The Improv Shop: Having each others’ backs


Ethan Schmidt, Radio Program Manager

As the COVID-19 outbreak spreads across the United States, many non-essential businesses are having to shut their doors in the interest of public health and safety. While large companies may be able to survive the duration of the pandemic, the existence of many local businesses remain in question. In the face of an unsettling future, however, a joint improv-theatre-and-restaurant in Saint Louis, MO is staying alive by choosing to follow the wisdom of its craft.

The Improv Shop in the Grove district of Saint Louis houses a restaurant and two stages, where comedy shows are performed every Monday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday night. Additionally, an entire program of improv classes is taught throughout the week, through which many improv teams and friendships are formed.

Upon initial reports of COVID-19’s spread into the United States, Improv Shop owner Kevin McKernan posted to Facebook a list of actions that the staff would take to combat the virus on March 12. Three days later, after receiving more information on the virus, as well as some concerns from students and performing teams, McKernan announced in another post that the Shop would close indefinitely.

Owner of Improv Shop, Kevin McKernan

“At its best,” McKernan explains, “improvisation is about trusting the people around you even when you’re scared and don’t know what will happen next. It’s such a beautifully optimistic, trusting art form in that way. It values and trusts the group so much more than the individual. And, now it’s time to practice what we preach. Time to really have each others’ backs.”

The shutdown affects every service of the Improv Shop: shows, classes, the restaurant, and the bar. While livestreaming has allowed some shows to move online, the internet isn’t viable for classes. “We’re not trying to do them [classes] online,” McKernan informs in an interview. “We thought that would be too hard since we don’t have the kind of institutional stuff that a normal school or college would have. I don’t know who has computers, or what platforms they have. And then, so much of it needs to be done in person anyway. That’s the fun of it…they’re just on hold for right now, and, thankfully, people are being kind about it.”

Additionally, there are no plans to offer carryout services. “Buying a bunch of food and then being asked to shelter in place seems like a distinct possibility,” McKernan reasons in a different Facebook post on March 20.

In his shutdown announcement post, he also addresses the payroll issues that the closure poses. “Our staff has dedicated their precious lives to this place,” McKernan writes. “Without revenue coming in, it’s going to be very hard to get them paid anywhere close to what they’re used to. I’ll do all I can, and we will all hopefully get creative about how to help them…and still feel connected to each other.”

Creative and connected, the Improv Shop community has remained. On every Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, the Shop hosts livestreams on its Facebook page, featuring comedy talk shows, improv shows, and sketch comedy shows. Some are brand new shows, and others are pre-existing shows that have altered their performance techniques to accommodate the virtual environment. The two-person “Mrs. Somebody” improv team now has all of its scenes take place within video calls in order to make them look more natural, and “Frontrunner” treats its improvised political debates as broadcasts, playing around with the addition of the audience’s live chat and tech interns, who can now affect the debate. Anyone is invited to view the livestreams on Facebook for free, and can donate by purchasing optional $6 virtual tickets on their website. On average, 30 -50 people tune into the live streams each night, and the shop gets about $600 in ticket sales per week for these shows.

Additionally, upon receiving many questions from the community about how they can support the Improv Shop during the shutdown, McKernan set up a process for accepting donations to full-time Improv Shop staff members. According to a Facebook post on March 25, McKernan describes the contributions as “incredible.”

“What’s heartwarming to me,” he says in an interview, “is that this is the stuff you practice when you do improv, which is having each other’s back, making each other look good, trying to make sure that everybody is taken care of, and that it’s a big team effort. It’s nice to see that the community is treating it like a family, and a team, and that we’re having each other’s backs not just onstage, but offstage.”

The Shop is also selling a newly-designed shirt through the local T-shirt printing store, Tiny Little Monster, as part of its Here For Good campaign, which invites all local businesses to sell branded T-shirts and receive $10 from each sale. In the first week, 100 T-shirts were sold, marking the Improv Shop as the #1 leader in sales for the Here For Good campaign. The shirt features a message that normally greets Improv Shop patrons in the parking lot: “You’re OK. Promise.”

Recently, this message on the side wall of the Shop has also been featured in many pictures on the Saint Louis Improv Facebook group, thanks to a trend initiated by patron Logan Short. The improviser posted a picture of himself in the Improv Shop’s empty parking lot, with the large message in the background. Many community members soon followed suit, each visiting the lot by themselves to capture a selfie and post it in the group, naming the game #LoganShortChallenge. Another variant of the challenge was introduced by Kaitlyn Forks (#KaitlynForksChallenge), in which members are invited to post a picture of a natural appearance of the Improv Shop’s asterisk logo in their daily life.

Like many business owner’s around the globe, McKernan is unsure of when the Improv Shop will reopen. “I would think when other theaters and restaurants get the green light, we’ll make a decision then,” he states in an interview. “I can’t imagine that it [reopening of the Improv Shop] will be anytime real soon. I can’t imagine that it’ll be in May. Maybe June, but I have no idea.”

Even in these uncertain times, one thing remains clear for the Improv Shop community, as assured by McKernan in his closure announcement: “We’ll be OK. Promise.”