Respect The Context

Last month, I had the pleasure of seeing Neil Degrasse Tyson speak about the intersection science and culture to a packed Peabody Opera House. And perhaps I am impressed by the wrong things, but what stood out to me most was that 3000 people from all walks of life had paid top dollar, not to see a rock star shred or to hear a comedian tell jokes, but to listen to an academic lecture.

While he may be more comfortable in the classroom speaking to a handful of Mensa-level graduate students, he certainly didn’t show it. He didn’t seem phased at all by the massive crowd or the space, which is typically reserved for less heady entertainment.

Neil Degrasse Tyson boop

In St. Louis, those looking to perform improv can generally find stage time at The Improv Shop, a longform theater and training center. Shows are attended by eager students, knowledgeable performers, and, for the most part, other outsiders who understand the art form. But we are so incredibly lucky.

In many other major improv cities, newer performers must first cut their teeth in the larger bar-prov scene. There, they’ll find a few improv enthusiasts, but also loud, fun-loving bar patrons who wouldn’t know if Del Close sidled up next to them at the counter and ordered one or fourteen vodkas.

Evan Kuhn and Marshall Cox at Melt

St. Louis doesn’t have a strong bar-prov scene, but that doesn’t mean it’s nonexistent. On Friday, I put on a show for I’m Making All This Up’s first birthday at Melt on Cherokee St. It went over incredibly well – my supportive friends took over the bar and the performers put on an excellent show – but I did come away with a new respect for context.

  • The only people there to see improv are the ones you invited.

    Most people came to the bar with the intention of eating, drinking, and being merry. They probably didn’t even know there was going to be a show. So be sure to promote the event, invite your friends, and have a ball on stage. The more fun you and the audience are having, the more likely the regulars are to trade the bar counter for a front row seat.

  • Bars have horrible acoustics.

    They’re wide open, cavernous spaces designed for eating and drinking. The regulars who came to chat over a beer will continue to chat over a beer. The music might keep playing in the background. And no one is pausing his or her pinball game because you’re playing an emotional scene. So speak up. And if you think you’re already speaking up, speak up more.

  • Respect the context.

    This one is up for debate, but my opinion is that your show needs to match the space and the type of audience you expect to find there. While I’m a fan of non-comedic improv, the easiest way to enchant the bar crowd isn’t your two-person, tragic monoscene about divorce. Save that for the theater. Try something faster and gamier, like a premise-based Armando, that’s much easier for first-time watchers to latch on to.

Ghost Without a Coat at Melt

These takeaways aren’t here to discourage you from seeking out bar-prov opportunities. Quite the opposite. Despite some of these interesting challenges, the show at Melt was amazing. My friends packed the bar, the performers were on their game, and we even converted some outsiders who came for the drinks and waffles but stayed for the fun.

If you’re looking to perform more, bar-prov is a great way to get your reps in and challenge yourself by playing to a different audience in a new space. It will push you outside of your comfort zone and keep you on your toes. And what could be more in the spirit of improv than that?

All photos by Julia Madras

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