For the month of JANUARY
A Theasy Interview with Rob Neill
Managing Director of the NY Neo-Futurists
The Neo-Futurists are one of downtown Manhattan's favorite theatrical institutions. A destination for locals and tourists alike (although let's be honest, mostly locals) the Neos grab theatre by its pretentious balls and tug ever so gently. It's not that they dislike traditional theatre, but their work is a unique, sort of a stripped-down, personal approach to storytelling. Their signature show, Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind, plays every Friday and Saturday at 10:30pm at the Kraine Theatre on East 4th Street. The show has been running consistently in New York since 2004. Most downtown theatre lacks staying power past a month, let alone five years, so this is quite a feat. But the Neos are on to something fantastic, something that makes Too Much Light a new experience every time you see it, keeping the show fluid and ever-evolving.
See, the ensemble attempts to perform 30 original plays in 60 seconds. Some are funny, some are serious, some are intellectual, some are just silly, and all are personal and written by the ensemble themselves. Each week, a handful of plays are subbed out and replaced with new ones. Thus, the show is constantly changing. As the Neos say: "If you’ve seen the show once, you’ve seen the show once." Kind of an ingenious strategy, no? I spoke with the company’s Managing Director, Rob Neill, to learn more about the Neo-Futurists.
Rob Neill is sort of a New York Neo-Futurist expert. He is not only a writer, a performer, a managing director and one of the founding members of the New York Neo-Futurists, but he has also been with Neos for several years, first performing with the Chicago company on tour in New York in 1995. Cue pertinent back story: the Neo-Futurists started performing Too Much Light in Chicago in 1988 where they still have an active company today. The New York company was officially formed in 2004. The groups operate independently of one another, although they essentially do the same thing. Both present Too Much Light on a weekly basis.
Founded by Greg Allen, the Neos strive to present theatre in the style of Allen’s own Neo-Futurism. According to Neill, Allen started the company because he saw "a lot of fakeness [in theatre], a lot of pretension. He came up with this style where you cut that out. You take out all that crap. You stop acting and you start being."
Neo-Futurism essentially erases the pretending. Neill explains the basics, that the goal is to communicate "3 simple things: you are who you are, you are where you are and you're doing what you're doing." From Allen himself: “The bottom line is that Neo-Futurism does not buy into ‘the suspension of disbelief’ – it does not attempt to take the audience anywhere else at any other time with any other people. The idea is to deal with what is going on right here and now."
With an ensemble of 17 (7 perform in the show each week), you can imagine the disparity between the plays and the performers themselves. That is another reason the show feels fresh week to week. Neill appreciates the serial effect of Too Much Light, in the sense that you can follow-up with the performers and what's going on in their lives, since the plays they write are uniquely based on their personal experiences. "It’s constantly changing, Neill explains. "Not only the work and the people but the people in it are constantly changing and that influences the work."
Aside from Too Much Light, the Neo-Futurists have also created several full-length productions in the past few years. (Not) Just A Day Like Any Other premiered at The Red Room in Fall 2008, and Like A Dog in Space premiered at The Ontological in Fall 2009. Next up is The Soup Show which will open in March 2010, location TBD. The Neos hope to soon have a full-length production premiere in the spring and the fall each year, along with their weekend performances of Too Much Light. All of the Neos’ productions are original work from within the company. Neill confirmed: "Every one of those projects is a collaboration.” In addition, the Neos occasionally take their shows on the road, and they also offer workshops at their theatre here in New York. I forgot to ask Neill when he sleeps.
As the company grows, new challenges present themselves, particularly in terms of marketing and audience development. With several new off-off-Broadway shows opening all the time, Neill acknowledges the competition. "We know we have to claw for recognition and create that kind of kick-ass spectacle we know Too Much Light can be.” He admits, "There are lots of things to do in New York, right?" But Neill is a big fan of the show (it’s the reason he got involved in the company to begin with) and his modesty isn’t hindered by his genuine enthusiasm. When asked how he would rate Too Much Light’s level of entertainment on a 1-10 scale, he was quick to remark “at least a 9.7 and there are times it just blows a 10 away.”
The Neos have a good thing going on, a solid fan base to support them, and have always been recession priced at a mere $16 a pop (potentially cheaper if you buy your tickets at the theatre). And I forgot to mention, if a performance of Too Much Light sells out, they buy the audience pizza – if that’s not incentive to bring your friends, I’m not sure what is. The Neos also have critical support all over town. They are one of nytheatre.com’s 2009 People of the Year, they won the 2009 Village Voice Readers’ Choice Award for performance art, and they were recognized by the NY Innovative Theatre Awards for (Not) Just A Day Like Any Other.
Theasy has always been a fan of Too Much Light, in fact it was one of the first shows we reviewed (read here). See what all the fuss is about at The Kraine Theatre, 85 East 4th Street, at 10:30pm Friday and Saturday nights. For more information, visit the Neo-Futurist website at nyneofuturists.org.
Too Much Light is an ensemble show and there’s no reason this interview shouldn’t reflect that sentiment. I asked a few Neos what being a Neo-Futurist means to them. You can find their answers below.
Jacquelyn (joined the company in 2005)
"To be a Neo-Futurist is to embrace what is basically a compulsive obsession with the truth: we don't play characters, we talk directly to the audience and speak to what is happening in front of us, we strive to reflect changes in our lives, in our perspective, and in the community/world around us as those changes occur, and the Neo-Futurist aesthetic challenges us to constantly problem-solve how to portray the truth in a way that is compelling, funny, poignant, absurd, provocative, and intimate. Writing and performing diligently in an ensemble with this mindset is the best creative boot-camp any artist could ask for. Being a Neo has absolutely influenced the way I look at life in general, and especially the way I see theater—I find myself constantly thinking, 'What is the fastest, most efficient way we can get to the truth here?'"
Borg (joined the company in 2006)
"I had seen Too Much Light about 10 years prior at HERE when a group of Chicagoans had toured the show to New York. I fell in love with the show and remember thinking "I would love to do something like that." Then, about 2 years after the New York Neo-Futurists were formed and performing I was assigned to judge the show for the New York Innovative Theatre Awards. I fell back in love with the show and the company and auditioned."
It is VERY satisfying for me - as a creative artist who likes ensemble work - to be in the NYNF collective. The nature of what we do constantly requires you to create new work, so its like an art drug being fed perpetually into your veins. Just as addictive - but slightly less unhealthy. Working with this diverse group of brilliant creative minds is a challenge and a gift. I love it.
Joey (joined the company in 2005)
"We create art that is honest, fast, immediate, cheap, transient, random, and challenging in an effort to change theater itself."