Some Chicago theater companies become important by growing to the point they become institutions — entities that hire actors, build subscriber bases, raise money for new buildings, that kind of thing. That's one form of influence. But what of that smaller group of theater companies that actually changes the aesthetic landscape of the city — or even the arts world far beyond Chicago?
Often, the two groups overlap. There's no question, for example, that the Steppenwolf Theatre Company has become a part of the Chicago aesthetic of doing theater. Steppenwolf has nice digs — and plans to make them yet nicer. The ensemble at Lookingglass Theatre is synonymous with a kind of visual storytelling that was thin on the ground in Chicago before it came along. And then there's Second City, which needs little explanation when it comes to creating and building a new style of artistic entertainment.
But sometimes, albeit very rarely, companies change the aesthetic without changing much at all themselves. The Neo-Futurists are most certainly in this category.
This company — highly unusual in all kinds of ways — is on a few lips this week as it celebrates the 25th anniversary of "Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind," a kind of improvised sketch show which has been packing 'em in at the Neo-Futurarium in Andersonville for more than two decades. The Neos claim "Too Much Light" is the longest-running show in Chicago. They have a case, although I'm not sure it's entirely fair to compare a late-night, weekends-only affair with shows that do eight performances a week and still play for years.
So the longest-running thing is arguable. But not the Neo-Futurists' aesthetic influence.
You can see it right now in "Burning Bluebeard," a remarkable show that began at the Neo-Futurists but is now being produced at Theater Wit by a company named The Ruffians. You can see it in the work of Theatre Oobleck and The Hypocrites. Heck, you can see it in "This American Life" and in the work of the New York-based Elevator Repair Service and on Broadway in "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson" and in many of the shows that followed "Urinetown" — the Neo-Futurist-style musical by former member Greg Kotis and Mark Hollmann that the Neo-Futurists famously rejected and that then went all the way to Broadway.
What is that Neo-Futurist aesthetic? Well, it begins with shows that know they are shows in a theater that knows it's a theater. Theorists like to call that meta-theater, or theater about theater, and it offers a particularly intense kind of theatrical experience. The Chicago Neos are hardly the only company in the world to like their theater meta, but, over that quarter of a century, they developed a truly singular blend of self-awareness, free-flowing anachronism, creative environments, intellectual ferocity and emotional intensity. A lot of meta-drama is comic, but the form also is disquieting in that you never quite know where the boundaries lie. The Neo-Futurists have been very good at exploiting that uncertainty.
They've not been as good at exploiting their own institutional growth. I've often wondered why.
Perhaps it's because, unlike a lot of Chicago theaters still controlled by their founders, Greg Allen, the ruminative founder and, really, the inventor of this aesthetic, has allowed others more of a leadership role. Or maybe it's that Allen and those who worked with and after him have never focused much on institution-building. Since 1992, the Neos have remained happily in their 135-seat, second-floor walk-up above that funeral home on the corner of Ashland and Foster and never built their own home. For years, they struggled to translate the success of their late-night showpiece to a prime-time schedule. And although the Neos long have worked as an ensemble, that group never has been marketed like some of the other more famous ensembles in town. The Neos have never had a posh board of directors. They never have been flush with cash. They never have built bars or restaurants or comedy clubs. They never became an Equity theater. They never became a New York institution. They often have acted with ambivalence toward the chance of commercial success. This has been, to a large extent, a company of alt-purists.
And thus you can see that "Too Much Light" logo on T-shirts, but that's about all.
That's a shame in many ways, although any theater that has survived for a quarter of a century is worthy of note. And "Too Much Light" does perhaps more than any other show to introduce a new, younger audience to off-Loop Chicago theater. Plenty of companies — from New York to Atlanta — have been influenced by this company, and copied much of what they do. Many is the time I've sat in a show and thought "Neo-Futurists." Many is the time it has felt like the company was short-changed.
I asked Allen about this issue this week. "I am proud that we never sold our soul to go for the big bucks," he said, genially. "Ours is still an aesthetic focused on process not product. That is a big part of our success. If we ever started producing product, it would be unfulfilling both for the audience and for the performers."
Fair enough. Herewith, a tip of my hat this weekend to the Neo-Futurists, a Chicago company that remains mostly unsung, given just how much it changed the face of American theater. I've been watching them from their start, but the one show I'll never forget is that amazing Neo-Futurist production of Eugene O'Neill's epic "Strange Interlude" in the Goodman's O'Neill Festival in 2009, one of the most confounding, brilliant and generally amazing shows in the entire history of Chicago theater.
"Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind," which had its first performance on Dec. 2, 1988, plays Friday and Saturday at 11:30 p.m. and Sunday at 7:00 p.m. at The Neo-Futurarium, 5153 N. Ashland Ave.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun