"We're all in this together," said Rob Neill, the managing director of the New York Neo-Futurists. He's not just talking about the performers. He means all of us: the performers, the audience, and everyone else within the little black box theater where, each Friday and Saturday at 10:30 p.m., the avant-garde theatrical company performs their signature piece Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind. Founded in Chicago in 1998, the Neo-Futurists have had a branch in New York since 2003, which became a full company in 2005. Over the years, Too Much Light has achieved national renown, and is a truly unique and active theater experience. Too Much Light, you see, consists of 30 plays performed in 60 minutes (they keep a clock) in the order which the audience chooses. Now through Feb. 10, the company is also performing a new, feature-length piece titled Apocalypse Neo, which presents three different views of the apocalypse.
"I think it's an important art form," Neill said of Neo-Futurism, "I think it's an important movement." The original artistic movement, Futurism, from which Neo-Futurism takes its name, flourished in Europe at the beginning of the 20th century. The original Futurists embraced speed and the new, fast pace of modern life. The speed of Too Much Light is stunning-each short play takes only a few minutes. The pace of production, as described by Neill, is equally rapid. New plays are added to the show each week, and old ones are removed. The actors decide which plays to cut after the Saturday night performance, and by Wednesday of that week, they have each written new material.
Some of the plays are funny, some are touching, and others make you think and reconsider your surroundings. But all follow the same aesthetic rules. Neill described the unifying ideas of the company as the synthesis of Futurism and other modern artistic movements into a new form of art. He said: "We take, hopefully, the good parts of the Futurist ... and throw in everything else: Surrealism, Dadaism, living newspaper, sport, poetry, dance, music, contemporary blogs. We're putting all that into a variety show of sorts that follows some pretty strict aesthetics and guidelines in order for it to maintain some kind of integrity unifying all of those things."
The actors play themselves, and they don't pretend that they are anywhere but where they are, in the theater, in front of the audience. In some plays, the line between the audience and the performers blurs, as the actors mingle in the audience, and, as in the beginning of Apocalypse Neo, members of the audience become characters in the show. However, in a strange way, through this total honesty-through admitting that the stage is there, and that the audience is watching-the theater seems to melt away. Neill agreed, saying, "Each play takes you to its own little world, and it happens to include all of us and this theater." He describes exiting the theater after a Neo-Futurist performance as "coming out of hyperspace."
Apocalypse Neo is the group's experiment in expanding their writing style to a larger form. Asked why he wanted to make a play about the end of the world, Neill responded, "I read an article about how the idea of the apocalypse has gotten so much play recently that it's the one thing that the far left and the far right are coming together on, and that scared me." The middle play in Neo is a debate about whether or not the Apocalypse will happen within our lifetimes. The two arguments are equally terrifying, and express a very real fear. In the end, it didn't seem to matter whether the answer was yes or no, although the audience got to vote with ballots provided in the programs. A poignant moment occurred when a television was wheeled onto the stage, and bowls of popcorn distributed among the audience. On the screen, we watched real-life footage of disasters and of the World Trade Center collapsing, spliced with clips from horror movies. As we self-consciously ate the popcorn, the line between fiction and reality began to blur. What was real was not clear anymore, only that we were sitting in a theater-watching.
But the Neo-Futurists will not let the audience just passively observe, as they would most plays. Instead, the audience must be actively engaged-thinking, responding, and acting in some circumstances. Not performing, but acting, making actions. It's about "what's really happening," Neill said. There's nothing artificial involved. At the start of Apocalypse Neo, in a play called Revelations of a City of Us which takes place directly after the apocalypse has happened, the actors discuss the world outside the theater. The actor/character Lauren decides to venture out and buy pizza. She actually leaves the theater, phones the other actors from the street, and returns with a few slices of pizza. Neill said the reality and the action of the Neo-Futurists "sometimes ... translates to simple things like that but other times it translates into building very complex things in a couple minutes."
But one never knows. And this is another component of their brand of performance: surprise. In reality, we don't know what to expect next. The same principle applies to Neo-Futurism, for it takes place within reality as well, albeit a distorted and significantly more fun version of it.