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Lights Out on Too Much Light

At the end of 2016, the year of utmost fuckery, one of Chicago’s longest running shows will close.

Why? Hmm… it seems the jury’s still out on this one.

The show is called Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind, and it’s produced by the Neo-Futurists, a Chicago-based experimental theatre company that was formed in the winter of 1988 by Greg Allen and an ensemble of eight writers and performers. The Neos started because of Too Much Light, but over the years expanded and created new forms and productions, all as exciting and centered around the unique voices of their ensemble.

The Neos are a wonderful group of boundary pushing theatre artists and you can learn more about them here.

But let’s fast forward a bit. Nearly 30 years later, Too Much Light is running strong in Chicago, New York, San Fransisco, and London. If you don’t know, the show’s central premise revolves around performing “30 plays in 60 minutes, plus the delivery of a pizza if the house was sold out.” The plays, or playlets, deal with every topic you can think of, from the deepest heartbreak to the silliest bits. It’s a topically wild ride, and also some of the most quietly profound theatre I have seen.

And now Too Much Light is no more. Er – at least, just in Chicago, I guess?

The news broke when Greg Allen released a statement independent from the Neo-Futurists that said he would no longer allow the company the rights to produce his show, but just the Chicago company. He wrote that the election has spurred him into action and that he desired to re-create this vehicle for activist purposes. His most specific point involved creating an ensemble of “people of color, LBTQ+, artist/activist women, and other disenfranchised voices.”

Here’s an excerpt:

“I could no longer stand by and let my most effective artistic vehicle be anything but a machine to fight Fascism. I was searching for an artistic response to the firestorm to come and realized I had to put my strongest artistic foot forward to combat the Trump administration and all of its cohorts.” – Greg Allen, in his statement regarding why he was withdrawing the rights for Too Much Light

Aside from the irony that Italian Futurism was originally a movement aligned with Fascism…

All of that is good, right? Art as activism, creating diverse ensembles… all good things right?

Right…

 

 

But that’s not the whole story.

Because the Neo-Futurists are already a company concerned with engaging in politically charged art and elevating the voices of their many women and LBGTQ+ identifying ensemble members. Allen’s statement didn’t seem to match up with a statement from current Neos Artistic Director Kurt Chiang, who cited “considerable artistic differences and irreconcilable personal conflicts” as a factor in this decision. The more I looked into it, the shadier it seemed. It turns out Allen was voted out of the company in 2011, because of some problematic behavior, including behavior that made female ensemble members feel unsafe or even targeted. Former Artistic Director Megan Mercier posted a statement of her own on her personal blog that address, in so many words, her chief issues with Allen. The full text, well worth the quick read, can be found here.

“The Neo-Futurists are still my closest friends, and every time I go back to Chicago to see their work it never ceases to surprise me. Still bold, diverse, risky, and – without question – highly political. For Greg to question the integrity of the current ensemble’s work suggests to me that it’s been awhile since he’s seen it.” – Megan Mercier

This summer I made friends with many of the Neos while working at a coffee shop down the street from their theatre space. Kurt regularly hung out at our shop, and some of my co-workers performed in different shows at the Neo-Futurarium. They are excellent people, constantly questioning and challenging their own place in the world. The Neo-Futurists will no doubt rise above this conflict and go on to create more provocative work.

But this makes me think a lot about ownership. After all, Too Much Light has seeped itself so deeply into the fabric of the Chicago theatre, of the American theatre, even, that it feels wrong for one man to claim ownership. It feels even more wrong that this is one white cisgendered male claiming ownership, even though he claims to have only the best intentions.

This will change the landscape of Chicago theatre, and I am intrigued to see what Allen has up his sleeve and whether or not he follows through on his promises to reboot TML. No matter what, I know the Neos will survive. 2016 was a mess, but I am somehow still hopeful for 2017.

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