Using Empathy, Understanding and Community to Build Better Improv – How The Improv Shop is Changing the Game in St. Louis

Apr 12, 2024 | Stories

When you think of improv, you likely think of Whose Line is it Anyway?. Though the show was immensely popular, it doesn’t even come close to covering the depth in which improv is used, especially right here in St. Louis. Located in The Grove, long known for its eclectic vibe and boisterous nightlife, The Improv Shop offers assorted styles and flavors of long-form improv comedy and encourages you to develop your skills with classes and workshops hosted by their resident comedy experts. chatted with one of the many resident experts and the shop general manager, Andy Sloey, about the ins and outs of improv.  

“The basic tenant of improvisation is ‘Yes, and…’ which states that, yes, I hear your idea, and I’m going to add something on to it. When you’re in a group of people that is utilizing this, you start to realize that you can’t make any mistakes, because everything that you say is going to be welcomed and met with a yes,” Sloey said. “And not only a yes, but they’re also going to add information on to what we were giving. It starts to build a lot of self-confidence in individuals.” 

Improv is widely known for its entertainment aspect, but Sloey noted its deeper importance, referring to it as a “community generator.” From self-confidence building and the camaraderie of learning to work effectively on a team to the way it can create friendship through collaboration and community, improv is a truly diverse tool.  

“Comedy is the thing that gets the people in the door and hopefully interested in taking classes and then when they do take the classes, they start to realize that it’s bigger than that and more important than that,” said Sloey. “It’s about supporting, empathizing and understanding with their fellow humans.”  

Over the years, the St. Louis improv scene has exploded, and there is no doubt The Improv Shop has helped lead the charge. At The Improv Shop alone, there are at least 50 active teams producing shows and a steady number of 300 students taking classes. Heck, even the St. Louis Improv Facebook group has grown from 25 members to almost 3,000.  

Sloey met the owner of The Improv Shop, Kevin McKernan, around 2009. Though there wasn’t a ton of long-form improv happening in town at the time, both were passionately working on creating the community. McKernan was teaching the first cohort of Improv Shop students, who were collected via Craigslist ads (remember when Craigslist was a thing), and they started performing in shows Sloey was producing. They made it official around 2010 and started producing shows regularly. After hopping around a few places, the first location of The Improv Shop on Chouteau Ave. was bought in 2017. 

Due to the (good) problem of an increased number of people in classes, The Improv Shop rented additional small locations throughout the years but recently purchased another permanent location, The Annex. Along with the class expansion, the new spot will host team practices and may eventually host smaller public shows. Along with the physical expansion, Sloey said the future of The Improv Shop is to “just keep doing what they are doing” and continue growing the improv community on and off stage. 

“Connectivity is one of the things that improv does really well because there is a division between the audience and the performers, but it’s really thin, and you can kind of push through it,” Sloey said. “We have a relatively small main stage, and [the audience] gives the suggestions, and they get to see it happening right there. The audience is kind of nervous and doesn’t know what’s going to happen, and the performers don’t know what’s going to happen, so it’s a shared experience.”  

As for the future of the improv scene as a whole, Sloey said that bigger cities such as LA or New York aren’t “sucking away” the comedy talent from St. Louis. “People are here. They’re excited to do the work here. They’re excited to be in this community and that’s how any city in the country develops its own scene artistically,” said Sloey. “It’s built in the city, by the artists in the city. And any city can have its own scene as long as it invests in its artists.” 

Sloey also noted that, having been in different improv communities across the country, The Improv Shop takes a unique approach to their work. Focusing on empathy, understanding and community, they open the door to something special.   

“There’s an idea in improv called group mind, which is when our team of improvisers comes together and unlock this amalgamation of all of their brains and intellects. You unlock group mind through ‘Yes, and…’ and agreement, empathy and understanding. We really lean hard into that, and that can get kind of esoteric, hippie-dippie, and kind of weird. But at the end of the day, it’s what makes some of the best improvisation happen.” 

He also hinted at a potential Improv Shop guidebook for students in the future, so if this article wasn’t enough to convince you, there is some more incentive to get out and join a class or see a show. You can keep up with The Improv Shop on their website or on Facebook 

Sloey grew up in St. Louis and graduated with a BFA in performance from the Conservatory of Theatre Arts at Webster University. Shortly after graduating, he moved to Chicago where he graduated from the iO Training Center and Second City Conservatory and homed in on his passion for improv. He is currently an adjunct professor at Webster University’s Conservatory of Theatre Arts and serves as General Manager of The Improv Shop.