IO West, my improv theater, has closed its doors. I heard the ugly rumors, then received the e-mail confirming it to be true. My heart sank when I heard the news. The official statement credited the closing to ongoing disputes with the landlord. Little did I know that the development of the Hollywood & Vine district that revitalized the area would also force the little theater on the corner of Cosmo and Hollywood to go dark. Los Angeles will never be the same now that “my theater” is gone.
I discovered IO West over a decade ago during my first year in Los Angeles when I wasn’t sure I was going to make it in this town. The theater introduced me to long-form improv, a new way of thinking about comedy and performance. Pursuing “truth in comedy,” a core teaching at the theater from day one, has forever shaped my approach to writing, my understanding of character development, and my philosophy on the creative life.
I spent over a year at the training center. At the time, I couldn’t afford the classes, so I worked as an intern to pay my way. I took classes at night. I performed shows on the weekends. And on Friday nights I ran the lights in the “black box,” the small experimental theater behind the main stage. I watched countless hours of improv, some good, some not so good. I learned from it all. I met some of my closest friends there and performed with a group called “Camelot” for about a year before we went our separate ways.
In recent years, I spent less time at the theater. My life moved on to a full-time job, writing, and the pursuit of personal goals, but there was always a comfort in knowing that IO West was there. Whenever I stepped into the place, the smell of the bar, the pictures of improv legends on the wall, the roaring laughter of the audience, the familiar faces, it all felt like home.
The thing that made it special was that it was a place in the middle of Hollywood, known for cynicism and cut-throat competition, that still felt pure. There was no money to be made. No fame to be found. Teams performed at 11:30 pm on a Tuesday night because they loved what they were doing and loved the people they were doing it with. It didn’t matter if there was a packed house or three people in the audience who simply didn’t want to go home. When performers stepped on the stage, they knew that something unscripted was going to happen. It was often funny, and it was always revealing.
I’ve learned a lot, and continue to learn, from studying and performing improv. But there was one lesson that stood out. I had an instructor tell us that you can't do improv with your weight back on your heels and your shoulders pressed against the wall. If you do that, you’ll never get to play. She said you have to lean forward with the full weight of your being over the balls of your feet ready to move, ready to step into the unexpected. Improv taught me to live life forward, in bold anticipation, ready to step into the unknown.
Though the theater is dark, its lessons still light my way.
A WRITER AND TRAVELER KEEPING THE FAITH IN LOS ANGELES