Thirty years ago, the Neo-Futurists opened a late-night show that became first a cult favorite, and then an institution. And though Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind changed its name two years ago after a dispute with founder and former artistic director Greg Allen, the Neos continue to churn out more new scripts ( albeit super-short ones ) than any other company in town.
The late-night show, now called The Infinite Wrench, largely follows the template set by "Too Much...": thirty short plays, all created by the ensemble in an ever-changing line-up, to be performed within one hour. The aesthetic is randomness ( the running order is determined by audiences shouting out the numbers next to the titles in the program, and the admission price by rolling dice ), risk and realness. The goal is a "fusion of sport, poetry and living newspaper." The Neo-Futurists also have branches in New York City and San Francisco performing their version of The Infinite Wrench.
Current artistic director Kurt Chiang, who joined the ensemble in 2008 and took his current position in 2015, said "We're the granddaddy of the indefinable theater." Indeed, it's always been easier to describe the Neos in terms of what they are not: namely, NOT a sketch or improv company.
They're also not solely defined by the late-night show. For many years, they've presented prime-time shows created within the ensemble ( which has encompassed more than 70 people since the company's founding ). More recently, they've started fostering these shows through the Neo-Lab, which offers one ensemble member per season a commission to develop work through what Chiang called "a long-term public-facing process."
The first Neo-Lab show, Tif Harrison's Saturn Returns, opened in 2016. Since then, the company has presented Kirsten Riiber's Tangles & Plaques, based on her work with Alzheimers patients. ( The show recently won an NEA grant to tour colleges and healthcare training institutions. ) Next up, in March, is Nick Hart's Remember the Alamo. Meantime, Ida Cuttler's Comfortable Shoes, which combines running and the narrative structure of 1,001 Nights, gets a public workshop presentation on Thursday, Nov. 29.
The interests of the ensemble drive the prime-time eclecticism. "As far as prime-time shows, because of our aesthetic and the fact that we're not playing characters, that lends itself in a way to talk about history or ideas," said Chiang.
Over the years, the performers have also drawn upon a wide range of styles in creating their short pieces and the prime-time work. Lisa Buscani, one of the earliest "Too Much" ensemble members who still performs with The Infinite Wrench, was a National Poetry Slam champion in 1992. Her recent pieces in Wrench felt reminiscent of poetic monologues she did in the earlier days. Jay Torrence, a former ensemble member, brought an interest in physical theater and clowning, as seen in his full-length devised piece about the 1903 Iroquois Theatre fire, Burning Bluebeard. ( The show, first produced in 2011, plays Dec. 26-31 at the Neo-Futurists in a co-production with the Ruffians. )
"When you do a full-length work, you really are allowed to bring to the table all of these different influences you're exploring already," said Torrence. Cuttler, who was in the lab process for Riiter's Tangles & Plaques, said "It's definitely a newer thing, when you're used to making shorter plays with a quick turnaround, to sit with an idea and actually be able to work on devising and trying things and having them fail."
In the viral digital age, even the short topical pieces that go into The Infinite Wrench each week run the risk of feeling stale. Chiang said "You have to change the nature of your vitriol. To make quote-unquote political work or a play that is speaking toward the greater world situation; you're not the smartest quote anymore. You're not the first response by a long shot."
Instead, the work in The Infinite Wrench often focuses on what managing director Kendall Karg calls "creating imagery you'll go home with it." In a recent performance, the ensemble sat in a line and passed handfuls of water to one another while meditating on how much easier it is to opt out of the political process when one has privilege. It created an apt metaphor for "trickle-down" powerthose who have the most "water" don't think about preserving access for people struggling to get just enough to survive.
Those politics are also reflected in how the company is run. Karg told Windy City Times, "One of the first things the board president and everybody interviewing me said was 'You have to really be ready to collaborate with the artists. They're your boss. They're going to impose consensus model techniques when you work with them.'"
Today, that model still guides the company and its larger commitment to the neighborhood. "This place is always spoken of as the center of community," said Karg. "People feel that they're at home here. They meet up with their friends here. We have proposals on that stage all the time."
"We're a baffling place," said Chiang with a laugh. Perhaps. But the Neo-Futurists have every intention of keeping audiences baffled for another 30 years.
The Neo-Futurists will offer a special 30th-anniversary performance of The Infinite Wrench on Sunday, Dec. 2, 7 p.m. at the Neo-Futurist Theater, 5153 N. Ashland Ave. Information and reservations at 773-878-4557 or NeoFuturists.org .