“You, the mother f*cking audience will decide,” blares loudly when watching the promotion video for the Cagematch. Two teams prepare behind the main stage, ready to create the funniest 25 minutes of their audience’s lives.
By Matthew Ceriotti
(St. Louis) Motivational quotes line the wall. The stage is lit. The audience waits for the performers to come onto the stage. The music roars on the loud speaker in preparation of the first team. Welcome to the Improv Shop.
What is Improv?
With a simple suggestion, improv teams are able to create comedic scenes without any lines, props, or practice on that topic. They make up the whole scene or skit by “Yes-Anding” which means you agree to the reality that your teammate sets and you work off of it. But how do you draw crowds to these events?
The Improv Shop
The Improv Shop on 3960 Chouteau Avenue in the Grove gives performers a chance to take classes and then perform live on stage. Andy Sloey, long time improviser and owner of the Improv Shop has paved a pathway for improvisers who want to practice their craft. Along with his business partner, Kevin McKernan, they have done a lot for the improv scene here in St. Louis.
“Kevin and Andy are trailblazers (of Improv) because of the deep level of trust they have in the artists that they serve,” Katie Nunn said. She teaches at the Improv Shop and has performed since 2002. “Other institutions I’ve worked for have a top-down artistic approach, where projects and shows stem from a small group of people with little outside input. Everything we do here is inspired by the community and the unique creative voices inside it.”
Over the last eight years, Sloey has developed the Improv scene and created the Improv Shop to help improvisers have a place to learn and perform. All the performers get taught by Andy or one of his associates who have a long background in the improv scene.
The importance of the Improv Shop is developing improvisers. With their six levels of classes, they help students develop and hone their acting skills. Each level adds a new element to their craft.
Sloey takes pride in the fact that you have to complete the classes in order to perform on the stage.
“We feel like our training center has a specific thrust that other centers might not have, or our individual training center might have a different point of view that another might not.
And the turnout has been incredible. They continue to gain more improvisers all the time.
“About every eight weeks, we’ve got somewhere in the vicinity of 200 people taking classes,” Sloey said. “I always knock on wood because we’ve had a pretty good run.”
The success comes from the venue that McKernan and Sloey have provided. By opening up to all of St. Louis, they have gotten a great return.
“Nothing makes me feel more optimistic about the future than the number of people who are out there making their own stuff, finding their own voice, and truly experimenting,” Nunn said.
Their venue has two stages for performing. The main stage hosts big events like: The Cage Match and The Harold. The other stage hosts more experimental events that can later get moved to the main stage.
“The best moments in improv are when you are in free fall and you don’t know what is going to happen next because that’s when you get to surprise yourself and have a lot of fun,” Cage Match performer David Felts said.
Performances are not the only reason to go to the Improv Shop. They also have a bar and a kitchen. Many people have dinner while watching one of the shows. But the fun part is that the even the bartenders and cooks are also improvisers. If they are not working, they might perform as well. Teachers like John Langen and McKernan will work the bar and then later hop on stage.
A Brief History of The Improv Shop
Improv in St. Louis did not start at this venue. Back in 2009, Sloey and Kevin McKernan offered simple classes on Improv. McKernan was doing classes at Washington University in St. Louis while Sloey was teaching classes wherever he could find a place.
So Sloey and McKernan decided to form their groups together and made the Improv Shop. They had three basic level classes and started to teach and perform at venues.
From the Tin Can (now closed), to The Gas Light Theatre, to Pat’s Bar and Grill, to Brennan’s, the Improv Shop has had many different stages. Each place not being very big and only holding about 30 people. They were able to finally get their own venue in the Loop. It was a very small building and used it for teaching classes even before it was fully open.
“There’s one of our promotional videos that shows people in class, and everybody has coats on because we didn’t have good heating in the place yet,” Sloey said.
They stayed there for three years at their location in the Loop, but Sloey and McKernan felt there was no room to expand. During this time, they found a core group of instructors: McKernan, Sloey, John Langen, Nunn, and Melanie Penn (you can find out more about each of them on the Improv Shop’s site). Finally, McKernan was able to secure the venue that they have today. They only moved into the building in May of 2017 and have already expanded their numbers.
Two of the Main Stage Events
- The Cage Match
Arguably their most viewed event, the cage match hosts two teams facing off to see who can create the funniest scene in 25 minutes. The scenes are voted on by the audience. While voting, the two teams come together and play a freeze tag game. The freeze tag game has two actors performing while the other actors can freeze their scene and tag one of the actors out. When tagged out, the new actor creates a whole new scene. It keeps the actors on their toes and gets a lot of laughs, since the actors from different teams do not normally work together. Then, the winner is announced and given the Cage Match belt. In their regular season, the winning team gets to play the following Friday night against a challenger. They continue playing until they get knocked off. Currently, they are in tournament season. It is a basic 16 team tournament that will have a winner in January before starting a new season.
2. The Harold
The Harold consists of a story based performance. The teams are given a topic suggestion from the audience, and three monologues are given by the performers on that topic. From there, they create three scenes on the monologues. After those scenes, they do a break game. Then, they continue the scenes and enhance the story. At the break, they play another group game. After the last break, all of the scenes come together and make one big scene. If you noticed, this a basic sitcom line up. It was really first introduced in the show Seinfeld.
Crowds have gotten so large that there is sometimes only standing room in the audience.
Sloey says that classes are open to all people willing to learn and have fun. After completing classes, they will be able to perform. He hopes to get a new sign so people can see the Improv Shop’s location better. By adding this, he hopes to gain more publicity and bring in more people to welcome into their community. He also wants to have extra performance space.
“We always have guests and people new coming in,” Sloey said. “The winter months are our busy months because people want to be inside. So as we continue to go forward and grow, extra performance space in our warehouse would be really cool.”
And with the more people that come to visit, it will be more likely that they will need that space. Hopefully, Sloey will be able to continue with the great success and continue down this path he has created for improvisers in St. Louis.