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After a schism, casting a new light on Neo-Futurists

The Neo-Futurists profiled all the U.S. heads of state in "43 Plays for 43 Presidents" in 2002. | Sun-Times file

Of all the shows I’ve seen by the Neo-Futurists, the company that arrived on the Chicago theater scene in 1988 and continues to attract fervent audiences, my favorite remains “43 Plays for 43 Presidents,” an alternately zany and profound catalog of theatrical portraits of each of the U.S commanders in chief, from George Washington through George W. Bush, that was created by Andy Bayiates and four collaborators.

So there is a delicious irony in the fact that last week, Greg Allen, the founder of the Neo-Futurists and the creator of “Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind” — this city’s longest-running late-night phenomenon that came with the promise of “30 plays in 60 minutes, plus the delivery of a pizza if the house was sold out” — quite brusquely, if not entirely unexpectedly, announced he was pulling the rights for the Chicago edition of the Neo-Futurists (others exist in various forms in New York, San Francisco and London) to perform “Too Much Light.”

The reason? Attempts to follow up with Allen went unanswered, but in his press release he said: “I could no longer stand by and let my most effective artistic vehicle be anything but a machine to fight Fascism. I was searching for an artistic response to the firestorm to come and realized I had to put my strongest artistic foot forward to combat the Trump administration and all of its cohorts.”

Although Allen’s “Neo-Futurism” concept was inspired by Italian Futurism, an artistic and social movement that originated in Italy in the early 20th century and emphasized speed, technology, youth and the industrial city (and included fascist sympathizers along the way), the late 20th century version of it was far more idealistic in nature. And Allen and his collaborators drew on Dada and Surrealism, on the experiments with audience interaction that took hold in the 1960s, and more.

The short “playlets” in the rapidly changing “Too Much Light” shows, with new pieces added weekly by a team of writers who worked on rapid-fire deadlines, dealt with everything from politics to personal angst and more grandly philosophical matters. Its quick turnaround of material left a company like the Second City, which sometimes keeps a show on its main stage for as long as a year, seem wear-dated.

The cast of "Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind" closes out a performance at the Neo-Futurarium. | Joe Mazza/The Neo-Futurists

The cast of “Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind” closes out a performance at the Neo-Futurarium. | Joe Mazza/The Neo-Futurists

So what, aside from the notable “Too Much Light” brand name, will change for the Neo-Futurists now that Allen (who hasn’t been involved with the day-to-day work of the Chicago company since 2003) has decided to end his licensing agreement with the Neo-Futurists to create, as he put it, an ensemble “comprised entirely of people of color, LBTQ+, artist/activist women, and other disenfranchised voices in order to combat the tyranny of censorship and oppression”?

(Of course, as anyone who has been observing the Chicago theater scene in recent years knows, that is far from an original mission statement.)

Kendall Karg, managing director of the Neo-Futurists, noted that in addition to the late-night “Too Much Light” shows, the company presents full-length works at “prime time” theater hours. And while much discussion will be underway in the next few weeks about how the company will move on (“We knew this severing of our relationship was a possibility but hoped it wouldn’t conclude in the way it did,” she said), the concept of a late-night show of short pieces, which seems ideally matched to a moment when the president-elect is a compulsive tweeter, is not over. The only thing that must change is the name.

“During the course of its history the Neo-Futurists have created about 9,775 short plays, and each of them belongs to the artist or artists who wrote them,” said Karg, noting that in 2015, Playscripts published Allen’s book “Too Much Light Makes The Baby Go Blind: 90 Plays from the First 25 Years,” many of which are produced in cities around the world. “That concept will continue as we move forward. We rarely do old plays, although some of our longer form shows have had a rich life beyond us.”

And Karg added: “What is surprising is that we have dealt with every current topic in our recent shows: Trump, of course, but also guns, and privacy, and the Internet and social media, and the war in Syria, and the Chicago school system, and violence. And personal stories, like the one in which a woman remembers the weekend when she came out — a piece that triggered a powerful reaction in someone who had come to the show with her sister and said she finally felt she ‘was part of a community.’

“And while we will continue to discuss what our late-night shows on 50 weekends of the year will look like, our commitment to being something of a living newspaper and a champion of the unconventional remains the same.”

Karg, who oversees an annual budget of about $500,000 (and says its funders are firmly behind the company, and that payments to Allen of 6 percent royalties for any performance of the show, regardless of whether he contributed work or not, will end along with the use of the “Too Much Light” name) seemed surprised by Allen’s suggestion that the current Neo-Futurist ensemble was not diverse.

“We have a group of 12 writer-performers, half male and half female with one openly transgender person, and our audience has a wide range of racial and sexual identities. We have reached out to the disabled community and the LGBT community, and established an in-house workshop for students that offers many scholarships aimed at diversity. We’re committed to the same things Greg says he wants his new ensemble to be committed to.”

The Neo-Futurists will remain ensconced in their maze-like second floor loft in the increasingly chic Andersonville neighborhood (once described as “the theater above the Nelson Funeral Home,” though nowadays it is above a clinical testing office). And the company continues to attract that ultra-desirable demographic — 18- to 24-year-olds — to its late-night shows.

And so I return to that play about presidents, which I described as “a gallery of rogues and rapscallions, loonies and losers.” I can only reiterate what I said in my review: “The eccentricity, ineptitude, unpreparedness, egotism and sudden bursts of inspiration and intelligence of this [presidential] lineup may simply be a testament to democracy at work. They are us, if only the entirely white, male version.”