The Improv Shop: St. Louis improv theater no laughing matter
Inside of a small, unassuming bar on Locust Street, up a narrow staircase and through a large doorway lies the heart of St. Louis’ improvisational comedy scene.
The Improv Shop, located in the performance space above the Tin Can Tavern & Grille at 1909 Locust St., is working to build a healthy, thriving improv community in St. Louis. Since its inception in 2009, The Improv Shop has offered weekly classes to the public, structured in a five-level program, and hosts free comedy shows four nights each month.
“St. Louis, right now, is just mediocre enough to go either way…It’s either going to become a little bit cooler or a little bit lamer. It has to move in some direction, and I want it to be a place where you can really come here and really learn improv,” said Kevin McKernan, the founder of the Improv Shop. “Any city worth its salt should have a comedic voice. It just should.”
McKernan, a local high school English teacher and St. Louis native, moved to Chicago after graduating from Indiana University in 2005. After living, working and performing in Chicago for a few years, one of the country’s centers for improv comedy, he came back to St. Louis intent on eventually starting a theatre and school of his own.
“I just thought, ‘I love it so much that I want to bring the art somewhere where it’s not. Chicago improv is going to be fine without me,’” McKernan said. “There was no real scene that was doing full-on longform…and I’ve always [wanted] to bring longform improv to St. Louis.”
With some help from Rick Andrews, a 2009 Washington University graduate and former president of the improv group Suspicious of Whistlers, McKernan taught the first of his improv classes on campus at night.
In just two short years, The Improv Shop, and the improv scene it has generated, has grown at an astounding rate. What started out with one introductory class has become a full-fledged community: There are around 60 students currently enrolled in classes, and a show on Saturday night opened to a packed audience. The Improv Shop’s Longform Nights, held the first and third Thursday of every month, are now consistently full.
“I don’t know where everybody comes from…We haven’t done any major advertising, we haven’t paid for any advertising yet, we’ve just been working on word of mouth, and we’ve arrived at a point where we have a full house on these Thursday shows. It’s just by word of mouth and people seeing and enjoying the shows,” said Andy Sloey, McKernan’s business partner and a teacher at The Improv Shop. “It’s amazing and I think it’s a testament to improv as an art form.”
Sloey, another St. Louis native who performed and studied improv in Chicago, joined the shop in 2010. While St. Louis has a long history of improv comedy, dating back to Del Close’s work with the Compass Players (now The Second City) in the 1950s, it had essentially been absent in the city. In the last 10 years, improv was taking place in some form, but a strong community and a full longform education program were missing.
The Improv Shop teaches longform improv, which focuses on longer, often interrelated scenes rather than the shorter scenes and games popular in shortform.
“The one thing we wanted to do was different levels of a longform program, because that’s what we both have exposure to from taking classes in Chicago, and that’s what the city was lacking at this point,” Sloey said. “There was a group of people doing improv, but we really wanted to try and foster a really good improv community.”
One of McKernan’s preliminary steps in the creation of The Improv Shop was reaching out to the Wash. U. community, a strong tie that remains today. K.A.R.L., one of Wash. U.’s three improv groups, appealed to Student Union for funding in order to enroll several of its members in The Improv Shop’s program. A number of Wash. U. students not in improv groups are also enrolled.
“Wash. U. was always the Holy Grail to me…It’s that I knew what it was like to be a passionate college improviser and be super into it. I felt, to be honest, that St. Louis hadn’t done enough to reach out to [the improv groups]. Here you have these people that know it,” McKernan said. “That’s why my first move was to talk to Rick Andrews. A city gets its arts from its kids.”
The Improv Shop also has students from Saint Louis University, the University of Missouri–St. Louis and other colleges in the area.
Two members of K.A.R.L., seniors Randy Brachman and Jed Jackoway, began taking courses over the summer. On Monday, Sept. 19, Brachman, Jackoway and junior Mitch Eagles, a Suspicious of Whistlers member, performed as “Swindlers.com” at an Improv Shop show.
“We found out that [The Improv Shop] was essentially looking for walk-ins, people who had teams and wanted to play…and they [let us],” Brachman said. “It was fun, the audience was responding. I felt like everything I said or did just got tons and tons of laughs.”
Swindlers.com, as well as a number of other groups that have and will come out of the Improv Shop’s five-level program, are all a part of this community that McKernan and Sloey envisioned. Both feel, however, that there is still much room for the scene to grow and that they are far from finished.
The Improv Shop has been saving money to buy its own theater.
“The end goal is a sustainable theater space on our own that has a full bar, does improv seven nights a week [and] the people in the theatre that do shows are a family,” McKernan said. “I get more excited by the idea of it, really, than the comedy of it, at this point…it really is a community thing. The vision is in creating a real community that can sustain itself.”