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Neo-Futurists turn the spotlight on ‘45 First Ladies’ in multi-regional, lightning-fast production

“45 Plays for America’s First Ladies” follows 2002’s highly successful and equally ambitious “43 Plays for 43 Presidents.”

The Neo-Futurists are presenting “45 Plays for America’s First Ladies,” featuring casts performing in Chicago as well as the east and west coasts.
The Neo-Futurists are presenting “45 Plays for America’s First Ladies,” featuring casts performing in Chicago as well as the east and west coasts.
Courtesy Neo-Futurists

Fans know the Neo-Futurists are masters of the short play. Make that the very short play — in the two- to five-minute range. Generations of writer-performers have been initiated into this ritual via “The Infinite Wrench” (formerly “Too Much Light Makes The Baby Go Blind”), the long-running show that features 30 plays in 60 minutes.

Playwright and Neo-Futurist alum Andy Bayiates took this concept a step further with 2002’s ambitious “43 Plays for 43 Presidents,” which was written by a five-person team of ingenious writers who dove deep into our country’s history for this group of clever short plays.

But Bayiates wasn’t done with presidential history — or, should we say, herstory. Around three years ago, he returned to the genre but now with a focus on the women behind the men, from Martha to Melania, for “45 Plays for America’s First Ladies,” which debuts online at the Neo-Futurists in a combination of live and filmed performances. (The combo livestream is Oct. 8, 9 and 11, after which an entirely recorded stream continues to Nov. 2.)

“I hope the play interests people about our shared history,” Bayiates says. “I believe the corny notion that you can’t quite understand what’s going on or where you’re going until you understand where you’ve been. This play is a way of helping to understand what shaped our nation.”

Written with fellow Neo-Futurist alums Bilal Dardai, Genevra Gallo-Bayiates, Sharon Greene and Chloe Johnston, “45 Plays” is directed by Denise Yvette Serna and performed by Neo-Futurists actors in Chicago (Ida Cuttler, Vic Wynter), San Francisco (Andie Patterson, Brenda Arellano) and New York (Robin Virginie, Hilary Asare).

Ida Cuttler stars in a play about Sally Hemings and Martha Jefferson, and another about Mary Todd Lincoln.
Ida Cuttler stars in a play about Sally Hemings and Martha Jefferson, and another about Mary Todd Lincoln.
Courtesy the Neo-Futurists

Three of the writers — Bayiates, Gallo-Bayiates and Johnston — had worked on the previous presidents play and were familiar with the historical aspects of the challenge; Dardai and Greene were new to it, but that’s a good thing, says Gallo-Bayiates.

“Part of that idea was to balance the writing team a bit more,” Gallo-Bayiates says. “We wanted to make sure we had new perspectives on telling these stories — people who were very familiar with history and people who weren’t.”

In 2016, the impetus for the show was the idea that it would end with the first woman president. Of course, the election went in a different direction, which created a new challenge for the writers as they pondered the direction of the piece.

“We decided to let it be a multifaceted piece,” says Gallo-Bayiates. “While we are honoring each woman and giving a biographical point of reference, we also wanted to expand the stories and address some of the contextual history and be mindful of the marginalized communities that are part of this history of America as laid out through the first ladies.”

Adds Bayiates: “There’s also a strong exploration going on of what is a first lady. It’s a really difficult role to define. Is it a spouse? Is it a host? Is it a governing partnership?”

Hilary Asare stars in a play about Sally Hemings and Martha Jefferson, and another about Hillary Clinton.
Hilary Asare stars in a play about Sally Hemings and Martha Jefferson, and another about Hillary Clinton.
Courtesy the Neo-Futurists

Bayiates and Gallo-Bayiates, who are married, laugh in unison and agree that it’s a difficult challenge to distill the life of a first lady such as Eleanor Roosevelt into a short play. But Roosevelt is actually one of the easy ones since there’s so much information about her.

“What we encountered early on was a dearth of information about most of these women,” Gallo-Bayiates says. The writing team did a lot of research, each member individually digging into the lives of nine first ladies. “It was up to each of us to find that inspiring kernel around which to build a two-minute play. The creating of it requires that you let a lot of ideas go,” she adds.

Because of the pandemic, the entire creative team switched to fully embracing the digital experience. The big question was how to engage people over this format, says Serna, who often works with actors in different cities over video calls.

“I think the added layer here is that we weren’t working over video calls to put on a stage show; we were working over video calls to put on a video show. It’s the steepest learning curve.”

For the first three performances, the Chicago actors will be performing live with the east and west coast actors on film. The fewer port points for the live stream, the fewer possible problems with the feed, Serna notes.

But Serna says her biggest challenge was facilitating a rehearsal room online that was minus the usual togetherness of being in the same physical space.

“There are all these aspects of building ensemble and building chemistry that we miss by not being in the same space — being able to read the room, feeding off each other’s energy,” she says, adding, “It can feel more like a meeting than a rehearsal so it’s been a challenge to be aware of those things when there are less body signals to read.”

Andie Patterson stars in a play about Barbara Bush, and another about Edith Kermit Carow Roosevelt.
Courtesy the Neo-Futurists

Serna, who has built a diverse cast of actors from diverse nationalities and cultural backgrounds, hopes the audience feels connected to one another and inspired to explore “new information or information that they had taken for granted and not really considered the legacy or weight of before.”

“We are inserting ourselves into this chapter of American history and that is very empowering for us and I hope that audiences who experience the show feel a little bit of that revolution.”

Mary Houlihan is a local freelance writer.