With a format that demands turn-on-a-dime creativity and a structure that scarcely provides a moment to breathe, short-form improv comedy is challenging enough to make most people sweat just thinking about it. So coming up with an entire narrative play on the spot and performing it for a group of strangers must be nearly impossible. But The AfTers, a newly formed amateur improv group that performs out of the Pan Theater (2135 Broadway, Oakland), makes it look easy with Tonight's Town.
It works like this: At the beginning of the show, performers ask the audience for the name of a nonexistent town and a few characteristics around which to build the narrative. On a recent night, for example, the audience was transported to Chickenswitch, a town known for two things: its hair gel and its wishing well. With that and nothing more to grab onto, the actors come up with characters on the fly, introduce their personas, and retreat offstage before reemerging to start the story, which spills out over the course of about an hour.
Their creations are stories indeed, with beginnings, middles, and ends. While most improv shows consist of nothing more than a series of scattered, unrelated bits, Tonight's Town adopts a format that's more like a typical stage play — albeit one that skips the writing, editing, and rehearsal process and jumps straight from idea to execution with barely any time in between. According to producer and theater co-founder David Alger, that's all part of Pan's creative philosophy. "We're essentially a community theater with a focus on improv," he said. And though the format lends itself to absurdist comedy, Alber said each show has some serious dramatic tension. The unorthodox, in-between format is ultimately a win-win: Over the course of a show, the actors get a chance to develop characters more deeply than they would in a traditional improv format, and the audience gets the satisfaction of seeing characters evolve before their eyes, without having to work quite as hard as they might need to with the rapid-fire character and scene changes of a standard sketch show. Alger, who doesn't perform in the show, imposes some constraints on the actors, mostly for the sake of moving things forward — no new storylines can be introduced after the initial exposition, for example. Still, Tonight's Town is, by and large, a free-for-all.
The whole production could easily fly off the rails in less deft hands, but Alger said it works because the AfTers have developed an instinctive understanding of each other's impulses and rhythms. Improv will always be slightly terrifying, he conceded, but members of the fledgling group are getting more comfortable with the process with each passing show. Plus, he said, "the adrenaline rush makes it all worth it." Tonight's Town runs Friday nights through November 18. 8 p.m., $10-$12. TheAfTersImprov.com