New-Futurists: still fresh after all these years

By Rebecca Klymkowsky

For me, Friday nights at the University are usually reserved for dinner out or a night of recuperating from the demands of the week. Especially now, when the wind is cold enough to freeze just about any body part (as was nearly demonstrated during the polar bear run), it’s hard to work up even a little motivation to brave the CTA system to roam farther than the Snail. Nevertheless, there are still some things in Chicago worth the risk of frostbite.

One notable example is a performance by the Neo-Futurists, one of Chicago’s highly regarded theater troupes. These performers write and direct their own material, through which they strive to convey their ideas and experiences candidly and directly. Their signature show, Too Much Light Makes The Baby Go Blind, has run since 1988 and is billed as “an ever-changing attempt to perform 30 plays in 60 minutes.” Obviously, this is an event worth a few frozen fingers.

The Neo-Futurists perform Too Much Light on Fridays and Saturdays at 11:30 p.m. and Sunday at 7 p.m. Doors open half an hour before each show, but transportation via CTA is arduous, and tickets for the show go fast. At 9 p.m., we left to catch the bus that would take us to the Red Line train. Once we reached the Berwyn stop, we walked a few blocks to the Neo-Futurarium at the intersection of Ashland and Foster. For the faint of heart, though, the 92 Foster bus runs from a stop near the train stop to Ashland and Foster. When we reached the theater, we huddled together to wait. Doors opened promptly at 11 p.m.

Once inside the main door, we were handed tokens with the Too Much Light logo. In bemused confusion, we followed the flow of the crowd through a warren of rooms that included a reading room and the Hall of Presidents. We moved onward to an odd, smallish, narrow hall. There, we slumped into the first seats we could find—sturdy, antique theater chairs with worn velvet coverings. The room is beautifully painted, and a talented harmonica player entertained us with his enthusiastic music. Enjoying the warmth and the scene, we couldn’t help but wonder if this was really the theater. People milled around us, and just as we began to question our seat choice, the harmonica fell silent. From the stage, a man in a kinetic frenzy announced that it was time to exchange our tokens for tickets.

When we reached the ticket counter, each of us swapped our tokens for a die. Unlike conventional theater, tickets for Too Much Light are sold at varying prices. Each ticket costs $5 plus the roll of a six-sided die so that tickets range in price from $6 to $11. I rolled for my ticket with a vague feeling of dread at the spectre of a six. When the die landed on two, I happily paid my $7, feeling as if I had somehow beaten the system. That was just the beginning, though.

Once you pay for your ticket, you step into the hallway and walk until you reach a table where a member of the cast asks your name and writes a nametag for you. The name on the tag has no relation whatsoever to your real name. You are also presented a menu of the titles of the 30 plays the performers will attempt to perform that night. As audience members, our sole duty was to shout out our requests by number as soon as each scene was finished. The order of the show is never the same, and the menu changes each week.

The theater where the Neo-Futurists perform Too Much Light is small and intimate. It is also stark—black walls, no curtains, and few props. The performers only wear TMLMTBGB t-shirts. The reason for this austerity is twofold. First, it makes the performers’ 30-play goal—and the quick set changes this requires—a possibility. Second, it stays true to the Neo-Futurist ideal of only portraying scenes that are fundamentally real. We watched actors and knew at all times exactly what they were doing because the actors played themselves.

Once the cast had ordered pizza for the audience (which they do whenever they have a full house), and we had practiced yelling numbers out for a few minutes, the show began. A clock in the middle of the stage tracks the time; the show stops at 12:30 a.m. regardless of how many plays have been performed.

The actors worked their way through the program with zest and enthusiasm, and while much of their material has comic value, the show in fact runs the gamut of emotions. In one skit, the cast lies on the floor holding balloons with their fears, dreams, and resolutions tied to the ends. The skit closes with each cast member giving hi or her balloon to an audience member, along with a slip of paper, a pencil, and the request that they write their own message and release the balloon when they leave. I was one of the lucky few who scribbled frantically in the darkness and tagged my orange balloon with my hopes and fears. The balloons were only a small part of this amazing show. Weighty issues such as homosexuality, religion, and what it means to be a patriot and a war protester in our country were mixed in with skits such as “Memoirs Through A Box Fan,” which were masterful demonstrations of comedy at its best.

As the show ended and we headed back into the cold Chicago night, we laughed and recalled which scenes we liked best. My friends egged me into releasing my balloon almost immediately after we left the theater. Oddly enough, I felt lighter watching the balloon disappear into the sky. I watched it until I couldn’t make it out at all.