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Midnight express

After two raucous decades of after-hours theater, the Neo-Futurists still reign.

Photograph: Michael Jarecki
Numbers that represent which play the Neo-Futurists will perform next in “Too Much Light Makes The Baby Go Blind”

From an evolutionary standpoint, natural selection should have killed off the Neo-Futurists long ago. The ragtag fleet of performance artists that has been performing Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind—a late-night freak-out theater rave in which the performers attempt to perform 30 short plays in less than 60 minutes—isn’t exactly famous for being organized. Or mainstream. Or well funded.

Yet remarkably, this winter Too Much Light will celebrate its 20th anniversary. After two decades of creating edgy, bite-size plays for no more than $7 (plus an amount determined by the roll of die), this strangely populist, resolutely underground show has produced multiple generations of hard-working writer-performers and won untold legions of fans, many of them nontraditional theatergoers. The show was originally a hit with suburban punks who came into the city craving alternative culture, lining up around the block in the dead of winter to score a seat. But its frenzied party energy and up-to-the-minute commentary on politics and pop culture helped secure the show a permanent place in Chicago theater.

Too Much Light started as an experiment at the old Stage Left Theatre in Lakeview, made a brief stop at Live Bait Theater and eventually moved north to pregentrified Andersonville in 1992. There, in a makeshift space above a funeral parlor, the Neo-Futurists and Too Much Light carved out a place for themselves so unique, it defies comparison.

With only a quicksilver moment in the national spotlight—the Broadway musical Urinetown, which had a darkly comic Neo-Futurist point of view, won a 2002 best-book Tony for Neo alum Greg Kotis and earned a Tony nomination for Neo actor Spencer Kayden—the company has somehow kept flying just under the radar. But without the charismatic accessibility these hard-driving artists have shared with generations of first-time theater patrons, Chicago wouldn’t be half the scrappy theater scene it is today. Here, in their own words, the Neo-Futurists recount the Too Much Light experience.

“GOD, I HOPE THIS SHOW CLOSES SOON.” 

Greg Allen, Neo-Futurist founder
“There was no late-night theater at the time [when we started]. This was when Stage Left was just north of the corner of where the ‘Punkin’ Donuts’ is, at Belmont and Clark.” 

Justin Hayford, Chicago Reader theater critic, 1987–present
“I remember really early on running into Greg Allen when the show had been running for a year or two. He was unloading a trunk full of crap for Too Much Light, and he said, ‘God, I hope this show closes soon.’ ”

Spencer Kayden, ensemble member, 1990–95; Tony nominee for Urinetown
“I had no aspirations. I was happy to be doing a show with friends, which is all I had ever done. Which is all I ever continued to do. Until suddenly the show I was doing went to Broadway, which was an accident.” 

Diana Slickman, company member, 1993–2000; managing director 1994– 2000
“The day that I thought, We need somebody to be kind of in charge, Scott Hermes was doing the books, and he said, ‘We don’t have any checks.’ And I said, ‘What do you mean?’ He said, ‘We’ve run out of checks.’ ‘Well, didn’t somebody notice that and order checks?’ ‘No.’ ‘So we can’t get paid this week because we don’t have any checks?’ ‘Yes.’ And I thought, Um, I’m going to write a job description for managing director. Somebody who, when we ran out of toilet paper, was in charge of buying toilet paper.”

John Pierson, ensemble member, 1996–present (a.k.a. “Jughead,” guitarist for seminal punk band Screeching Weasel)
“When I joined the cast, Slickman was in a tiny, little, teeny closet. We didn’t have the office that we have now. The merchandise closet was our office.” 

GETTING IN 

Ayun Halliday, company member, 1989– 95; founder of award-winning zine East Village Inky
“I joined right before the first anniversary. A friend encouraged me to audition. I’d concocted this jive-ass piece in which I played a tap-dancing fetus addressing George H.W. Bush, and as I was sitting in the lobby, I thought, I can’t go through with this. When they called me in, I read a poem I’d written about my grandmother. I had no illusions that I would be cast. It was just one of those lucky things where scrapping the prepared for the spontaneous turned out to be the right move.”

Pierson
“Tim Reid, who just got into the company, walked in and didn’t say a word. He shook a can of Coke, stuck it down his pants and opened it. It dripped down his leg and covered his pants. And then he walked out. So we all laughed hysterically and said, ‘Wow, we have to call the guy back and make him speak.’ ”

Allen

“When [company member] Heather Riordan auditioned, she put shark puppets on her feet, stood on her head and sang opera. We cast her, and she eventually did it in the show. It was called Heather Gets Classy.” 

THE RULES 

Allen
“We acknowledge who we are, where we are and create unreproducible experiences in a room. We don’t play characters. We don’t try to suspend the audience’s disbelief.”

Kayden
“If Too Much Light hadn’t happened, I would have ended up at Second City or something like that. Which would not have been a bad thing. But this gave me a much better foundation. In a way, I became a little snooty because of our manifesto of only telling the truth and only performing as ourselves and only at this time of night.”

Slickman
“The aesthetic is both wonderfully and horribly restrictive. It’s wonderful to think, I don’t have to create a character. I don’t have to deliver an environment. I just have to be and tell a story. [Pauses] Why can’t I make a character? Why can’t I set this somewhere other than here?”

