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Seventeen Thoughts (in Random Order) about Neo-Futurism and Experimental Theatre

Essay by

8. Let’s make a list. Let’s tell story. Let’s really do something, together, in a theatre, and layer some video over it; yes, we have video, and maybe some sound, sounds, how about that song you’re thinking about right now? Or maybe now? Go ahead and play that song. Go ahead. We... will... wait.

1. Sometimes you embrace the chaos, the randomness.
         Sometimes you revel in it, hide in it, and [exhale]

12. Neo-Futurist writing/directing: Let’s say you want to create something that is environmental, experiential, embracing, and abstract—­­it is personal, metaphorical, and mostly scripted even though it is made up of basically just conversations and stories enhanced by live projection, LED light, costume and sound design. Where do you start? Does it ever end?

7a. In New York, Chicago, and San Francisco every weekend, we, as Neo-Futurists, are incubating new work and challenging our voices, challenging the Neo-Futurist aesthetic, challenging each other. We attempt to strengthen the human bond between performer and audience, embracing a form of non-­illusory theatre in order to present our lives and ideas as directly as possible, contradicting the expected and embracing the moment through audience interaction. That’s what we do in The Infinite Wrench, that is what we did in Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind. I feel that our latest show, Wind-­Up Variations, does that too, but it has been an extended process—incubating for over a decade, built out of elements from The Infinite Wrench and Too Much Light, plus facets of other shows and concepts I was experimenting with at the Ontological, P.S. 122, and the Kraine Theater.

four actors smiling in costume
Eevin Hartsough, Ayun Halliday, Daniel Mirsky, and T Thompson in Wind-Up Variations. Photo by Anthony Dean.

15. I like expressing feeling through sounds [popopopop] rather than everyday words sometimes [ooooufff] I like awkward transitions and how performers organically discover ways to move through space I like putting music or environmental soundscapes around/over/under/inside what is happening I like the power of simultaneity and when things get really big and fast and wild and just stop and take a breath I like bodies moving to joyous songs and people singing along to songs they have never heard before I am a Neo-Futurist and I like all that and I also like to slow theatre down at times just for a bit. Go ahead and breathe… [ffffaaah]

4. As Neo-Futurists we attempt to create theatre that embraces four main tenets:

  • You are who you are
  • You are where you are
  • You are doing what you’re doing
  • The time is now

7b. In the process of creating Wind­-Up Variations, I was excited to have a cast of Neos from several generations of Neo-Futurism: Ayun Halliday from the initial Neo foray into NYC in the mid '90s, Eevin Hartsough from the early years of the current company, active ensemble member Daniel Mirsky who has been a Neo-Futurist for the last four years, and T. Thompson, who just joined the company last year. They all brought amazingly varied stories and approaches to the aesthetic and to the work, calling on an array of skills in music, projections, DIY crafting, and puppetry.

Everyone on the project had vastly different schedules that we had to coordinate, which brings us to time [wooooffffaahh]. Let’s tangent for a moment on time. At this level of making theatre everyone has so many aspects of their lives that can pull focus away from the project. This informs the work, sure, which can be a good thing. But the reality is a Neo-Futurist, like you, may have a new day job, a sick neighbor, a hate-­hate relationship with the F train that makes getting to rehearsals more difficult than anticipated. It is a huge challenge to coordinate the time we can all be together and what can be done, crafted, learned. There are times in the process where we have to take a leap of faith that all is going to get done or else just be okay with not everything being part of the show.

As Neo-Futurists we attempt to create theatre that embraces four main tenets: (1) you are who you are, (2) you are where you are, (3) you are doing what you’re doing, and (4) the time is now.

seven actors sit in a line, making a face
Meg Bashwiner, Krys Seli, Rob Neil, Katy-May Hudson, Rayne Harris, Katharine Heller, and Mike Puckett in The Infinite Wrench. Photo by Charlotte Arnoux.

11. Devised theatre: Is that something you want? You personally? Is it something that is a good thing? Maybe devised work is not something you like. There are certainly parts of what the Neo-Futurists create that are devised—developed from collaboration—and parts where we just go for it. We turn lists into songs and stories into dialogues and tiny wind­-ups into warriors. There is lots of creating from personal experience, bringing our individual expertise into the mix, mashing words and sounds together, and embracing all types of collaborative creative input.

9. Some theatre does not ask much more of you than to buy a ticket and stay awake while you sit in the dark in a seat—you sit there and it all happens right in front of you; you don’t have to ask questions, you don’t have to engage much or at all. This is not the kind of theatre that Neo-Futurists are looking to make. I like to attend and create theatre where you have to lean in and look at it, figure things out, wonder why, and be fine with not knowing the answer at times­­. This is the kind of theatre that activates you not only in the space itself but afterwards too: you ask questions, you do things, you feel things. I like the idea of contagious theatre, essential theatre, theatre that embraces and confounds. We want Neo-Futurist theatre to be this—to be captivating, activating, and inspiring—but it is not what everyone is looking for, we know.

17. Budgeting out of a poor theatre aesthetic: Much of what we do starts with exploring what we can create by simply standing in a space, telling stories, talking about what is affecting us. We then often go to: “hey, let’s use cardboard for signs or puppets, handheld cliplights for illumination, a simple 15 dollar megaphone for amplification. Set… what set?” If we need something akin to a set, we assemble those elements as the show happens, in real time.

