at the cost of abusive working conditions and possible violations of law.

Interviews with over a dozen members of the iO West community, including former employees with direct experience of Halpern’s leadership, reveal a style defined simultaneously by micromanagement and neglect. Sources tell of a strained, tempestuous relationship between iO West and its management in Chicago—Halpern and her former longtime business partner, Mike Click—who showed little trust in the theater’s ability to chart its own course. This mistrust reverberated across every aspect of the theater’s activities. Relatively minor operational decisions, such as equipment purchases and marketing strategy, generally required Chicago’s approval, which was often withheld. Halpern dictated erratic programming and staffing decisions from Chicago, often disregarding the objections of employees on the ground. When the results displeased her, she was known to unleash her wrath at whoever picked up the phone, full-time staffers and unpaid interns alike.

Her apparent unwillingness to listen to the iO West community manifested most notably in public statements defending the theater’s former artistic director, James Grace, who was let go in 2016 amidst allegations of sexual harassment. Prior to his firing, Halpern denied she had ever received any complaints about him, though one former intern told Buzzfeed she had called Halpern personally to report incidents of harassment. Halpern had said in a later-deleted Facebook post that the call never happened, writing, “there are times when there are women who just like to either cause trouble or get revenge or just want attention so they make up stories.”

Halpern’s handling of the Grace allegations unleashed a wave of public criticism and drove some performers away from the theater, eroding the community’s already tenuous trust in her leadership. But it did not shut iO West’s doors. That happened almost two years later, after a closing party Halpern attended against the protestations of many students and performers, and as the result of factors many years in the making.

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“The thing you gotta know is no matter what happened, no matter how difficult it could be, I never left iO West,” says Sean Cowhig, who spent 14 years at the theater as intern, bartender, teacher, technical director and performer. “I never left iO West because the people that I met out here in LA were and are the greatest. I met my family at iO West; it was the greatest place in the world.”

Cowhig came to the theater in 2004, at the behest of friends who already had a sketch show there. An internship operating lights led to his appointment as the theater’s technical director within a year. “I would be there during the day, trying to fix and maintain and upgrade and keep track of all the technical aspects of the theater,” he recalls. “And people that were doing bigger sketch shows would always hire me to run their lights and sound.”

His position as technical director brought Cowhig in frequent contact with the theater’s management. Given no operating budget, he was required to seek approval for any expenditures from Grace, who generally had to run any request by Chicago. “It seemed that every time I proposed something to upgrade, it was met with serious, serious resistance,” Cowhig recalls. On one instance he sought funding to replace the theater’s cables and lights, which he says were old and falling apart; he often had to open and rewire them by hand. The request, a little over a thousand dollars, was shot down, the equipment never replaced, even as lights eventually burned out. Cowhig had a better chance with smaller requests, generally those below $500, and often purchased equipment used or secondhand. As a result, shows suffered technical problems and Cowhig suffered as director. “There was a period of time after me where the main stage had three lights on,” Cowhig says. “It’s very difficult to do your job when you’re not allowed freedom to do what needs to be done. And it’s also really hard, as a person who’s looked at as the technical director, when things don’t work—it kind of becomes your fault… All I ever wanted to do was make everybody on that stage look the best that I could.”

Cowhig was far from the only employee to meet stern resistance toward routine requests. “No” seemed to be an operative word at iO West, an irony that is not lost on practitioners of a form, invented by Halpern, whose central tenet is saying yes. Debbie Friedman started working at iO West around 2012, first as an office assistant and later as an assistant in the training center. She describes the office environment as a stressful one. “By the time I came in, it seemed as though James had just been browbeaten by Charna for so long that he was very negative about the prospects of improving the theater, and he was very negative about everything,” she says. She was one of three paid office employees at the time. Many of the theater’s operations were run by students working in exchange for classes, which meant there was little institutional cohesion. Every day the box office would be staffed by a different intern; the theater’s marketing strategy, dictated over email by Grace and Halpern, essentially comprised interns posting on social media; broken flats and railings would be repaired by unpaid, unskilled laborers motivated by love for an organization that rarely returned it.

“Whenever Charna would call the office and I was there, it was an immediate panic,” recalls Maria Felix, who started as a marketing intern in late 2012. Halpern often yelled at employees and interns over perceived failures, and she seldom listened to their ideas. Felix says that when the theater brought in a professional social media manager to head up marketing, her proposals were by and large turned down by Halpern, through Grace. “We just got a bunch of ‘no’s,” Felix says. “There was never any money. We were like, if we could at least do a fundraiser for iO to fund the marketing; that was a no. It was always just a wall, and all the social media stuff would just fall apart. There’s only so much you can do.” On one occasion her team was instructed to promote iO’s shows on Tumblr. “Tumblr’s not for that,” she says, “but these were the things we were specifically told to do. We weren’t allowed to do anything else.” David Kantrowitz was offered a graphic design internship in 2013, after he asked iO West to stop using his “Improv Artvice” images on its social media without attribution. Marketing operations were entirely run by interns, he attests, with outside consultants occasionally brought in to provide free advice. Kantrowitz took it upon himself to assemble a design pitch for iO West’s outdated website. “I remember doing a lot of logo redesigns and putting together sort of a graphic of what I thought would be a good unified visual style and color palette, so they had recognizable branding on all fronts,” he says. “I remember getting invested in it and then realizing it was a mistake to get invested. Because so many of those ideas were either shot down after getting feedback from Chicago, or James just immediately being ‘Yeah, Charna will never sign off on this.’”

