Trevor Dawkins under clothesline, Kurt Chiang in the background
Trevor Dawkins under clothesline, Kurt Chiang in the background Credit: Marc Monaghan for the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

Earlier this month the Neo-Futurists celebrated the 25th anniversary of their signature theatrical production, Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind. Fifty weeks a year, the ensemble write and rehearse 30 original two-minute plays based on their own lives and observations. Each audience member (whose price of admission is $9 plus the roll of a die) receives a “menu” of play titles. Thirty numbers are hung from a clothesline above the stage, and audience members call out which play they want to see. Actors take that number off the clothesline, perform the play, the audience chooses the next, and this continues until the 60-minute timer is up (no matter how many plays are left on the clothesline; zero is the goal). Each weekend, a roll of the dice decides how many plays are taken out of the menu, and ensemble members write new ones to replace them. As such, no two performance of TML have ever been the same.

December 2, 1988: Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind opens at Stage Left Theatre

Greg Allen, founding artistic director: The second semester of my junior year at Oberlin College, I took a class in the theatrical avant-garde with Phil Auslander, and he introduced me to Italian Futurism, and I was very inspired by their fiery manifestos and their rhetoric and the brevity. After Oberlin I came to Chicago because it was the hotbed of new experimental theater in the country—very accessible environment in which to create original work. I got to be friends with the artistic director of Stage Left and he said, “Well, what do you want to do, Greg?” I pitched a few ideas and we agreed that this was the most outrageous and scariest idea—to do something based on the Italian Futurist plays.

I’d gotten really frustrated in trying to write the great American play, and so I set about writing three scenarios for plays as quickly as possible on an 8.5-by-11 sheet of paper every day. I did that for a couple months—every day I’d just kick out these ideas for really short, dynamic plays. I did a staged reading of those under the title Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind at the end of this workshop I was doing. The name is actually taken from a show I was in at Oberlin that included a case study of an autistic child who would smash lightbulbs and say to himself, quietly, “Too much light makes the baby go blind.” It seemed like a perfect kind of catchall title that was vaguely Italian Futurist rhetoric and just kind of worked.

At that point I had also developed my own aesthetic—this nonillusory aesthetic that’s now known as Neo-Futurism. I wanted to combine this belief of what I thought theater was that everyone was ignoring—the fact that it’s live bodies in a space with you—to create an interactive, ever-changing event that actually reflects the community it’s performed in and with, and meld that with the Italian Futurist sensibility of brevity and dynamism and randomness.

I had auditions at Stage Left—I asked the woman who worked with me at the bookstore if she wanted to be in it because she was a singer, asked an old collaborator of mine and a couple SL members as well. We had nine people and I started rehearsing with them and kind of preaching the Neo-Futurist aesthetic and creating material. I figured out that we might be able to pull off 30 short plays in 60 minutes, so that became the tagline to the show. We charged $1 times a roll of the die and opened on December 2, 1988.

It was the first late-night show in Chicago. It was 11:15 every Friday and Saturday night. Stage Left was down on Clark Street near Belmont, near the “Punkin’ Donuts,” which was where all the punks hung out back in the 80s. I was 26 years old; I felt like if I designed something that would sound totally different than anything else out there, that would appeal to people like me who were looking for something to do in the middle of the night, that we would get an audience. If you build it, they will come, and by god, that turned out to be true.

When I started putting together TML I told people, “I’m creating a show that will run forever.” It’s hard to admit that I had the hubris to say things like that, but I definitely designed the show to have an open run so that it was changing every week, people would come back, it would inspire performers who were creating, and it would also inspire the audience to return. So the clothesline, the dice roll, the name tags, the random order of the plays, the menu, all the new plays every week—all those things were put together in a formula that would presumably succeed if it kept going. So I never had a closing date when I opened it. It was designed as a long-term endeavor.

Phil Ridarelli, ensemble member 1989-present: A woman I was dating said, “Hey, you should come and see this late-night show.” When I saw the show I realized it’s a great combination of written work, and cabaret, and feelings of spontaneity to the point that it was improvised, or improvised to the extent that it was spontaneous. It was changing a lot. And it required you to be dramatic and funny and honest. It felt very natural and comfortable. I auditioned and Greg cast me and that was it. It was one of those things like, well, see you next week. Next week turned into 25 years.

Allen: Certainly the piece that was the focal point of those early shows was King Lear. I was Lear and I would be staggering around onstage trying to find someone—at first it was actors, and I would ask them, “Do you love me?,” and if they said yes I would give them something as a gift. Until slowly everything was gone and then the performers were gone and then I would go out to the audience and I would say, “Do you love me?,” and if they said yes I’d give them a piece of my clothing. So inevitably it would come down to someone with me standing there in my shorts and asking them, “Do you love me?,” and they have this predicament: if they said yes, I would give them my shorts and be nude.

