Serling’s original creation wasn’t humorless — not with such comedic icons as Buster Keaton and Art Carney passing through — but the series’ central diet was usually dread and the unexplained, unfolding in half-hour installments of science fiction and fantasy. In the hands of the Impro Theatre group, it will become a source for laughs when its 30-show run opens Sept. 6 at the Falcon Theatre in Burbank.
A cast of seven will dress in various shades of black, white and gray to evoke the look of the original TV series, which ran from 1959 to 1964, dealing with mid-century “American characters that are very earnest and filled with joy,” said Dan O’Connor, Impro Theatre’s artistic director. “Or the dark side of that time — McCarthyism and people filled with paranoia.”
As creator and host of the series, Serling, “liked to look at what people do under pressure, what they do when they’re isolated, and how do you reveal a true essence of a person,” O’Connor added. “As a performer it can be a lot of fun, and a lot of the episodes are. But there’s also dark corners of Rod Serling-esque narrative that is terrifying and fun to get into. We’ve done a great job of throwing each other into these situations that are really frightening.”
Co-directed by Jo McGinley and Stephen Kearin, who are also in the cast, each night is built from suggestions from the audience — a tradition of many improvisational companies. Among the newest members of the cast is Mike McShane, a New York stage actor also known as a 1990s regular on “Whose Line is it Anyway?”
During rehearsals this week, one of the spontaneous stories involved a pharmacy for aliens, with a human working behind the counter, as creatures from other worlds waited in line for drugs to deal with their interplanetary maladies.
“We have a different relationship to the audience because they’re giving us suggestions to inspire whatever is being created,” said O’Connor, comparing improv to traditional theater. “They’re more invested in what’s going on onstage and are more engaged.”
The show requires the impromptu invention of four new stories a night, and the cast has been working hard to prepare. “We had a purgatory scene this week that had an alien and a human in it, trying to figure out who had led the more noble life, in order to graduate to the next plane. The science-fiction stuff is really exciting to do as a performer. You can make up whatever you want. It’s a world without rules.”
The cast and directors have become experts on the show, down to recognizing the different characteristics of regular “Twilight Zone” writers, including Serling. One of those writers was the late Bill Idelson, also an actor and producer, and one of O’Connor’s writing teachers in college.
The Falcon run is the Impro’s third production of the “Twilight Zone” show. The company has also performed improvisational takes on Jane Austen and Shakespeare, and O’Connor hopes to bring “Chekhov UnScripted” next to the Falcon.
“Everything we do is completely improvised and the technique we have been doing is to rehearse, rehearse, rehearse the style — to figure out how Rod Sterling or Shakespeare writes. We build sets and get costumed and get onstage and do a show that’s everything like Austen or Shakespeare or Twilight Zone.
“Serling had the advantage of having it all written down, and we’ve got to figure it out on our feet.”
What: “Twilight Zone UnScripted”
Where: Falcon Theatre, 4252 Riverside Drive, Burbank
When: Opens Sept. 6.; Wednesday through Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 4 p.m., through Sept. 29. (Previews begin Aug. 28.)
More info: (818) 955-8101, falcontheatre.com