“Anything around the subject of money was very fraught,” Friedman recalls, “and the attitude towards the staff and the interns, from Chicago, was always pretty rude.” At one point she noticed there was a waitlist for a level-one improv class; though the theater struggled to attract students in its final years, back then classes occasionally sold out. She suggested to Grace that they rent out a space and hire another teacher to meet the demand. Even if it didn’t sell out, the waitlist was long enough to break even. “He didn’t want to deal with it, because it was always a negative experience to talk to Charna,” Friedman says. “So I ended up calling up Charna and asking her and she told me no.”

Nobody taught at iO West without Halpern’s permission, which she seldom granted to improvisers she did not know. “She would occasionally come out to LA and see a show and she would be very—we tried to show her the best shows—she’d be genuinely impressed,” says Friedman. “Which was of course mildly insulting, that she would be surprised at how good things were. But she would be impressed, and then she’d say, ‘Why aren’t those people teaching? That person was so good, why aren’t they teaching?’ And the reason is because she has to approve everybody who’d become a teacher. And if it wasn’t somebody she knew, she wouldn’t let them teach.”

Many of those fortunate enough to win Halpern’s favor eventually, unwittingly lost it. “She’d watch a show, she’d be outraged that some person she thought was really great wasn’t teaching, they’d start that person teaching, and then perhaps a year would go by and she’d forget who that person was, and say, ‘who’s this person who’s teaching? I don’t want them teaching at my theater.’ And then they’d get fired,” Friedman says. She recalls one teacher in particular who regularly sold out classes until Halpern inexplicably instructed a manager to let him go. “My hunch is that she just forgot who he was.”

Halpern’s erratic decision-making concerned and exasperated her staffers. “Watching that kind of undermining the success of the theater is insanely frustrating,” Friedman says. “I would sometimes have to enter all the financial information into QuickBooks for accounting, when Mike [Canale, former Training Center Director and Theater Manager] was out of town or something. And you would see clearly, like, sure, the bar makes some money, but the classes are what supports the theater. And if you’re firing teachers who are selling out classes, you’re losing out on the one thing that’s making the theater able to be sustainable.” Cowhig, from his position as former technical director and bartender, echoes this sentiment. “I’m not gonna sit here and say I know how to run a business, that I know all the inside workings of what’s going on. But you’d see how much money the bar makes per night. So you know there’s at least that much coming in. You would think that you’d be able to spend a few thousand dollars on the theater itself.”

The bar was a sticking point for Halpern and Click, who appeared to regard it as more important than any other aspect of iO West’s operations. Click in particular had a longstanding conviction that bar staff were stealing funds, going so far as to install security cameras monitoring them at the same time Cowhig was struggling to fund equipment upgrades. “Mike Click would always tell me that my numbers were too high,” says Britain Spellings, who served as bar manager from 2001 until 2006. Click was convinced the bar’s revenue didn’t line up with its expenditures. “I would always tell him, it’s impossible for you to know that, because we don’t have a point-of-sale system. We have an old timey cash register, and when I sell a glass of wine or a shot of Jim Beam or Stella Artois, it’s all ringing up the same.”

After years of this back-and-forth, Click finally agreed to install Aloha, a popular restaurant point-of-sale system already used at iO Chicago, in 2006. He, Halpern and Chicago’s bar manager flew out to Los Angeles to run training for iO West’s bar staff, and Spellings scheduled out the week so his bartenders would each have a full shift to learn the ropes (except for Spellings and one other, who would have half a shift). About twenty minutes into Spellings’ training, Click announced that he and his Chicago companions were departing for dinner; call if you have any issues. Spellings indeed had issues, and the call went straight to voicemail. He spent the rest of his shift tallying customer orders by hand. “Here I am trying to keep everything organized and keep an honest till for these guys,” he recalls, “and they come home from dinner: ‘Oh, what’s going on, cat?’ [Click] called everyone cat. ‘Hey cat, what’s going on?’ And I was like, man, you guys just dropped me under the bus, where the hell were you? Why didn’t you answer the phone? ‘Oh, I didn’t know the phone rang.’” (Mike Click could not be reached for comment.)