The first review was in the Reader, Tony Adler, we had like two paragraphs. I think he called King Lear brilliant, and then he alluded to the fact that the Italian Futurists had become fascists, so this sparked a controversy in the letters column of the Reader that lasted for months. So it was great publicity for us.

Tony Adler: I don’t remember how I first heard of TML, but I do remember the experience of seeing it for the first time. As I said in the review I wrote for the Reader, about two months into what became a 25-year run, the show came across as a big, exuberant, very smart mess. Which is pretty much what it was designed to be. If I’d known how important it was going to become I’d have given it more than a long paragraph appended to a review of another show.

The one I remember most vividly still is Greg Allen’s two-minute version/exegesis of King Lear, in which he circled the room, asking audience members, “Do you love me?” and handing pieces of his costume out to those who answered yes, until he was completely naked. It was not just one of the best TML pieces I’ve ever seen, but one of the best Lears.

Allen: We did pretty well from the get-go, I would say. The thing that really strikes me about the first six months or year was that the show was fairly angry. At the beginning of every show I would come out and deliver a manifesto off the top of my head about how we shouldn’t be passive voyeurs to the world, how we should get out there and try to change things and instead of ignoring all the impulses, all the elements of what’s coming at us in life we should try to acknowledge them. So the show was kind of a manifestation of that. It wasn’t quite so funny. I find the show now, especially with the new young ensemble, to be quite charming. You’re charmed by it.

People would come to the show with no expectations. Now, any given night, 50 percent of the audience has seen the show before. Those early days were great, too, because we would have some empty seats and I could run out into the street and just grab people and say, “Hey, you wanna see 30 plays for a dollar?” I’d drag them into the theater and they’d go, “Wow, that was great.”

People started hearing about us and people started coming back. That was a good sign. Early on, literally, I talked to every single person who saw the show, so I really got to know the audience.

We weren’t actors and audience; we really were just a bunch of strangers sharing a space for an hour.—Gene “Dorothy” Dillenburg, an early Too Much Light fan

Ridarelli: We got to know the audience pretty well, pretty personally. We’re always talking about ourselves personally onstage, so I think the same was true of them. It created long relationships with those guys.

Allen: I think for a while, when I was in the show all the time, I felt like anyone in their 20s knew who I was, that everyone had come to the show. There was a fan, Dorothy—his name’s really Gene Dillenburg, but the first time he came to the show we named him Dorothy on the name tag and ever since then, those of us who knew him back in the day have referred to him as Dorothy. And Dorothy is kind of a famous attendee who came all the time at Stage Left, all the time at Live Bait, and actually wrote a couple plays that we performed very successfully in the show.

Gene “Dorothy” Dillenburg, audience member: I first heard of the show from the theater listings in the Reader for opening weekend, but I couldn’t make it. So I cut out the listing, stuck it to my fridge, and my first visit was their second Saturday show, December 10, 1988. My recollection is that I went to the show 40 times in its first 50 weeks.

That first year the audiences were much smaller. We weren’t actors and audience; we really were just a bunch of strangers sharing a space for an hour. If you’ve seen the show once, you’ve seen the show once. But in that first year, the show itself changed quite a bit. In the beginning, there was a set order—the “call out the number” business didn’t start until a few months in. The number of new plays each week was fixed; rolling dice came in year two, I think. Cast members came and went, individual plays would evolve, with new lines, new endings, new cast. Even if a play remained ostensibly the same, the fact that it came at a different point in the evening, followed a different play, got a slightly different reading—all that made it a different play. And I found that fascinating.

Allen: I have a graph of our attendance for the first year in my office that I discovered the other day and it kind of just goes vrooooop, it goes straight up until we sold out our first show.

Left to right: Ayun Halliday, Adrian Danzig, Dave Awl, Spencer Kayden (below), Karen Christopher (above), Greg Allen, Ted Bales, Heather Riordan, Lisa Buscani, and Phil RidarelliCredit: J. Alexander Newberry

May 1990: TML moves to Live Bait Theater

Allen: There was some controversy about how we wanted to run the show compared to how Stage Left wanted the show to run. So we said, OK, we’re gonna move, then. Stage Left said, Well, we’ll continue on with the show, and I was like, Nnnyyyeeeeah, no. So we literally performed one week at Stage Left and after the show announced to the audience, next week we’re going to be at Live Bait, and then Stage Left people would stand up in the audience and say, no, actually we’re going to continue on with the show right here next week. It was very ugly.

