Ah, the question that is so often asked.
And I think at this point, I can weigh in on it. At Groundlings, I’ve taken Basic (a few times), Intermediate, Intro to Sketch, and even some drop-ins and workshops. At iO West, I’ve now taken through level 3. So, I think I can have some perspective on this.
I think the biggest difference is that Groundlings focuses on making biiiig character choices – big physical, vocal, etc. all sorts of big choices.
iO West does encourage you to have strong points of view, and we’ve even done exercises to change physicality and such. So, they encourage it… But it doesn’t seem to be necessary to make huge character choices there. It seems you can improv as a lot of different versions of yourself and that that would be a-okay. (My understanding is they’re more focused on relationship than anything else.)
Performance Opportunities: At iO West there seem to be a lot more performance opportunities for you along the way. (I’m not saying that’s good or bad. It never bothered me at Groundlings to not have performances.)
At iO, they have various improv jams where everyone is invited to join. They have an Honor Roll show with students selected from various levels. They have graduation shows – I think for multiple levels. (For us specifically, it’s when the intensive is over.) They have sketch shows anyone can submit to, and on and on.
They still have auditions for house teams. So it’s not a total free-for-all all the time, but if you want to perform at iO West, you can.
Though, I will say that at Groundlings they seem to be doing more and more performances for lower level people. So, things are changing over there.
Community: iO seems to foster more of a sense of community. They encourage people to be submitting shows and ideas (so making teams and collaborating – though apparently Groundlings encourages student teams now once you get to a certain level).
iO West also has a bar in the front of the theater, and they have multiple shows every night. You could spend hours just hanging at the iO bar meeting people.
Also, there seems to be less of a line between teacher/student at iO West. And maybe it’s because we’ve only had our teachers for one week each in this intensive. But none of my Groundlings teachers invited everybody out for a drink after class. Again, not necessarily a bad or good thing, just my experience there.
I did actually go on to become friends (and hang out with) one of my Groundlings teachers… but it was literally a year after I stopped taking classes, ’cause some people feel weird about teacher/student fraternization there. Some Groundlings teachers there are more lax about that. I’m sure everyone’s experience is different. But I think overall there’s less of a teacher/student line at iO.
Instruction: iO has two levels focused on Harold, and they have a separate program for writing. Groundlings puts writing into their main program (and as far as I know, they do not teach a Harold). So, I suppose sketch is a little more important there.
Groundlings classes seem a more intense. There’s a ton of side-coaching, and really making sure you adhere to the rules of improv. You still grow in iO, but it seems more relaxed. (Edited to add: Later at iO, I did have a teacher very heavy into side-coaching. So, you can still find Groundlings-esque people there.)
I enjoy both ways. It’s nice to try to get yourself back on track when you have the Basics down, but it’s also nice to have the stress of the side-coaching, and to try to get the right stuff out before the teacher even has a chance to give you a note.
Female/Male Ratio: At Groundlings, they balance their classes. They have male spots and female spots for sign ups. At iO West, it’s just whoever signs up. So, my understanding is it’s pretty make-heavy much of the time.
Neighborhood/Accessibility: iO west is sooooo easily accessible on public transportation (right by Hollywood & Vine), whereas Groundlings is not by a subway stop (though it’s only about 2 miles from Hollywood and Highland, so you can walk (and I usually did when I took class there)). That’s not really an important thing, but I’m just putting it out there.
iO west is also smack in the heart of Hollywood. You can easily walk to tons of restaurants, a movie theater, The Pantages even, etc.)
Groundlings is sort of in a sketchier neighborhood and doesn’t have as many options for dinner (but who cars? Bring a kind bar). But there are some restaurants, and some bars. And there’s plenty of stuff (such as the Grove), that while not within super fast walking distance is still close enough. (And none of that should really matter anyway when choosing an improv school.)
Reputation: Groundlings, is by most accounts more famous, and in many circles is more revered. (Though in some it’s totally made fun of… Although what place isn’t?).
So, I dunno. I don’t necessarily have a favorite yet… I looove the intensity of the Groundlings and the clear cut path and rules you follow to try to reach a pinnacle. But I love that iO West makes you feel like family, like that theater could be your home – that you always have somewhere to go and something to do… I think Groundlings can feel that way too if you get into Sunday Company. But from iO West, you can feel it from the beginning… which isn’t necessarily bad or good, just different.
(To some degree, I kind of made The Groundlings my home during one of my times in Basic because I saw a ton of shows and was doing drop-ins all the time. But it’s just a different feeling than iO West… Hard to describe it, so hopefully I’m getting the gist across…)
But I don’t know that I have to pick a favorite. I’m just gonna try to enjoy my time improvising wherever I am. If you have thoughts on Groundlings vs iO, feel free to add ’em in the comments!