Stephanie Shaw, company member, 1995–99
“I did a piece in which I bleached my mustache while discussing Italian women who had done amazing things by the time they were my age. Catherine de’ Medici, Lucrezia Borgia…And here I was just bleaching my mustache. I knew [Too Much Light] was about stripping yourself bare, and I thought, What’s the most embarrassing thing that I can show them that I do on a regular basis? The only time I shut my husband out of the bathroom is when I bleach my mustache, so I decided to do it onstage.”

Hayford
“When they were still at Live Bait, my roommate was Spencer Kayden. She invited me to go. I spent the first ten minutes hating it like I have hated few things in my life. In those days, before the show began you had to wait in line to be marshaled up on stage and sit in a chair and be interviewed by a Neo-Futurist about I forget what. And I was just livid. Spencer came over to me before the show started and said, ‘So you hate this so far.’ And I said, ‘Yup. Sure do.’ And the minute the show started, I was just instantly, truly enamored. I thought it was this ingenious combination of populism and intellectualism and the avant-garde and old-timey vaudeville. I thought it was just exquisite.”

Halliday
“There was a time there when our core audience was kids who were all the misfits at the big high schools in the ’burbs, but who once a week got all gussied up to come see Too Much Light, where they got to feel like they were the most recognizable faces of the popular crowd.”

Hayford
“It’s a lot of people who don’t go to theater very often or haven’t started the habit. I don’t see the people I see at other theaters when I go to Too Much Light. It’s always felt to me like when the show lets out we’re all gonna go to a rave. There’s that sort of energy to it, which I really admire because it’s a very hard audience to capture. That’s the audience you need to keep theater alive and vital and not have it turn into a dinosaur.”

Allen
“I think they tend to be a little more mainstream than they used to, which is kinda good, because then you’re not preaching to the choir.”

THE NEIGHBORHOOD

Allen
“We opened at Belmont and Clark, which is very much a hub of youth activity. Then we moved north to Live Bait [at Irving Park Road and Clark Street], which we thought was on the fringes. Then moving north to the Neo- Futurarium, we were really worried. But everybody just came up to where we were. They followed us immediately. Things have gentrified since we moved in [to Andersonville], which is nice for a theater company. It was much quieter back then. It didn’t involve boutiques. Even Ann Sather wasn’t there when we moved in.”

Slickman
“I never had anything bad happen to me. But it was a little dodgy. We had a lot of Asian gangs. There [were] a lot of old people there.”

Shaw
“I can’t go into the Hopleaf now. I get the hives. I think to myself, We used to come here after every show. There was always room. It was our home. Until they’d say, ‘Hey you guys, we’re turning the lights on.’ And then we’d sit there a little longer. And now, you can get frog legs there.”

Pierson
“Now you can’t get peanuts. I knew that was the end of my time at the Hopleaf. When I couldn’t ask for potato chips.”

HOW THE HOT DOG GETS MADE

Jay Torrence, ensemble member, 2001–present; artistic director, 2007– present
“Tuesday night, when everyone pitches material, is the most stressful part of the week—not wanting to bring in something that’s crap. There’s constant pressure. It’s kind of like boot camp for writing or getting my M.F.A. but having someone pay me to do it. After about a year and a half, I stopped having ulcers about it.”

Shaw
“I remember one Tuesday morning going, ‘Oh, holy shit. I have nothing.’ And then rejoicing because Shari Lewis died. And I brought in a raw lamb chop that night. The whole audience sang, ‘This is the song that never ends.’ And I mean, I was walking around the apartment with my arms in the air. ‘Shari Lewis died! Shari Lewis died! I have something to write about now!’ It’s horrible.”

Torrence
“Because I come from Ohio, the middle of Amish country, I wasn’t used to hearing the word fuck when I came to the ensemble. Every time they would drop that word—every five seconds—my stomach would turn. Nobody ever used that word around me, and when they did, it meant someone’s baby was on fire.”

Shaw
“I’ve had two students [at Columbia College] go into the Neo-Futurists. This latest one, Megan Mercier, one of the first things I told her is, ‘When these fuckers start telling you that something you want in the show is no good, if you think it’s good, you don’t let them run you over.’ ”

NEO-FUTURISTS ON BROADWAY

Kayden
“One of the big struggles for me was that, as a Neo-Futurist, everything was in our control. We always talked about everything. We had access to every element of the show. Suddenly [with Urinetown] now there were producers involved, and the people with the money were making the decisions, and that was really hard for me to stomach. For a while in the beginning, I would march up to the producers and say, ‘You can’t cut that line. It’s really important.’ Things that I didn’t have anything to do with. But I couldn’t keep my mouth shut. I just started feeling so far away from where the power was. I was compulsively being a watchdog, especially since people are paying $100 [for a seat]. I wasn’t in charge of anything. The whole ‘art as commerce’ thing was rough for me for a while. It’s all about the box office: Just shut up and say your lines.”

Shaw
“[People would ask me,] ‘Wasn’t it weird to sit in a Broadway house watching Urinetown? Watching all these people laughing?’ And I’m going, ‘Okay, you’re right. It is funny. But it’s been funny for years in Chicago.’ I was doing the New York Fringe [Festival] at the time. And I sat in the back row after everybody had left and sobbed for, like, half an hour. Partly because it wasn’t me, and partly because it was a friend of mine, who was steeped in the same aesthetic and whom I had learned things from and who had managed to spread the joy.”

IN 4 LIFE

Slickman
“One night I was at work and Greg called me up and said, we’re having auditions for Too Much Light this week. The next thing I knew my life had been signed away to the Devil”. 

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