We were set to open at Live Bait at 11:30 at night, so that we had 15 minutes in which to identify our audience going to Stage Left and tell them we’d moved to Live Bait. We all stood like 500 feet away from Stage Left and just said, “Hey, are you coming to see the Neo-Futurists?” We’d pack people into my car and we’d drive down Clark Street to Live Bait. I was making runs back and forth with audience members. We came back the next night and I remember Lisa Buscani running down the street going, “Greg, we won, we won! They’re not gonna do it!” That was it—the faux production lasted one night and they stopped. I have no ill feelings towards them. It was an ugly situation but I think we all made the best of it.

February 14, 1992: TML moves to its permanent home, the Neo-Futurarium, and premieres its 1,000th play

Allen: We were performing for the first three years on other people’s sets, so you’d show up sometimes on Friday night and go, wow, we’re on a kitchen-sink set tonight, based on whatever the prime-time show was doing. It was really fun—how are we gonna make this work?—but also sometimes the set really didn’t help us.

So we moved in here, and having this space 24 hours a day, seven days a week, keeping all the proceeds and paying the rent from that was not a challenge, really. The first year here I doubled everyone’s pay and then I doubled it again. So that was nice.

Ridarelli: Those were big milestones actually—not artistic so much but just, OK, we need to get our shit together. Moving here and having somebody work as a managing director. Our office was where now we keep the toilet paper. It was ridiculous. We’ve got a much bigger support staff now than we ever did. Back in the day it was, you gotta roll the dice, you gotta write the numbers for the clothesline, you gotta go buy props. You gotta run tech. You always had to sort of count on a person from the ensemble to, like, run to the booth and turn on lights or hit play or something. Getting a tech person was a huge milestone, actually.

Clockwise from left: Caitlin Stainken, Brenda Arellano, Leah Urzendowski Courser, Tif Harrison, Megan Mercier, and Jay Torrence

The life of a Neo-Futurist

Ridarelli: After a year or two I remember thinking, gee, this isn’t like a regular play. You do a play and you rehearse for two weeks and you run for four weeks and then you go home. That’s not this. I try to tell people who audition, you’re not auditioning for a show, you’re auditioning for a lifestyle.

John Pierson, ensemble member 1996-2011: The first day of the workweek would be Tuesday. Supposedly you’ve written plays from Sunday to Tuesday. First thing we do at our meeting Tuesday is sit in the theater in a circle and present our plays, one at a time. You can stage part of it then or just hand out scripts and have people read. And then one of my favorite parts is, we don’t democratically vote on them. Everyone actually gets to choose a play that they want to nominate to go in, and if there isn’t any major objection to it, it just goes in. Why I like that process is sometimes the democratic will make things not as risky. Someone will choose something to go in and I’m like, Why would that go in?, and then you see it in the show and you never would have imagined it would have done so well.

Then we go around and discuss all the ones we haven’t chosen yet—what we like about it, if it works, questions we can ask—and the rest of the menu is chosen. Tuesday night we rehearse. Then we don’t meet again till Friday.

I try to tell people who audition, you’re not auditioning for a show, you’re auditioning for a lifestyle.—Phil Ridarelli, an ensemble member since 1989

Ridarelli: After the show on Sunday is a continuation of that process. As we close up, we’ll get in here together and we’ll go down the menu and make universal cuts. By the end of that process you’ll say, OK, we cut some shorties, we cut some really dark stuff, so maybe you want to think about replenishing that. It’s an attempt to maintain some sort of balance thematically, length, physically, topically, those sorts of things.

Bilal Dardai, ensemble member 2004-present, co-artistic director 2012-present: The fact that you’re always bringing something new—that’s a cultural shift in the last five-some years. When I first joined the company there was still this capacity to come to rehearsal on a Tuesday night with only things you’d pitched before. If we’d rolled low enough you could show up with nothing.

Megan Mercier, ensemble member 2008-2013, co-artistic director 2012-2013: That never happens now. The schedule can be brutal, but having to create things every week is invaluable and it’s all about, like, let’s put the best stuff in the show that we possibly can this week.

Allen: I think a really great Neo-Futurist is someone who views the world artistically, views their life artistically, and is able to really express themselves without artifice. We are looking for writer-director-performers, so you can be a great actor who doesn’t write and not be right, you can be a great writer who doesn’t perform and still not be right. We’re really looking for theater artists who are prolific.

