As the cast of the Deltones left the stage, the lights came up on iO’s Jason Chin Cabaret theater. Audience members finished their drinks, dropped a few dollars in tips on the tables and navigated their way through the cramped aisles toward the exit.
No one seemed to notice the woman who slipped in through a side door part way through the show.
She was dressed in a teal jacket and black pants, her light blonde hair tinted navy by the stage lights. She had a hand tightly wrapped around the leash of her little black and white dog who stood calmly by her seat. She sat quietly observing the shuffle around her.
“Is that Charna Halpern by the back door?”
My friend looked over my shoulder, a smile spreading across her face.
“Yeah, that’s her,” she said. “That’s so cool.”
Charna Halpern is the founder and Artistic Director of Chicago’s ImprovOlympic Theater, now known as iO, which has trained the likes of Chris Farley, Tina Fey and Cecily Strong. Along with Del Close, Charna developed an art form known as long form improvisation. Her book “Truth in Comedy,” which she co-wrote with Del Close and Kim “Howard” Johnson, is considered by many to be the bible of comedy. In many ways, she is the mother of modern comedy.
Seeing her in the back of the theater felt like staring at “The Sunflowers” in the Louvre only to turn around and notice Van Gogh himself watching people walk through his exhibit.
I didn’t go up to her. She was hiding in plain sight, and I didn’t want to be the one to blow her cover. But as I made my way out of the theater, everything I wanted to say to her ricocheted around in my head.
I wanted to thank her for creating a space where comedy was celebrated and could flourish. For taking a chance on an art form that would trickle down to college teams like my own, giving me happiness and inspiration in ways that I had not thought possible. For being a walking example of women in comedy that are revolutionary and badass.
I don’t mean to make seeing Charna sound as if I saw a vision of the Holy Mary. She isn’t a mystical enigma that only appears every couple of years. In fact, one of my friends informed me that she comes to every level one iO training class to talk to students and encourage them to continue their training with iO.
Seeing her reminded me that the art form I love — and often look at as an ethereal practice so much larger than I can understand — came in-part from the wit and hard work of a woman who hasn’t stopped working since she started.
It reminded me that for the first time in our history, my improv group has an equal gender split. It reminded me of my team’s artistic director, who herself embodies what it means to be a hard-working woman in comedy. And, for whatever reason, it reminded me of Gilda Radner, a comedic powerhouse whose shoes I cried over in a museum exhibit earlier that day.
I thought of my Charna sighting again Monday morning during a conversation with two of my professors.
“So, you know there are ways that you can pursue comedy, right?” one asked. “There are ways you can pursue it, and if you are looking for the urge to do it, consider this the urge.”
“I second that urge,” said the other.
I smiled, because I know there are ways to pursue comedy, and I know that they exist because of the woman who slipped in the side door with her little dog, watching an audience leave her theater after yet another sold out show.