IT'S A CHILLY 58 DEGREES AND POURING RAIN ON THIS AUGUST NIGHT IN CHICAGO, but a queue of hardy theatregoers winds up Ashland Avenue, around the corner and down Foster Avenue. They're probably just the kind of audience members you'd want lining up for a late-night show at your theatre--boisterous, diverse and clearly looking forward to a good time.
Most of these people are coming to see a show they've seen before. At the same time, most of them are coming to see a show they've never seen before. How is this paradox possible? All of them are on their way to see Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind, the ever-mutating cornerstone performance of an unruly 20-year-old company that calls itself the Neo-Futurists. This may be an ugly stay-at-home-with-slippers-and-bourbon night in Chicago, but the Neo-Futurists are eight people short of a sold-out house.
Remarkably, something similar is going on this very night some 700 miles away in downtown Manhattan, where the skies are clearer and the line for an 11 p.m. Neo-Futurist show is wending down East 4th Street across from La MaMa E.T.C. If you're heading out after a performance at that renowned venue and see the line across the street, you should consider getting in it. More important, if you ask the Neo-Futurists really nicely (or offer them enough cash), a line like that could form in your town, too.
These far-flung theatre fans aren't rallying in support of a uniquely successful theatre company--they're out in force because of a particularly successful theatrical methodology. Indeed, a walk-through of an evening of Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind (or TML, for easy reference) holds some lessons for theatre-makers as well as theatre-watchers.
Here in Chicago, as we're standing in line, a chipper young woman comes out of the theatre, introduces herself and hands out little plastic snakes, one for each seat in the house. That way, no one waits in line without a seat waiting for them--no snake, no ticket, no last-minute disappointment. We giggle at our plastic snakes, shiver and share umbrellas until the doors open, and then file in, a happy, humid gaggle. Two performers come out to get things started. We give them our snakes and they let us roll a die that determines our ticket price--a base of nine dollars plus the amount of the roll (now we're laughing about the terrors and pleasures of capitalism). Someone asks our names and writes on a name-tag sticker--mine says "Money," and a buzz arises among patrons as we discover each other's aliases. I take a seat between "Ampersand" and "Terrorist Fist Bump." The tags are a lighthearted device to connect strangers, but there are clearly theatrical smarts at work here, too.
More instructions: Our program is really a menu, which folded in half creates a column of 30 play titles that have the potential to be performed that night. The show will run for 60 minutes--there's even a ticking clock on display for the countdown. At the end of each brief play, our job is to call out the title of another play, and the next show starts instantaneously. With some practice, we quickly become a well-drilled collective, engaged and ready for some art.
Now things get harder to describe. The hour of mini-shows is a complex panoply of works, reminiscent (not coincidentally) of the original early-20th-century Italian Futurists' very short plays, or sintesi. Tonight they range from monologues to dance, from complex political criticism to audience interaction, from the post-dramatic to the absurd, and various places in between. Some run for a few minutes, some for seconds. Everyone seems to like at least something they see, and those game for adventure seem to like it all.
Originality is the main ingredient on the menu, which, coupled with the plays' brevity, frees them of the dross that …