When you think of improv comedy, you’re more likely to think of Chicago than St. Louis.
Chicago has well known theaters like The Second City and iO, which have given many famous actors and actresses their start. But St. Louis has a theater of its own, and while it may be under the radar, it’s attracting a growing number of students and audiences.
The Improv Shop opened its doors in early 2014, but it existed years before that. Its founder, Kevin McKernan, moved back to his hometown of St. Louis in 2009 after studying and performing improv in Chicago.
“I came back to St. Louis because all the personal stuff that’s really good about improv, the stuff that makes your life better, the friends you make, the kind of life skills you work on through improv, I thought should be accessible to everybody, and I didn't like thinking that my hometown, which I love dearly, didn’t have a long form improv theater for itself,” McKernan told “Cityscape" producer Katie Cook when she visited the theater.
Long form improv is a little different from what you see on the TV show "Whose Line Is It Anyway."
Instead of short improvised games, long form is 25 minutes of improvised scenes inspired by an audience suggestion, and that’s what McKernan wanted to teach. He started by putting an ad on Craigslist explaining that he wanted to teach improv. The handful of people who responded became The Improv Shop’s first class.
McKernan soon joined forces with another improviser and native St. Louisan, Andy Sloey, who had also studied in Chicago and performed around the country before returning to St. Louis. Together they further developed the theater’s training program into what it is today, which is five levels of study modeled after the original improvisational comedy theaters.
Sloey explained some of the principles taught and practiced at The Improv Shop.
“One thing is you say ‘yes,’ you say ‘yes, and.’ If you’ve heard of improv at all, you’ve probably heard of ‘yes, and.’ It’s saying ‘yes’ to something and then ‘and,’ you add something to it. You agree to the reality being set up and you add something to it and that’s how we generate the scenes. We want to add information as opposed to ask questions… we also want to heighten things, we want to make things bigger as we go, so if we have a small problem at the start of an improv scene, we have a huge problem by the end of an improv scene,” he said.
Before landing its own space in the Central West End, The Improv Shop met in various bars and spaces around St. Louis for classes and performances. Over the years, the money from student enrollment in classes was saved until there was enough for the growing community to pay for a place of their own. Today the theater has over 200 students and performers.
In contrast to major comedy cities like Chicago, New York, and L.A., where performers are often hoping to be discovered, the scene in St. Louis isn’t competitive, and that’s exactly what McKernan said he likes about it.
“I like doing [improv] in a small community where people really get to know each other and support one another and get excited by the work for the work’s sake,” he said.
Sloey also had some observations about how the St. Louis scene is different.
“The performers at The Improv Shop, there’s not a lot of pressure, so people take risks here in a really nice way. People will go out on stage and not worry too much about failing, so when you don’t worry about failure, you really free yourself to do really great stuff,” he said.
Recent graduates of the five level program shared some on their experiences.
“I was so nervous about it, but then once I started getting up there and everyone was so supportive, it wasn't even a question, this community is built to make sure that you can perform," said Elizabeth Oberle.
Another improviser, Kathleen Horton said doing improv has helped in a variety of ways. “It’s definitely made me more confident in myself, and I feel OK just being myself in front of people,” she said.
And Ronnie Brake spoke to the supportive nature of the community. "For me, it’s fun. I love to laugh, I love to get to know people, but honestly, it has been one of the most tumultuous years of my life and without this place and these people, I would be a sad [sad crying noises.] But no. I am happier than I’ve ever been," he said.
The Improv Shop continues to grow, steadily adding new students and new performances every year. For them, it seems that improv is about more than taking risks together and supporting each other on the stage, it’s about doing it off stage too.
They have set out to create community first, and they’re letting the comedy happen along the way.
The Improv Shop
510 N. Euclid Ave.