This was not the first time tension arose between Spellings and iO’s leadership, whom he says treated iO West with general disregard: “We were always sort of lesser-than.” During an improv festival a few years earlier, he and Halpern were approached by a fire marshal who informed them that the event was over capacity. Halpern moved to deal with the situation, Spellings recalls, and “Whatever she said to him was just so acerbic that the guy immediately snapped and said all right, you’re done, we’re shutting the place down.” He intervened, and within 15 minutes cleared enough people out of the theater that the fire marshal relented. The Aloha situation, however, was the last straw. Early the next morning he went into the office, made copies of all his time sheets—in case he decided to sue over failures to pay overtime and provide legally-mandated breaks—and gave notice to Click. He did not end up filing suit, fearing that if authorities investigated iO West over what he describes as widespread violations, Halpern might shut down the theater, robbing his friends and colleagues of their livelihoods and artistic home. He was succeeded as bar manager by Brian James O’Connell.

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When a drunk driver crashed his SUV through iO West’s storefront on the afternoon of June 26, 2008, Brian O’Connell was in Providence for an improv festival. On any other Thursday he would’ve been at the bar, right in the path of destruction. Or rather, he says wryly, “I most likely would have been dead.” More than a year after Aloha’s installation, Click was still convinced iO’s staff was stealing. He had instructed O’Connell to perform inventory every day, rather than on the first of every month. “Myself and Sean Cowhig, we would’ve been sitting at the bar, I would’ve been behind the bar, we would’ve been doing the inventory and watching the NBA draft”—he remembers June 26th clearly as the day Derrick Rose was drafted first overall by the Chicago Bulls—“it would’ve been ‘hurray, Derrick Rose,’ and then the car would’ve hit me. So I cheated death by being across the country on that one.” By this point, O’Connell, known to his friends at “BOC,” had spent half a decade at iO West. He saw first show—a former girlfriend’s team, Tiger Pants—in January 2003, started his first class that March and began working as the theater’s physical plant intern shortly thereafter, building flats, painting and fulfilling other facilities needs. “There’s a curtain that leads from the back of the stage to the back hallway of iO that I put up in 2003, and it’s still there,” he says. “When I build shit, I build it to last.”

O’Connell’s 15-year tenure at iO West also included stints as bartender and teacher. As bar manager he came into frequent contact, and conflict, with Halpern, whom he emphasizes is the sole figure at iO with whom he takes any issue. “She makes a lot of irrational, passionate, emotion-based decisions,” he says. “Whoever the first person was that gave her a Blackberry, I want to punch in the face. They gave her the technology to be able to make those rash decisions and make them law.”

O’Connell’s employment offers an object lesson in Halpern’s decision-making. He resigned as bar manager in 2012 after Halpern called to announce she was cutting the theater’s security. Instead of paying for a bouncer seven nights of the week, she would only pay for two nights; the remainder would be covered by unpaid interns. “She was saying that they were getting paid $800 a night,” O’Connell recalls. “I don’t know how much you know about the bar business, but that would be $100 an hour, which no security guards would be getting. I went back and forth with her and I said, I’ve lived in Hollywood; I’ve been here since 2000; I’ve worked at bars in Hollywood; Hollywood Boulevard is a dangerous place. You cannot put unlicensed, untrained, uninsured, underweight interns—students who were working just like I am—on the door. These are your children, right? These are my friends. These are your students.”

Halpern wouldn’t change her mind, so O’Connell offered his two-weeks’ notice. She accepted it and hung up. “I sat there and I looked at the other people that I was working with and I just broke down in tears,” he says. “Because it was my dream job, it was my dream place.” A short while later Halpern called back. She informed James Grace and Mike Canale that Click had given her the wrong numbers. The theater’s security guards were paid $800 a week, not $800 a night. She did not ask to speak to O’Connell. “And they hung up and they turned and looked at me and said, why do you have a job again?”

O’Connell stayed on as a bartender, and eventually his teacher and mentor, Miles Stroth, persuaded Halpern to give him a teaching position as well. This was short-lived—sort of. “She fired me three separate times, over the years, from teaching,” O’Connell says. In 2007 Stroth departed iO West to found the Miles Stroth Workshop, which would eventually become The Pack Theater, of which O’Connell is also a founder. O’Connell took a teaching position at the Workshop in addition to his duties at iO West. Halpern took this to mean he was stealing students from the theater and fired him, despite the fact that he was hardly the only teacher with other gigs. “Half the people that were on the iO West teaching staff taught at other places,” he says. “It’s pretty much standard for the improv and comedy world: You taught a class here, you taught a class there, you have your own private acting studio or whatever, because you’re a broke actor in LA just trying to make all the money that you can.” He still had allies at the theater, whom he “begged and cajoled” to place him back on the teaching staff. Then the situation repeated, and repeated again, until his allies “ran out of political capital” to spend on him. In the final instance, he says, Halpern told his bosses at the training center that a student had come to her with a complaint: O’Connell had told his students they should drop out of iO and enroll at The Pack instead. This was a common tactic, says O’Connell, who denies he ever made such solicitations. “I’ve seen multiple, multiple instances where she would call up James Grace and say, ‘I got an email from a student saying such-and-such was happening, I want that person gone.’ And he said, ‘Oh, that’s terrible, can you forward me that email?’ ‘Oh, I deleted it.’ Or, ‘A student came up to me, he was from Los Angeles and came up to me at the bar in Chicago and said this was happening, I want that person gone.’ And he said, ‘Oh, that’s terrible, who is that student?’ ‘Oh, I forget their names.’”

By his third firing, O’Connell had had enough. He stayed on as a bartender—his rent wasn’t going to pay itself—and was careful not to mention The Pack, or even wear his Pack sweatshirt, while he was on iO West’s premises. “I didn’t want anyone to have any excuse at any time to say that I was being untoward, or that now that I was bitter, now that I’ve been fired, that I’m actually trying to steal students,” he says. After iO West shut down, The Pack was one of several LA comedy theaters that announced it would provide free and discounted classes to iO West interns and students.

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Halpern and Click treated iO West’s employees and performers with dismissiveness that often erupted into disdain. Their obsession with the bar above all else, and Halpern’s peculiar insistence on dictating teaching appointments she ultimately forgot about, belie a greater failure to understand ground-level realities in Los Angeles. When iO West temporarily closed after the 2008 drunk driving incident that demolished its storefront and damaged its bar, James Grace enlisted John Conroy, a communications professional and performer at the theater, to help strategize the reopening. Conroy drew up two detailed proposals. One outlined plans for a splashy opening event, complete with celebrity appearances, to draw the attention of local and national media; his understanding was that the theater’s insurance payout for the accident included an allocation for such an event, which Halpern denied in emailed comments to Paste. The other proposal outlined a long-term marketing and PR strategy designed to put iO West in serious competition with UCB and Groundlings, which enjoyed disproportionate name recognition and attendance compared to iO. Conroy estimates his advice, which he happily volunteered, was worth approximately $12,000.

Halpern ignored it. He had two phone calls with her and Grace to discuss the plans; both were a bust. “I began to explain my strategies, starting with the simple fact that the Los Angeles marketplace, in terms of the business and the cultural environment, and certainly the media environment, was radically different from Chicago, so different strategies would need to be applied here in order to be successful,” he says of the second call. “At that point she interrupted me and she directed the conversation towards James. She began to harshly criticize him for wasting her time with this guy: ‘He doesn’t know what he’s talking about, he’s an idiot, he doesn’t know who we are.’ The best way I can describe it is that no one has ever spoken to me like that in my life—and I used to work with Elton John.” Halpern’s disregard for his advice wasn’t just insulting to Conroy, but destructive toward iO West’s already struggling business. “The realities were that iO was not attracting the audiences that UCB was, or the Groundlings or Second City,” he says. “It also wasn’t attracting the same number of students, because there’s only so many training programs that people are going to pay for. If you’re the number two or number three choice, you’re obviously not going to do as well.” Conroy was especially saddened by the meeting because he genuinely believed in iO West, which he felt was putting on far better shows than other LA theaters. “I thought we were doing tremendous work.”

One iO West performer who won the rare prize of a “yes” from management is Gina Ippolito. In 2013 she sought James Grace’s permission to beef up the theater’s sketch program, which at the time was deeply disorganized. Sketch teams had no devoted time slots, making it difficult for any one team to build an audience, and some teams wouldn’t even show up for their sets. With Grace’s blessing, Ippolito implemented a number of changes to the Sunday sketch night. Working for free, she assigned consistent time slots to each team, encouraged performers to promote their shows, placed ads in online publications, organized mixers for the theater’s sketch community and put together its sketch festivals. In other words, she did all the work of a producer for none of the pay, not that she asked for any—she just wanted to build an audience and community on par with the work. Ippolito estimates that after a couple years of these efforts, she had tripled the sketch night’s attendance, a dramatic enough increase that a second bartender was added to handle the load. By every metric the effort was a success.

Then Halpern got involved. At an all-theater meeting in March 2014, during one of her rare visits to iO West, she was asked about Ippolito’s progress on the sketch program. “She was like, ‘Look, I don’t get sketch, we don’t do sketch in Chicago, it doesn’t make any sense to me, but if you guys are doing well, great,’” Ippolito recalls. “And someone asks, ‘are you going to come see the sketch shows? Would you be willing to be in a sketch?’ And she said, ‘All right, I’ll do that.’ She sat through the shows and I don’t think she laughed once. And when it came time for her to be in this sketch she had agreed to be in, she hadn’t memorized her lines and it was just a very strange performance that everyone was sort of confused by more than anything—and this was a sketch by a great writer who’d been on a team for years.” After the performance, Halpern said she didn’t think the sketch was funny and reiterated that she didn’t understand sketch in general. For those who had come to iO to perform sketch, and who were meeting Halpern for the first time, it was a disheartening experience. “It was very clear that she had no love for the sketch program here, or the sketch teams who were doing all this good work,” Ippolito says. “But that’s Charna for you. I don’t think she ever left L.A. with people saying, yay, we have high hopes for the future. It was usually just, oh, well, that was disappointing.”

Over time, Ippolito came to suspect Halpern and Grace had realized there was money to be made in what she’d built. This turned out not to be a good thing. “At some point there were just too many teams,” she says. “The product itself was watered down and a lot of people felt, maybe this is just a cash grab for them so they don’t have to really put any work into it.” iO West had three theaters: the Main Stage, The Loft above it and the Del Close Theater behind it. As sketch shows were added, long-running sellout shows were put in competition with newer shows scheduled at the same time in a neighboring space. As a result, sellout shows stopped selling out; neophyte teams risked alienating new and returning customers alike. Ippolito asked Grace, who she says rarely attended sketch shows, if they could scale back. “He said sure, we can definitely do that. And then he added even more teams after talking to Charna.” (James Grace declined multiple requests for comment on this story).

Frustratingly for Ippolito, Halpern blamed poor attendance on performers, who she believed weren’t doing enough to promote their shows. “Any time numbers were looked at, it was never, ‘Oh yeah, we put competing shows at the exact same time, even though they’re both sketch so obviously they have a similar audience,’” Ippolito says. “It was always, ‘Well, you guys aren’t doing enough to promote.’ And when Charna came out she would say, ‘I don’t know what’s wrong with you guys, you have foot traffic here. In Chicago we don’t even need to promote.’”

It was an exasperating contradiction—they weren’t doing enough to promote their shows, which they shouldn’t need to promote—compounded by Halpern’s continued reluctance to invest in marketing. Sketch teams were responsible for their own promotional efforts, which generally amounted to contacting news outlets and posting on social media. Ippolito and her fellow performers would brainstorm more elaborate approaches, such as visiting a local hostel with flyers that offered free drink tickets. “Everything was, ‘Well we need to contact Chicago first,” she says. “And then Charna would always say, ‘You shouldn’t have to do this. They should just be coming in off the street.’ She wasn’t willing to put any time or money into the theater.” Alternately, she might approve a request in person, then email Grace “as an afterthought” reversing the decision. An exception to this rule came in 2014, when Halpern approved approximately $1,300 in funding for a new camera and microphone to record iO West shows. Grace announced the news in an email with the subject line “Miracles can happen!!”, signifying the rarity of Halpern’s blessing. She didn’t end up providing the funds, however, as a live-streaming company called Gigity.TV offered to donate the equipment under the condition that they would host the video. Ippolito says the donated camera eventually stopped working; it was never replaced.

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It is not uncommon for a small theater to run on a shoestring budget. It is also not uncommon, though not quite as justifiable, for a comedy theater to depend largely on the cheap or unpaid labor of young adults early in their careers. What stands out about iO West isn’t simply Halpern’s stinginess or her indifference toward the community, but that she appeared to be a wholly different person when it came to iO Chicago. In 2014 she took out a loan of approximately $7 million to purchase and renovate a new building for her flagship theater. The new complex included an event space, a beer garden, classrooms and a kitchen, according to the Chicago Tribune. In 2016, she told Inc. that iO’s business had tripled since she bought the space, and that despite certain challenges it was profitable.

Contemporaneous emails, reviewed by Paste, indicate that iO West was suffering dire financial constraints in that same period. In one April 2016 exchange over cuts to the theater’s security personnel, Halpern asked that an employee stop questioning her decisions and instead “help and start a search for a new space[ ]or recruit students.” Interns were put on door duty, as they had been during Maria Felix’s time at the theater a few years earlier, until staff discontent reached a breaking point. “It took people threatening to walk out for her to actually get security,” says Jon Crowley, a longtime bartender at the theater. “She just wanted an intern to work the door. So I’d have a nice kid who’s 5”5’, 90 pounds working the door, and he’s a nice guy but it’s not his job to throw out a guy on crack. He was just an unpaid intern put in danger.” This was two years after Halpern borrowed $7 million for the Chicago theater, and just shy of two years before she closed iO West after failing to pay three months’ rent—a failure she insists she was not aware of until after the fact.

Halpern’s apparent favoritism toward iO Chicago had other, more insulting manifestations. Whereas an iO Chicago student or alumni card granted its holder free admission to shows at iO West, when seats were available, an iO West card did not provide the same privilege in reverse. Even Brian James O’Connell, during his time as the Los Angeles bar manager, was required to pay for tickets when he visited Chicago. Halpern would also deny coaching and teaching appointments to Los Angeles performers, according to Gina Ippolito, in favor of Chicago performers moving west. “A lot of people would get frustrated because they had been with the theater for years and taking classes and they would ask, can I coach or teach? And Charna would say no, I have a couple people from Chicago moving out there—who no one knows—let them teach instead,” Ippolito recalls. “I know several people who eventually quit their sketch teams and left the theater because they were like, what am I working towards if she’s just going to keep sending people from the Chicago theater?”

