Reporters v. Neo-Futurists

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Sandwiched between reporters from Willamette Week, Jackson Free Press, Chicago Reader and Birmingham Weekly in a cab last Saturday night, I ventured into Chicago for an all-too-brief rendezvous with the windy city. Though I’d been in the Chicago area (Evanston, Illinois at the Northwestern University campus) since Friday afternoon an alt-weekly writers’ conference, I was too busy attending seminars, pep talks and writing critiques to do any exploring.

When our cab lurched to a stop on Ashland Avenue next to a funeral home, I started to have second thoughts about the directions I had Googled earlier. But as we got closer to the building and noticed a line of a hundred or so people creeping around the perimeter, I knew we’d found the right spot. What brought us to this random street corner in an unfamiliar city at 10:45 p.m. had nothing to do with glow sticks or all-night raves, but rather, something a tad more cultured. We were there to check out a performance of Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind, a play that has been running steadily for the last 20 years put on by a group called the Neo-Futurists.

After the first 150 people in line were handed a tiny toy snake, we filed up a set of steep stairs to wait some more in a musty room with beat up wooden floors that looked more like a student co-op than it did a professional theater house. Twenty minutes later, a couple of skinny dudes in paper-thin ratty t-shirts gave us the rundown. Tickets are $9 plus the roll of a die. After we handed them our plastic snake, we got to gamble for the cost of admission. I (of course) rolled a six, which meant I had to fork over $15. A peppy lady by the entryway scribbled down (generally lewd) name tags for each of us and we shuffled to our seats.

The Neo-Futurists’ goal is to perform 30 plays in an hour. By screaming out numbers, the audience gets to determine the order. From choreographed Bollywood dance numbers to political rants, the plays fluctuate wildly in length and tone. In one particularly moving play, the lights were turned off and an audience member was pulled into a hastily assembled sheet-fort in the center of the stage. By flashlight, the performer asked the audience member if she had ever been in love.

Though the entire time I was watching the performance, I envisioned myself being singled out and forced, red-faced onto the stage, I ultimately appreciated the concept behind the neo-Futurists’ particular brand of audience engagement. Unlike some comedians who maliciously humiliate meek audience members, the Neo-Futurists humiliate audience members with a grander purpose: “to strengthen the human bond between performer and audience.”

With a constantly changing assortment of plays based on the personal experiences of each cast member, it’s no wonder TMLMTBGB has been packing this tiny theater for the last 20 years. The next time I visit Chicago, I will most definitely be heading back to the Neo-Futuraruim. Hopefully with some slicker dice rolling skills.