When the shutdown hit a year ago, the Neo-Futurists were one of the earliest to adapt to creating digital theater. Within days of the stay-at-home order, they were figuring out how to convert their signature late-night hit, The Infinite Wrench (itself born out of Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind, the original “30 plays in 60 minutes” show that was reimagined after founder Greg Allen pulled the rights) into an ongoing offering on Patreon.
Tonight, the troupe presents a free streaming presentation via Twitch of 52 Plays for 52 Weeks of The Infinite Wrench Goes Viral, a celebration of their survival and a timeline of the past year in quarantine.
When I first saw the show online last March, it struck me that the company was perhaps uniquely positioned to make the digital switch. As I wrote at the time, “The challenge of creating short plays in isolation is one the Neos meet head-on here by using small-scale props to create video performance art, along with carefully edited videos of the cast speaking to each other from their remote locations that do an admirable job of capturing the camaraderie of the live ensemble.”
But in a way, surviving a pandemic with panache is perhaps what the Neos’ style of performance and personnel practices have been helping them figure out for a long time.
As artistic director KR Riiber points out about the company, “We’re accustomed to working quickly, we’re accustomed to experimentation. While we do operate as an ensemble, we’re independent creators. So we have autonomy over our individual pieces, which makes it a lot easier to create our show remotely. Also, you know, I think the undercurrent is the idea that Neo-Futurism at its core is about speaking your truth and telling your story from an honest place, and for us, that could happen in any medium.”
For managing director Jorge Silva, the challenge has been “having to transition from being a manager of a theater, to a manager of a digital media company, but that only reflects the adaptation that we’ve all had to endure this last year and a half of where we’ve all had to learn new skill sets.” The company has continued to produce new digital work, including last fall’s 45 Plays for America’s First Ladies, which was originally slated as a live show in the 2020 season to run in time for the presidential election. Instead, the Chicago Neo-Futurists collaborated remotely with their colleagues in the New York and San Francisco branches to create the portraits-in-digital-miniature of all the FLOTUSes (and FLOTUS-adjacent women) in American history.
Coming up later this spring (dates TBA), there’s The Egg Wrench, a one-night celebration of egg-and-fertility-related plays from the archives, which will be a benefit for the Chicago Birthworks Collective. (The Neos’ vast library of past works lends itself well to crafting theme shows, as I learned nearly 30 years ago when they performed at a benefit I helped organize for the Chicago Abortion Fund.) The company will also present an all-day showcase, the 100 Plays Festival, featuring work created by audience members, and Show #4951, or the first Infinite Wrench program created entirely by artists of color.
The Neos have been focusing in recent years on diversifying their ensemble. For Silva, who first studied with the company on a 2016 Neo-Access scholarship, “knowing that there was already a prioritization around voices of color at the Neo-Futurists through this program meant a lot to me and said a great amount about the organization as a whole. Becoming a student, to a volunteer, to a performer, a designer, a consultant, before becoming managing director, what keeps me around is this timeliness, this willingness to engage in sociopolitical relevant conversations.”
Being able to respond to current events quickly has long been a hallmark of The Infinite Wrench and its predecessor even in the analog times. Riiber explains, “We pitch new plays each Tuesday. We have a process of selecting plays where an author can’t choose their own. It has to be championed by another cast member. So there’s a selection of plays in the first round, then we give feedback to one another.” By the end of this consensus-driven process, they’ve selected up to 12 new pieces to present for the week.
“There is certainly an emphasis placed on plays that feel especially timely. We’re always excited to center work that responds to the moment,” says Riiber. “We are described often as a living newspaper. And we’re proud of that label. Sometimes a play will come up and will be written in response to something that happened that day. The Neo-Futurarium is where an audience can see a timely artistic response in the same week of an event.”
As if adapting to working virtually weren’t challenging enough, the Neos also added four new ensemble members, who were selected by audition one week before the shutdown. They’ve yet to meet in person with their colleagues. But as Silva explains it, the company’s commitment to consensus, or what he calls the “horizontal construction” of leadership roles, means “everyone’s a stakeholder,” which makes the process of bringing new voices on board perhaps less daunting all around.
The company still has its longtime home at Foster and Ashland—Silva notes that their landlord has been “very generous” in negotiating rental payments. And the Patreon has been successful enough that by last fall, according to Silva, they were “beginning to generate pre-pandemic ticket revenue.” (He also notes, however, that this doesn’t include losses for concessions, rentals at the space, and other revenue streams that are shut down for now.) They also are able to keep paying artists; as Silva puts it, “At least we can provide some kind of sustainability security,” adding, “We’re doing well enough that we can say we can continue doing what we’re doing.” But getting there, says Silva, meant “We’ve had to throw out all kinds of institutional knowledge and precedent, which we’ve relied on in the past to tell us what happens next.”
Like most companies who went digital this year, the Neo-Futurists hope to keep that component going post-shutdown. Riiber notes that they’ve been able to not only draw audiences from around the globe, but have also been able to bring back now-distant alums of the company (when you’ve been producing nonstop since December of 1988, there are a lot of alums) to participate from time to time.
In the intro to the first digital incarnation of The Infinite Wrench, Riiber urged the audience at home to set a timer to watch the plays in order to re-create the countdown in the theater. But if you wanted to go past the 60 minutes? “Fuck it. We are in uncertain hellish times and you can watch all the plays you want.”
As the hellish times seem to be coming closer to an end of sorts, it’s good to know that the Neo-Futurists are still finding new tools and voices to document it all.
American Blues gets ready to sing Refugee Rhapsody
American Blues Theater has been continuing to present work in lockdown, including its new-plays reading series, “The Room.” (This Friday, they’ll be hosting a virtual reading of Ian Paul Custer‘s Sanctuary City.) Earlier this month, they also announced the 2021 winner of their annual Blue Ink Playwriting Award. Yussef El Guindi‘s Refugee Rhapsody, about an Arab American woman forced to undergo a mental health evaluation after committing a violent crime against a wealthy heiress, will be presented as part of the American Blues virtual 2021 Blue Ink Playwriting Festival (dates TBA), along with work by finalists Juan Alfonso (An Educated Guess), Matthew Libby (The Machine), Wendy MacLeod (The Good Samaritan), and chandra tomas (The Buzzer).
El Guindi, who was born in Egypt, raised in London, and has lived in Seattle for many years, is no stranger to Chicago audiences. His play Language Rooms was produced in 2019 by Broken Nose Theatre, and Silk Road Rising has produced three of his works: Ten Acrobats in an Amazing Leap of Faith in 2005, Back of the Throat in 2006, and Our Enemies: Lively Scenes of Love and Combat in 2008. v