For many in the community, what little trust they had in Halpern dissolved during her handling of the accusations against James Grace. She did not fire him until three women had come forward, by which point she had already spent significant political capital in his defense, going so far as to accuse the women who came forward of lying. “I personally reported my own assault to her and felt interrogated,” says Alex McCale, who in a statement to Paste described iO West as her home for five years. “In certain moments, she called [me] a liar. I was the SECOND person to report a similar assault committed by this man and still she tried to make excuses for him and only put him on a very vague ‘probation’ as punishment. She refused to do more until I was forced to go public with my story and several other people came out against him.”

Halpern is a foundational figure in modern comedy. She created long-form improv; she trained and mentored the likes of Tina Fey and Amy Poehler; she still hand-picks comedians for Saturday Night Live auditions. She may not have considered it at the time, but her words carried great weight and would have far-reaching ramifications. “Charna’s mishandling of sexual assault reports and sexual harassment, and a lot of problematic statements that she had made online, made a few people step back in general,” says Ippolito.

John Conroy, who departed iO for The Pack Theater during this time, agrees. “When all the laundry got hung out, that was why I stopped going to iO entirely,” he says. “When she implied that these women were liars… I don’t think that any telling of this tale can be told completely without acknowledging that, because that had a colossal impact on her business.”

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Halpern’s former employees have also accused her and Mike Click of systemic wage theft.

Under California law, most employees have a right to overtime pay for any shift longer than 8 hours in a given day. This applies even if the employee works fewer than 40 hours in a week. This rule does not apply to independent contractors and has only a few exceptions, which Michelle Travis, a professor at the University of San Francisco School of Law, describes as “quite narrow.”

“One exception is if the employer has followed a particular legal process to establish a regularly-scheduled alternative workweek, such as an established 4-day-per-week, 10-hour-per-day schedule,” Travis explained in emailed comments to Paste. “I suspect that is unlikely for a comedy club, where supervisors typically like to have as much scheduling flexibility as possible. Under normal circumstances, whenever employees are required to work longer than eight hours on the same day, they must receive the premium overtime rate for the extra hours.”

A range of former iO West bartenders, servers and tech personnel tell Paste that they were regularly denied overtime pay for shifts exceeding eight hours. All were hourly employees; many worked for minimum wage. Britain Spellings, the theater’s bar manager from 2001 until 2006, says he worked overtime at every comedy festival during his tenure. “They wouldn’t pay me overtime even though I would submit for it,” he says.

Lauren Miller, a former bartender, server and performer who spent eleven years at the theater, says that employees were given neither overtime nor meal breaks, which California law guarantees to employees who work more than five hours in a day. “Neither of those existed,” she wrote in emailed comments to Paste. “Some nights, if a 5 p.m. SNL showcase was added or a class show, the bartenders/servers would have to get there as early as four or 4:30 p.m. and then you just worked a regular night straight through. People would bring food with them and snack as best they could, but there were no meal breaks and we all just made our hourly wage regardless of how long the shift ended up being.” On most nights, the theater’s final performance was at 11 p.m. Employees might stay until after midnight closing up.

Jon Crowley, a bartender who came to iO West under Spellings’ management and remained until its closing, says he believes his timecards were altered after the fact. “There would be times where [other bartenders] would go out of town and I’d work five days in a row. And then when the paycheck would come in, it would show that I only worked 39 and a half hours,” he says. “And then you’d look at when you punched in and punched out, clearly Mike [Click] had gone into the computer and fixed it so there wasn’t overtime.”

Brian James O’Connell, who served as bar manager from 2006 until 2012, then stayed on as a bartender until 2016, attests to Crowley’s suspicion. “I have personally witnessed Mike Click change the clock in/clock out times of bar staff so that they would be under 8 hours for a shift so they could avoid paying overtime,” he told Paste in an email. “He did it in Chicago through the Aloha system and I watched the computer screen in L.A. as he did it.”

The alleged violations continued, however, even after Click departed iO in early 2017. Sean Cowhig, the former technical director who stayed on as a bartender until the theater closed, says he was denied overtime as recently as this past February. “I worked over 8 hours this month on Super Bowl Sunday as a bartender,” he wrote in emailed comments to Paste. He did not receive overtime, he says, because the theater’s policy was to pay overtime only when employees worked more than 40 hours in a week.

Mike Besaw succeeded Cowhig as technical director in 2012, a position he held until 2017. He remained at iO West as a technician until it closed. He says he regularly worked from 10 a.m. until after midnight on Sundays. Since he only worked a few days a week, and he assumed California followed the same overtime laws as his home state of Florida, he never filed for overtime. The only exceptions were two instances he worked more than 40 hours a week during the theater’s comedy festivals. For this he got adequately paid and also in trouble. “I ended up working more than 40 hours a week and then I got an angry email from Mike Click in Chicago,” he says. “Like, ‘What are you doing?’ I’m like, hey, I just work when I’m scheduled. And they’re like, okay, don’t let it happen again.”

Eventually a friend told Besaw he had a right to overtime for those 8+ hour shifts. Still, he was reluctant to ask for it. Like Spellings, who years earlier declined to sue iO West over the issue, he didn’t want to rob his friends and colleagues of the community they loved. “I knew the place was in bad shape,” he says. “I didn’t want to be the guy responsible for bringing down the theater.”

Overtime violations like those alleged at iO West are not uncommon in California, according to Travis, the attorney and law professor. A 2017 report by the Economic Policy Institute found that 19% of minimum wage-eligible employees in California were the victims of wage theft, whether through denied overtime or other violations. “Employees are often afraid to speak out because of a very rational fear of losing their jobs,” Travis said, noting that many violators go unpunished because the state has “insufficient enforcement resources.”

When Paste emailed Halpern for comment on these complaints, she sent four consecutive responses:

“Everyone was paid correctly and if there was a problem with their checks they could always call payroll – never had complaints,” she wrote. “This is one of those comments from an angry person that i read on Line too- threatening to get me audited cause I’m closing down . You are not talking to employees – I guarantee it.”

Twenty minutes later, she added: “Last night was our final night and there were massive crowds. Everyone was loving and grateful. Everyone thanked me for what I created – thanked me for the art form I created -thanked me for giving them a home and for changing their lives – some who have been with me for 25 years thanked me for being their comedy mother. And so many apologized to me for the angry comments that they read about me. Those angry people were not the people who were there last night – those present were the longtime members of the iO community. Of course everyone is sad to lose their clubhouse and I’m sad too. But everyone is proud of what we’ve done together and everyone knows that they are responsible to create their future.”

Then, seven minutes after that: “Also as a final comment Seth – I[‘v]e been in business 38 years – I have a professional accountant and payroll service. I’ve never done anything improperly or illegally.”

Two hours later, she emailed again: “Would you like to verify employment Regarding the people you’re talking to? We are concerned because we really don’t have overtime at either theater -people have their shifts and no one works more than a 40 hour week.”

When Paste asked whether Sean Cowhig worked overtime last February, Halpern said Brandon Sornberger, iO West’s bar manager at the time, confirmed the hours. “Brandon told me sean did Work an extra two hours for Super Bowl,” she wrote in an email to Paste. “Brandon always submitted the hours as weekly hours which were paid and didn’t realize we had to know it was overtime. It was never done intentionally.” She added that iO would send Cowhig a check for time and a half for those hours. Asked to confirm Halpern’s version of events, Sornberger declined to comment.

Paste also inquired about Mike Besaw’s shifts during his tenure as technical director, which Halpern said she could not confirm until she received the necessary payroll data. A short while later, she added via email:

Here is the point that I think you can clearly see now. There are some people who are so angry that they are going to the press and want to cause trouble for me purely because I lost my business. Its really unbelievable. Here are the facts.

Sean has worked for me for years and is so angry I closed that he went to the press because, even tho he was paid for those 2 extra hours bartending for Super Bowl, he didnt get the extra $15 for time and a half. (Which was a mistake as Brandon put it in his weekly hours) We rarely get overtime so he didn’t know.

And Mike Besaw worked for me in 2016. We never had ONE complaint as all his hours were paid for his less than 40 hour work week. But NOW he is going to the press. We are going to look at his records to see what he is owed once our Aloha system gets shipped from LA.

What amazes me is the way some of these folks are behaving. Not all, thank goodness. Just a few. Most have been appreciative of the 20 years they had and the amazing community that I built. But there are a few who are behaving in a most confusing manner.

If someone would have cancer, you would say you’re sorry. You wouldn’t get mad at them.

If someone loses their business, you say your sorry-you don’t get angry and go to the press for $15 .

Ive never experienced anything like this. There are many in the community who have apologized for the way others have been acting.They are just as surprised. I guess people handle grief in different ways.

Thank you for all your time.

Paste explained that Cowhig’s shift was one of many, he’s alleged, for which he did not receive overtime. Paste also explained that for much of Besaw’s employment, he was not aware that California law guaranteed overtime for shifts over eight hours regardless of the total hours worked in a week. Halpern did not respond.

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The precise circumstances that led to iO West’s closure remain opaque. “The theater has not made a profit in a long while,” Halpern wrote in emailed comments to Paste. “But it was sustaining itself and as long as it paid its bills, I was happy to keep it open. There are times I had to pay rent or cover their salaries in the past year. But I knew I couldn’t do that for long. The staff always knew we were having problems. It was the idea of my staff to even lower the class fee to enroll new students which we did since enrollment had dropped significantly in the past two years.”