Dardai: It takes over your life entirely, and not just in terms of time but also in terms of how you start viewing the world. Especially those first few months, you’re so desperate to come up with stuff and what your voice is and you’re bringing in plays that are, like, about your breakfast. I’m going to give you a two-minute play about the double egg yolk I found in my egg this morning, and it’s all going to be set to Arcade Fire.

Ridarelli: You’ve always got that third eye looking for the next thing to write about, whether it be a new story or a relationship, pop culture, you can’t help it. I know everybody’s got a notepad or a journal or whatever that they’re just like constantly jotting ideas down. I’m sure of it.

Allen: Everything is material. You know every single Tuesday you’re in the show you have to come up with something new. I think that really different things inspire different people, but that forced ongoing creativity is, I think, an incredible blessing in people’s lives and you just look at your own life differently, and kind of both experience it and observe it at the same time.

Pierson: Sometimes openly one of us will just say, “That’s a play.” It happens all the time.

Ridarelli: There have been a couple late nights at the bars where people will be like, we gotta do that, all right, I’ll write it, all right. And then Tuesday we have two or three plays about that crazy thing at the bar.

Mercier: You’re writing in the voice of these other people. You’re trying to write as true to their voice as you possibly can. There’s a sense that you want to give people a gift every week that you write for them.

Pierson: I always say we’re a dysfunctional family. It’s this very nice feeling of joining this group of people, of friends, but it’s also trial by fire. You’re expected to write right away. You’re not just acting in the show, you’re immediately showing your material, and then you don’t have time to think. That’s what’s so great about it. There’s momentum to it that gets you out of your head.

Mary FonsCredit: Evan Hanover

To date, the TML ensemble have written and performed more than 8,500 plays. Which ones do they remember?

Ridarelli: I think if you asked everybody else they’d probably tell you Fuck Chair. I like Dream Lover—I danced with a dress. Honestly is almost like a joke with the company: if we’re short on something, well, we could do Honestly. For the next 60 seconds Phil Ridarelli will answer any yes-or-no question you ask him with complete honesty. It usually starts out with, are you wearing underwear? Are you gay? And then it actually gets to more interesting questions.

Dillenburg: Lisa Buscani had this marvelous piece where she condensed all of Russian literature into a single poem. It built to this wonderful crescendo and ended with a line I still recite: “And life is death! death! death! and thick-soled boots.”

Pierson: I have crate plays where I always have a crate on my head.

Dardai: We still have the tradition of plays that only involve flashlights. A flashlight play is blackout on stage and lines are spoken one at a time, and they’re only spoken by whoever has lit themselves with a flashlight. There’s like separate schools on how you hold the flashlight. There’s the Allen version, which is turning the flashlight on and off, and the Pierson version, which is covering it up.

Mercier: I remember my first play was one on the Twister board about being single.

Ridarelli: I had a play where I had a little propane stove where I lit it and cooked a hot dog. It took like four minutes and I was like ah, fuck.

Mercier: I love that we embrace this idea of taking these chances on stage every week. There’s also this embracing of imperfection that I don’t think you often see. There are so many variables you can’t control that I think for us there’s this really celebratory element of, like, we tried something. The task, the goal of the evening was start the clock and finish all 30 plays in 60 minutes, and to me if there’s ever a failure it’s when we’re not able to do that. But there’s such permission to try things and fail. I’ve never been anywhere where that exists, and it’s such a gift. I guess some people would argue that maybe you fail more under those conditions or that your quality is always compromised, but I would argue that your concept of quality develops at a faster rate because of that.

It has obviously affected me artistically and creatively. But also as a person, just the way I interact with people, because you have to get onstage and be yourself every week, and exploring what that means, and trying to always get closer to being real in front of people that you don’t know. Certainly on a weekly basis having to really, really confront that has been life changing.

Pierson: Almost everybody who lives in this city, when it’s brought up, either says, “Oh, I still have to go see that,” or, “I’ve seen that a bunch of times.” It’s definitely a behemoth in the city, but still maintains what we call storefront theater. It still has that feel of really raw material, which I think keeps it strong and alive. You’ll see kids’ lives changed right before your eyes. They’ve never seen anything like it before.

Allen: I think I have a certain aesthetic that transcends its origins, and other people are taking it all over the world and doing something with it and that’s the way it should be. I mean, Neo-Futurism is something that everyone can do, everyone can be a Neo-Futurist and everyone can create art this way. You just have to have the guts and creativity to stand up and express your life.

Left to right: Megan Mercier, Caitlin Stainken, Tif Harrison, Trevor Dawkins, Brenda Arellano, and Kurt ChiangCredit: Marc Monaghan for the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation