Chicago’s Improv Theatre Scene Is Expanding

Two improv comedy venues opening soon in Chicago — one new, one relocated — reflect their names quite well.

The Revival, whose Hyde Park venue has been closed since December, is returning to the scene May 9 with the opening of a new theater in the South Loop. And, The Home Comedy Theater, conceived by a collective of iO and Second City veterans, is building out a space in Lake View as an artistic residence for displaced long-form improvisers.

Both are the culmination of planning that started during the tumult of the COVID-19 lockdown.

In 2020, Chicago’s two main improv outlets, Second City and iO, were hit with a double whammy of the theater-closing pandemic and accusations of racist practices. Their longtime leaders stepped down, and both institutions went up for sale.

John Stoops witnessed this uncertainty from afar and daydreamed about what it could mean for The Revival, the theater he had founded in 2015. He liked that its Hyde Park location, at the corner of East 55th Street and South University Ave., boasted historical significance as the original home of the Compass Players, but he was frustrated by its size: a one-room storefront with a single, 140-seat stage. It also wasn’t very accessible via the CTA.

Stoops found a suitable upgrade in the South Loop in what was formerly an office and printing facility. The bar is in the lobby — yes, now there is a lobby — and the theater comfortably fits 200 audience members and includes a space for classes. “This is a more polished experience than Hyde Park was; I can already say that and we haven’t even open to the public yet,” Stoops says.

The initial slate of shows, kicking off May 9, features some heavy hitters. Dave Pasquesi (“Veep,” “TJ & Dave”), Sue Gillan (“Shrink”) and Mike Brunlieb (“South Side”) unite as a trio for the first time in an improv ensemble called Unsend, and Mark Raterman (Cook County Social Club) joins Neal Dandade (“Chicago Med”) and Forest Hynes (“Chaos Theory”) in Big Fans.

The first show at The Revival’s new space at 906 S. Wabash Ave. is set for May 9.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Stoops is proud that The Revival features only improv, regularly attracts non-performer audiences and maintains a South Side address. “Because of the nature of our city, that alone allows us to attract a more diverse audience and talent pool than our North Side peers,” he says, adding that the theater increases accessibility by offering scholarships through its Due South Foundation and partnering with CPS.

The Revival looked to upgrade, but Cesar Jaime, co-founder of The Home Comedy Theater, wanted to downgrade, in a sense. He and other veteran improvisers had long lamented the loss of iO’s former, smaller location in the heart of Wrigleyville. Since 2014 iO has operated a vast, multi-theater complex on Kingsbury Street, and when the company went up

for sale, he looked into buying the brand.

“[I thought], if I’m able to pull this off, let’s go back to what we fell in love with — teaching long-form [improv] and getting an intimate space with a bar inside the theater,” he says. But after learning the iO brand and LLC were entwined with the lease on the Kingsbury space, Jaime left the bargaining table, and two real estate executives eventually bought the company.

“[The partners and I] weren’t interested in a huge space like the one on Kingsbury: There was no way we could afford it, and that wasn’t the plan,” he says.

The right opportunity manifested in late 2022 when the dormant Crush space at 2843 N. Halsted St., whose floor plan featured numerous rooms and plenty of nooks and crannies, became available for lease.

Though The Home hasn’t locked down its programming, Jaime is dedicated to diversity and endeavors for shows and classes that reflect the city of Chicago in its entirety. “I don’t think enough effort was put into the bigger theaters,” he says.

It helps that Jaime assembled an illustrious slate of instructors: Susan Messing, Peter Gwinn, T.J. Jagodowski, Liz Allen and Norm Holly — Jaime’s first improv teacher — for classes scheduled to begin May 18. Also onboard was the acclaimed teacher Noah Gregoropoulos, but he died in December 2022, one day before Jaime could tell him about the new space.

There was never any doubt what the name should be. As a freshman at Columbia College, Jaime took an improv class taught by former Second City Artistic Director Martin de Maat, who literally drove him to Second City to enroll in additional classes. Jaime eventually made it onto one of the theater’s touring companies.

“I saw [de Maat] in the hallway one day, and he came up to me and said, ‘Welcome home,’ and he gave me a big hug,” he says. “It’s something I would tell students at iO — if you made a team, and I saw you in the hallway, I would say, ‘Welcome home.’ ”

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