Halpern says that in its last five months, the theater spent significantly more than it made. “My accountant and I poured over our expenses to see what we could cut,” she wrote. “The most significant expense was security-almost as high as rent. We couldn’t cut rent or salaries so I thought I[‘]d try cutting security in an effort to keep the doors open. People were very upset so I flew to LA to have a town hall meeting. This was Aug or Sept. Everyone was upset about my cutting security and I understood that. I explained that I did it in an effort to keep the doors open. People were still upset-they wanted security despite the fact that I warned them we could not sustain much longer. I tried to suggest ways that we could work together without security but they wouldn’t have it. That was a sad meeting for me because I honestly felt like they just wouldn’t hear the facts. So I put security back on. I covered salaries a few times, but they were being drained.”

In January, Halpern says, she was notified by iO West’s co-artistic director Zach Huddleston that December rent had not been paid. She says she was assured it would be paid once class registration was complete. “But that didn’t happen and I didn’t know that,” she wrote. “I was then surprised to learn in February that Dec, Jan and Feb rent had not been paid. I know that if I keep covering rent in LA, that I[‘]ll destroy my business in Chicago. One improv theater cannot support two theaters. It[’]s a sad fact-but a fact nonetheless.”

Given Halpern’s history of micromanaging iO West’s finances, Brian James O’Connell is skeptical she would ever be caught off-guard by missed rent payments. “If we wanted to buy anything at iO West that was over $500, we had to get her and Mike Click’s permission,” he says. “I had to call them and ask if I could do it. And then Mike would say, ‘I have to ask Charna,’ and then Charna would call me back and say, ‘Why are we paying this? Why are we doing this?’ $68,000? You don’t know was gone? I find that hard to believe. I find that very hard to believe.”

Asked via email if Halpern’s timeline of events is accurate, Huddleston declined to comment. “I’ll miss iO greatly,” he wrote. “I had the pleasure of being a member of the community for 11 great years and I’ll miss it. The people there were very special and they’ll continue to be.”

Halpern declined to respond to questions about iO West’s marketing strategy or chain of command. Asked about complaints that she frequently refused to finance equipment upgrades and other operational necessities, she wrote, “There are some very angry people and a great deal of misinformation flying around… Theres so much crazy stuff being written and its frustrating because I don’t have the time or inclination to answer all this.” She added that students would be refunded the cost of cancelled classes; interns who had worked in exchange for class hours would be compensated as well. She said she would be happy to allow iO West alumni free admission to iO Chicago shows.

Nearly every member of the iO West community who spoke with Paste stressed that they are not angry about the simple fact of the theater’s closing, but that Halpern handled its closure with the same indifference that defined her leadership for almost 20 years. Former performers and employees lamented that they were given only eleven days’ notice, and decried Halpern’s social media posts dismissing them as “young folks” with “misplaced anger.” More than anything else, the comedians Paste spoke to were disappointed that Halpern never seemed to recognize how much they truly cared about iO West—how much they had invested when she declined to—and what an asset their passion could be.

“No one wanted any of this to happen,” says Gina Ippolito. “If she had said four months ago, ‘Hey, we can’t pay our rent this month,’ every single person in the community would have donated time and money and effort to make sure that wasn’t the case. But as usual, no one was consulted.”

“We would have banded together and we would have tried something,” agrees Sean Cowhig. “We would have put all our hearts and souls into it… and even if it failed, we would’ve known we tried everything. For me, that’s the shocker, that’s the pain: We weren’t given a chance to try. We were on life support, we didn’t know it, and the plug was just pulled.”

Charna Halpern entered iO West on February 24th, a brisk day in Los Angeles, in a manner familiar to everyone inside: angry. “She came walking in and she started yelling at everybody,” says Mike Besaw. “She yelled at Brandon [Sornberger], the bar manager, and Colleen [Doyle, co-artistic director], who worked in the office, and she yelled at me. Why isn’t there security here? Because you didn’t want to pay for it, that’s why they’re not here yet.” The final show began at 8 p.m., the closing party began at 9:30 p.m. In a speech, Halpern thrice referred to Jon Crowley, her bartender of 13 years, as “Kevin.” By 10 p.m., a line stretched around the corner. The space was dense with bodies, from the bar to the theater behind it and upstairs into the loft. Groups of performers shot their final photos on the stage they’d long called home. They leaned against old, cracked barstools and shouted over the din. Across the street, at a bar called Scum & Villainy Cantina, another party raged: the “rebel party,” as one comedian described it, for those who left iO West years ago and those who wished to celebrate iO West without giving Halpern the satisfaction of their presence. They didn’t have to wonder what the L.A. improv community would look like in her absence; they had already built it without her. And now they would build something new.


An earlier version of this story stated that Debbie Friedman was one of three paid staffers at iO West at the time of her employment. It has been updated to reflect that this number referred to office staff, not total staff.

Seth Simons is Paste’s assistant comedy editor. Follow him on Twitter.

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