Neo-Futurism is a movement of theatre that is based on the tenets of speed, brevity, honesty, and utter quirkiness. Last Monday evening, the New York Neo-Futurists performed a show in Flanagan Theatre composed of 30 short plays in 60 minutes entitled “Too Much Light Makes The Baby Go Blind.”
The show combined improvisation and spontaneity with rehearsed plays. Before being seated, audience members were given a “menu” with a list of 30 numbered titles of the 30 short plays that would be performed.
At the start of the show, a 60-minute timer was set, and the first play began right away. At the end of each play, a troupe member would immediately call “Curtain!” and audience members would then call out the number of the next play they wanted to see.
The troupe would pick the number they heard loudest or repeated most, set up for that play, and then begin as quickly as possible. This gave the show a fun, crazy feeling of chaos and unpredictability, and the ever-ticking timer created the motivating, lurking possibility of failure. In fact, the troupe did not get through all thirty plays, but were allowed through a silly loophole to perform the last one, which pleased the audience.
All of the short plays worked in interesting, creative ways with the rules of Neo-Futurism—that the actors are who they are, where they are, at this exact point in time.
“In improv, you have to be confident in your ability to think on your feet, you have to be comfortable with who you are because things are always changing. That’s the big challenge, and improv troupes are really special in that regard,” said Justin Thomas, Theater.
Thomas felt that the New York Neo-Futurists were able to demonstrate a lot of important skills and ideas to the aspiring theater and dance students at Grinnell.
“The Neo-Futurists combine that improv with rehearsed plays, and I have never seen a performance troupe that exudes that level of confidence with who they are and what they do,” Thomas said. “I think it’s important for our students to see that.”
Often, Thomas observes that students are afraid to fail.
“What the Neo-Futurists do so well is they exhibit the confidence that, even if something goes wrong, they still have great material and they are amazing performers,” he said.
Many of the plays involved masks or puppets, which was a tricky way for the actor to remain who they were, while still portraying another character. These masked plays included the hilarious “Meryl Streep Will Drink Your Blood Now,” in which the five actors danced around to an Asian pop song while wearing disconcertingly large, cartoonish Meryl Streep print-out masks and carrying daggers and wine glasses filled with fake blood. This play was inexplicably comedic—it was something that needed to be experienced.
“A lot of the show was just the actors intentionally making people uncomfortable, but I think that’s the point of theatre sometimes,” said Kirsten Nelson ’15.
While “Too Much Light Makes The Baby Go Blind” was entertaining, comedic, impressionable and creative, its weakness was in its serious, commentative plays. They did not have the same flawlessness in their construction as the comedic and absurd plays, and there was a large gap between their intended effects on the audience versus the actual presentation of the plays.
Most were politically driven, but it was sometimes difficult to determine the plays’ intended messages. And, if they were not too subtle, then they were too heavy-handed, spoon-feeding the message to the audience with none of the creative delivery methods of other less serious plays.
“Debating America’s Food Problem with Randy Newman Lyrics” was more or less a vehicle for the troupe to deliver a list of statistics about the obesity problem and lack of healthy, affordable food in America, while comically demonstrating how the lyrics of Randy Newman’s “Sail Away” do not accurately portray the true American lifestyle.
One of the troupe’s most skilled accomplishments was maintaining Flanagan Theatre as the setting of all the plays, while often still conveying the idea of another place and time. In “Mondays with Mohammed,” troupe member Cecil Baldwin spoke about his thoughts on culture clash and his experiences with a fellow employee at the restaurant he works at in New York.
Although he was clearly in Flanagan theatre while talking to the audience, he spent the duration of the play sweeping the floor of the theatre, giving the audience the visual of him performing his job in New York.
Neo-Futurism puts a strong emphasis on non-illusory performance and the idea that if an actor says something on-stage, the audience can take it as fact. While Cecil Baldwin does not necessarily sweep floors at a restaurant in New York with a man named Mohammed, that, and the material in all the other plays, was realistic and plausible enough to be true.
The Career Development Office and Alumni Office worked together to organize and fund the New York Neo-Futurists coming to perform at Grinnell. The Neo-Futurists’ managing director, Rob Neil, is actually a graduate of the class of 1991 and had for a long while expressed interest in bringing the troupe to Grinnell.
While they were here, the Neo-Futurists also facilitated workshops with theatre and dance classes about neo-creativity, generating material, writing and movement, as well as Q&A sessions about what it means and what it takes to become a professional performer and how the actors got to where they are now.
“It’s a part of live theater, mistakes happen. [The Neo-Futurists] are going to move on and they are going to be brilliant; their shows are going to be funny, poignant and serious. They combine a little of everything,” Thomas said.
The Theatre and Dance department is excited to have made this alumni connection and are hoping to work with the New York Neo-Futurists again.
“I loved the show so much that I want to talk to the Theatre and Dance department about bringing the New York Neo-Futurists back to do a short course sometime in the future,” Thomas said. “I think they generate so much material and, in terms of how to write and be confident as a performer, I think they would be brilliant for a short course.”