By J.P. Anderson | December 2, 2013 | Lifestyle
Greg Allen celebrates 25 years of Too Much Light Makes The Baby Go Blind.
On December 2, 1988, in a storefront theater at Clark and Belmont, a Chicago institution was born: Too Much Light Makes The Baby Go Blind, a dynamic performance of 30 short plays in 60 minutes, the first production by a fledgling theater company called The Neo-Futurists. More than 3,600 performances and 8,500 plays later, it’s the longest-running show in Chicago history, and its creator, Neo-Futurists founder Greg Allen, is one of the most respected (not to mention prolific) figures in the Windy City theater scene, having created 33 full-length Neo-Futurist shows in addition to TML, as well as directing Eugene O’Neill’s Strange Interlude (all nine acts and seven hours of it) at the Goodman Theatre, and teaching at universities across the nation. Allen recently sat down with Michigan Avenue to discuss the company’s origins, other Chicago inspirations, and why he wouldn’t trade his Too Much Light audience for the world.
What inspired you to create The Neo-Futurists?
GREG ALLEN: My background is in experimental theater and performance art—Italian futurism, surrealism, Dada, Fluxus—and I came up with a conglomeration of those ideas and my own beliefs about what theater should be. Then in 1988 I had the opportunity to create a show in an off-night scenario; a friend of mine had talked about how some cities have late-night theater, and Chicago did not. I thought, I’m 26 years old and I’m looking for something to do in the middle of the night, so I had the feeling that if I build it they will come. I wanted to kick around the aesthetic of being very much ourselves on stage—a non-illusory approach to theater—and I got together a group of performance artists and writer/director/performers. We started putting together a bunch of short pieces, and I realized we could probably get through about 30 in 60 minutes, so we opened on December 2, 1988, with Too Much Light Makes The Baby Go Blind on Clark and Belmont. We charged a dollar times the roll of a die to get in. Within six months we were sold out, and after a year we got a review in the Tribune that got nationally syndicated. Then we sold out for the next four years in two theaters until we moved [to Andersonville] and doubled our audience size.
The young cast keeps the energy level high.
What do you think is the appeal of Too Much Light?
GA: It’s an ever-changing show—never the same twice, even if you come twice in the same weekend. The other aspect that’s very attractive is this non-illusory aesthetic that we don’t pretend anything on stage: We don’t pretend to be anywhere else, we don’t pretend to be different people. Everything we say on stage is true; it’s an honest-to-God attempt to perform 30 plays in 60 minutes, a kind of beat-the-clock sporting event.
Over the past 25 years, how has your audience evolved?
GA: [When we started the show] I was 26 and the oldest person in the cast was 30, so it was very much a young person’s show. In 25 years, we’ve reached a really wonderful diversity of audience that gets everybody under the sun. We have a very responsive, youthful, energetic audience that is up for an adventure, and the second I go direct [elsewhere], the age goes up by decades and the energy coming back from the audience is highly reduced. As a friend in the industry once said, “Every theater in the country would kill for your audience, Greg,” and I think that’s very true.
Which of the 30 plays in TML will go up next? The audience shouts numbers and a cast member pulls the play’s number from a clothesline.
Who else in Chicago theater are you inspired by?
GA: Theater Oobleck is definitely my favorite theater company in Chicago; its engagement in high intellectual capacity and experimentation on stage are very inspiring. I’m also inspired by a lot of puppetry that I’m seeing; there’s a new company called Manual Cinema whose last four productions have just been brilliant and really take shadow puppetry to a whole new dimension that just blows my mind.
What’s to come for The Neo-Futurists in the next 25 years?
GA: In October I started the new San Francisco branch of the company, so that makes us truly nationwide. The New York company is in its 10th year. I have another city company that is talking to me about starting yet another one in the South, and I have a pseudo-Neo-Futurist company in Montréal that performs in French, so that’s very exciting. One of the strengths of the company is that we’ve always been process-oriented and not product-oriented. People have often said, “Why don’t you just put together the best 30 plays and do them Off-Broadway forever?” But the joy of the process is really why we’re there. Honestly, in 25 years I’ve always felt I’ve grown the company organically. I’ve never said, “I want to be there so I’m going to work toward that product.” It’s always been, “Wow, we got a call from HBO. Wow, I got a call from Hal Hartley. Wow, they want us out in New York.” We’ve just been responsive to demand as opposed to the other way around and having to sell ourselves. I think that’s a great history.
photography by katrina wittkamp