If you've browsed the iO Theater website looking for a show to see you might have noticed that most of the shows are improvised. So it should come to no surprise that their main program is strictly improv based. You're not learning improv to eventually write down and turn into a sketch. You're learning the tools you'll need to become a great improvisor and make a room of people laugh at something you just made up. If this sounds like a bunch of nerdy, awesome fun this this program is for you.
There is no audition process for classes so once you start the program it's really only up to you to finish. Each level will last eight weeks and there are 7 levels total (1, 2, 3, 4, 4B, 5, and 5B). The program itself does a fantastic job of building the students knowledge of the "rules" of improv. If I had to compare the process to the Second City I would say that levels 1 & 2 of iO feel like levels A–E at Second City and everything after level 3 at iO feels more like The Second City Conservatory.*
*Both programs are very different. This example is used to try to explain the classes to someone who has taken Second City classes, but not iO classes. Don't expect them to be extremely congruous.
iO does a fantastic job of teaching the improv essentials. Instructors will not only make sure you know the basics, but also to teach you their own personal techniques. My favorite class, and one I would say is an essential building block of improv, is level 3. In this level you just focus on scene work. If you can learn great scene work then you can improvise with anyone. I had Jason Shotts as an instructor and personally he was the best kind of teacher for me. He isn't scared of calling out your crap.
I would always play for laughs and wouldn't have genuine responses to my scene partner on stage. Now if you do this some instructors will stop a scene, give you a note, and then let you continue on even if you didn't really take the note properly. Shotts won't let you get away with that. He will keep stoping the scene until you finally stop doing what you're doing. He doesn't do this to be a jerk, but because he cares and he wants you to get better.
What's bad about the program? Well like anywhere you'll run into some instructors that really don't care or for some reason find it difficult to give negative notes. You'll get up on stage, perform a horrible scene, and sit back down with very little instruction. Though these kinds of teachers are few and far between at iO. If I had to point out one other thing it would be that level 1 is fluff for anyone with stage experience. It's important for some, but some might get more out of reading Truth in Comedy (which you get for free when you sign up).
Unlike some programs you don't get random shows during your class. iO only has two stages to perform and they are booked solid with shows. So besides one level 4B show you don't get an opportunity to perform in front of an audience until you've finished the program. At the end of the program you get a solid 7 or 8 week run of shows, but until then it's up to you to find places to get stage time. It's not hard to find places with Underground Lounge and Lucky Horseshoe always looking for people to perform. Personally I recommend getting some stage time anywhere so your first real show isn't a 5B student show.
After the program some students are selected to be on a "Harold Team". If you don't know what the Harold is then you can click THIS LINK for a good rundown. The whole process isn't transparent and some people have problems with how teams are formed, but if you're just taking these classes to make a team then you're doing it for the wrong reasons. If you make a team, awesome, use that opportunity to get better with coaching and performing. If you don't make a team, don't worry about it, you have plenty of other opportunities around the city and iO isn't the end all be all of performing in Chicago. If you really have your heart set on it then iO holds auditions once a year or you can always retake a section of the program once you've received more improv training.
So, should you enroll in this program? If you take improv seriously then yes, but if you're just taking it to try and make a "Harold Team" then you're doing it for the wrong reasons.