Now: where does the text fit, where does the movement fit, how much can you layer, when do you let the performers run and when do you pull them back, what happens when you add projections, moving lights, and live sound looping, where do the performers fit in, where do the words fit in, are the designers working in concert, where is the time to do all this in the space?

3. Memory is a tricky thing. I worry about what I am missing, what I am not able to recall. Making lists helps me remember. (See 13 & 14.)

7c. With Wind-Up Variations, once we had the cast and the show was funded, I continued to expand the script. Meeting with the cast and giving them prompts for dialogue, mining for words and stories from their actual lives, their actual interests and opinions. We talked and wrote about fears and dreams, safe places, destruction, places to go, what you could put in a bucket. I worked on the narrative story of the wind­-up’s journey across the stage and we created scenes, dances, and songs. Like the wind­-ups, each performer had to discover their journey through the show and the space, as once the show starts, none of the artists really leave the space; they are constantly engaged, supporting the story, staying active, even holding lights, mics, and umbrellas at various points.

In the end it is about creating new rituals in the theatre, rituals that are at times even church­like in their form, that ­build a community in a room of potential strangers.

13. My great grandmother had Alzheimer’s. She lived a long time with it and it was overwhelming and sad, yet fascinating to see how memory works and doesn’t work, to discover what would spark a smile out of the darkness that was her blank stare; how specific old memories were crisp and easier to recall, whereas the recent past was quickly forgotten. I find it intriguing how the little things and random objects we hang onto have meaning and anchor our memories.

10. Searching for community out of chaos: What is your community? What would happen to your community after tragedy? The world has changed since you started reading this—­­it will always be changing. Sometimes it won’t be the best for us. What will happen to those who remain? Where will they find their strength? Will it be in a newer community? In isolation? What will survive? What will it take to survive? Maybe you don’t want to think about this. In creating Wind—Up Variations, we thought about this.

14. Community
Looking forward
Looking backward
Lost names
Remember that time
Unicorn power
Wind it up

three performers in costume
Eevin Hartsough, Daniel Mirsky, and Ayun Halliday in Wind-Up Variations. Photo by Anthony Dean.

5. The shows are always shifting. We wrestle in the Neo-Futurism, the storytelling, the minimal design, and the inherent chaos in what we are attempting each performance. But in the end it is about creating new rituals in the theatre, rituals that are at times even church­like in their form, that ­build a community in a room of potential strangers. We do not know who will buy tickets for any one night, but each audience will have an opportunity to hear new stories, discover new rituals, and meet someone new perhaps during a spontaneous moment over toasted cookies. I like our chances if that succeeds.

16. Let where you come from, whatever that means to you, affect what you create. Place is essential to the stories we all tell. This is where I am from: Ripon, WI.

6. The show is scripted yet changes every night: You add an audience. You engage that audience. You never know what they are going to do­­—if or how they will respond. It is not entirely different every night—­­it is not all improvised—yet there are elements that mean you never know what will happen.

Technically that’s the way every show is, but not all companies embrace that. In Neo-Futurist shows there is not the typical theatrical contract between the audience and the performers, and with that there are opportunities and challenges. Foremost it is impossible to fully rehearse our shows, so the first time we have an audience is the first time we really run it. Not ideal and a real test for performers and tech. But it keeps everyone on their toes: staff, performers, and those in the audience. That can be a nerve­-racking prospect for sure, but the discoveries and connections are theatrically fertile.

2. What is the familiar? Is this familiar? Perhaps it is for you, perhaps it is not, but it feels like home to me.

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I like this very much. I'm curious though why the term neo-futurist. The original futurists were all about embracing modernity, industrial capitalism, and accelerated sociality. That doesn't seem to be what you are about; in fact, you seem almost kind of the opposite. Lastly, most of the futurists later turned into fascists, which at least from my perspective was inscribed in the tenets of futurism from the beginning. It seems an odd tradition to invoke.

Thanks, Eric. Sorry it has taken a bit; I have been on the road. I have been actively working with the Neos since 1995, but much of what neo-futurism is, developed before I joined the company. The inaugural Neo-Futurist production, in Chicago in the late 80s, was conceived and directed by an ensemble lead by Greg Allen. The show, 'Too Much Light Makes The Baby Go Blind', was written and performed by an the ensemble and billed as an ever-changing attempt to perform 30 Plays in 60 Minutes. This and subsequent Neo-Futurist theater ultimately developed from an amalgam of different influences. From our namesakes, the Italian Futurists, came the exultation of speed, brevity, compression, dynamism, and the explosion of preconceived notions. From Dada and Surrealism came the joy of randomness and the thrill of the unconscious. From the theatrical experiments of the 1960’s came audience interaction, breaking down all notions of distance, character, setting, and illusion. Finally, from the political turmoil of the 1980’s came a socially conscious voice and a low-tech, “poor theater” format. As far as fascism and some of the other repugnant tenants of the original futurists, those are certainly not the bent of the any of the Neo-Futurist ensembles. The neo-futurist aesthetic, is what we experimented in to create 'Wind-Up Variations' earlier this year and continue to delve into for our ever-changing weekly late night show, 'The Infinite Wrench', in addition to what is embraced by several companies of Neo-Futurists, including New York (since 2004), San Francisco’s (since 2013), and Chicago’s (since 1988). There is even a newer neo-futurist startup in London called the Degenerate Foxes.

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