End of ‘Too Much Light’ brings a longtime schism in the Neos out into the open
What happens when the father of a long-running theatrical phenomenon, one dependent upon the personal writing and performances of a large extended theater family, just can’t let his baby go?
He throws it all out with the bathwater, say many of his former collaborators.
Greg Allen, the founder of the born-in-Chicago theater company known as the Neo-Futurists, announced last week he was not renewing the performing rights to “Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind” with the company, which has performed the seminal late-night show for 28 years. Allen says he now wants to make theater that is a political machine to combat President-elect Donald Trump.
The Neo-Futurists have performed the show everywhere from the Public Theater in New York to Romania. They boast past ensemble members who would write the hit musical “Urinetown” and even called Stephen Colbert an ensemble member for a single rehearsal.
Through decades of performances of “TML,” the formula remained the same: Neos blasted through up to 30 original plays by an ensemble of writer/performers in 60 minutes. Late-night audience members shouted out the number of the play they wanted to see next — all written on a paper menu. Nothing seemed to be off limits in the futurist-surrealist-Dadaesque ode to non-fiction theater.
The last performance in Chicago will play Dec. 31.
Allen told the Tribune in an interview Monday that his decision came after he flew to London after the presidential election to prep the forthcoming London production of “TML” and had a few sleepless nights.
“That’s where I came up with the idea of really rebooting the whole company for political action with the new ensemble and the new mission,” he said. “And I understand that’s been incredibly shocking and has really upset people everywhere.”
That’s an understatement.
Allen said the New York and San Francisco branches of the Neos will keep running “TML” “as they are,” although the companies have not yet had the rights renewed. But the current Chicago production is shutting down.
Allen said he’s in the early stages of planning the new Chicago production but the aesthetic will be the same, with a focus on “asking what each play is about.” He says he wants to bring “TML” to communities in Chicago where it has never played. He says he imagines “weekly benefit performances for various socially progressive groups and civil rights groups.”
What Allen’s press release didn’t mention is the sometimes-troubled 28-year history leading up to this decision, in which the Neos struggled against Allen to maintain the egalitarian collective he spearheaded.
“My whole background was, well, everyone should be equal,” said Allen, who grew up in Wilmette, referencing his studies at Oberlin College. He was in a co-op, an experience he says he transferred to the early days of the company. “That was really the crux of it, was the consensus methodology.”
“Greg is a brilliant guy,” said Phil Ridarelli, who has known Allen for over 25 years. “I think he envisioned a company that was not as democratic as what was ultimately created. I think he’s more comfortable working in autocracy, which is kind of ironic.”
“TML” officially began Dec. 2, 1988 at the former home of Stage Left Theatre at 3244 N. Clark St. Tickets were $1 multiplied by the roll of a six-sided die.
In 1989, the Tribune published an article about the one-year anniversary, noting that the production had become “a cult theater classic for several playgoers who religiously attend performances every week.” That performance’s menu included pieces about “King Lear,” abortion and the play “This is Not a Play.”
Dave Awl, who eventually became an ensemble member, worked at an Italian restaurant around the corner. Around the one-year mark, he headed to Stage Left after work.
They couldn’t fit him in to see the show. That’s when he noticed something big was happening.
As the show became more popular, the Neos split from Stage Left, which wanted its own stake in the show, and moved to Live Bait Theater. Stage Left tried its own, competing version of the show called “The Big Bang,” which had a display in the windows with little plastic baby dolls hanging from strings. Only “Too Much Light” survived long-term.
The experience prompted Allen to acquire trademarks on the show’s title, and on the phrase “30 Plays in 60 Minutes.”
“I think it made him (Allen) more guarded and possessive and set the stage for his feelings that the show really belonged to him,” said Awl.
“TML” moved to its current Neo-Futurarium home at Ashland and Foster Avenues in 1992. Allen eventually became artistic director.
“That contradiction has haunted us ever since,” Allen said about serving as artistic director in a company modeled as a collective. “That I literally have no more power than anyone else in that company other than the fact that I am the face of the company, I teach all the classes, I am the spokesperson, I am the founding director.”
Members of the Neos say the balance of power played out very differently.
“He started this company with this very egalitarian concept,” said former ensemble member Andy Bayiates. “We won’t have any leaders and we’ll have a collective and we’ll do everything together. But his actions never matched up with that vision.”
Awl organized a special edition of the show to celebrate over 100,000 audience members in Sept. 1996, and invited ensemble alums to come back and perform. They received roses and had their names announced. “And I was not politically smart enough to know I needed to be handing Greg a flower too and lighting some sort of incense to his ego,” Awl said.
Awl says Allen approached him after the show, red-faced, and said, “Is it too much to ask that I would be allowed to introduce my own show Dave? … I am the show!”
By Oct. 2001, the company decided to take action against what they felt was the non-fulfillment of Allen’s duties to drive consensus as a leader and represent the ensemble. It was a chance for the ensemble to re-balance the scales.
The board members asked ensemble members to describe individual experiences and document concerns. Allen was officially removed as artistic director in 2003.
“They responded by creating the founding director position, letting us have our own AD, and putting an artist (which was Bayiates) on the board,” said Bayiates.
“That was around the point where we were starting New York and starting more national expansion,” said Allen. “I was teaching a lot and doing residencies all over. So we literally changed my job description to world domination. And I became founding director.”
That formation of a separate New York company in Nov. 2003 took some ensemble members by surprise.
An audition notice for that Brooklyn-based company, which had not yet been formally announced to the Chicago company, was found on a computer printer. Some ensemble members had concerns that the new company could affect touring abilities and pay structure. Some also wondered why they had not been offered the opportunity to relocate. In an e-mail sent Dec. 5, 2003, Allen apologized and blamed the lack of information on unsent minutes from the last two board meetings. He encouraged any of the Chicago Neos to join the new ensemble.
“The issue with the New York company was really that the Chicago people didn’t want it to happen,” said Allen. “The board and the staff wanted it to happen but Chicago felt like, ‘We’re the only people who do this show.'” The Brooklyn branch now runs as its own separate non-profit company.
As time went on, the tense relationship between ensemble members and Allen only intensified. Former ensemble members say they worried that Allen was only promoting his own work. They were also concerned with Allen’s behavior in rehearsal.
“He always seemed to not know the lines of plays he didn’t like,” said Bayiates, a charge Allen denies.
“We didn’t have an HR department,” said former staff member Jessica Mondres. “It’s kind of the same problem a lot of smaller companies have, part of what made the Not in Our House movement.”
Not in Our House is a Chicago-lead initiative to create a code of conduct for non-Equity theaters and offer agency and security to artists otherwise afraid to speak out against those in power.
Allen was also resistant to other ensemble members teaching workshops, a potential source of income for the artists, say Kristie K. Vuocolo and Jay Torrence, author of “Burning Bluebeard.”
Vuocolo and Torrence created a teaching curriculum outside of Allen’s, Vuocolo said, “Since Greg would not share his curriculum, would not share in this ‘collective’ he created.”
“People of course wanted to have a workshop with the founder of Neo-Futurism,” said Allen. “So contractually what I had as the founding director was the right of first refusal of all workshops.”
“Every person that he really had an issue with was a strong outspoken woman,” said Genevra Gallo-Bayiates (wife of Andy Bayiates), echoing an essay posted online by a former ensemble member Megan Mercier, following Allen’s recent announcement.
“As a young woman joining the company, it seemed that foremost on almost everyone’s mind was not only teaching me how to be a member of the company, but how also to protect myself from Greg Allen,” Mercier wrote in the piece widely shared on social media. “By this point he was notorious for a litany of antics, chief among them behaviors that diminished and marginalized female members of the company going back as far as anyone in my time there could remember.”
Former ensemble member Rachel Claff said interactions with Allen were like a game of “psychological cat and mouse.”
Allen denied that charge as well. “That is not a pattern I identify with at all,” he said. “I love the outspoken women in the company.”
Ensemble members also continued to question what it meant to not have ownership of the show, despite creating the content that kept it running.
“I spent 10 years pouring my intellectual property into that company,” said former ensemble member Noelle Krimm. “Greg Allen has been profiting from it for longer — he continues to profit from my work and the work of dozens of others who have left the active ensemble.”
In Dec. 2011 came the final disagreement over a play featured in a “best of” anniversary show that lead to Allen’s suspension from the company.
A former ensemble member had produced a play about child abuse that Allen says he found libelous, “with material that was specifically attacking people I knew.” The play had already been part of “TML” earlier in the year, but Allen said he refused to perform if the play was included in the anniversary show.
Many of the Neos, though, felt the play was important to their mission and the honest aesthetic of Neo-Futurist work. The confrontation seemed a final straw.
After a process of documenting allegations against Allen, dating back from this confrontation, the ensemble reached consensus to suspend him from the company at the end of the year.
“It wasn’t something people were eager to do,” said Mondres. “It caused a lot of heartache for everyone.”
Allen concedes he can be difficult to work with.
“I’m not the easiest person to get along with and I thoroughly acknowledge that. ” Allen said. “I’ve never been about being popular. Usually I have one best friend in the ensemble and the rest of my focus is on creating a challenging, popular, experimental theater company. So in that moment I suddenly realized, oh, gee, my best friend and my other best friend are all gone.”
Allen had the option to return to the company in 2013 but never did. Former ensemble members and staff say he was rarely around the Neo-Futurarium and did not regularly attend “TML” after his suspension.
“I was really focusing on other things and I should have acknowledged that and stepped out earlier,” said Allen, who talked about “TML” being a young man’s show, having a family and spending time with other projects.
“I think he was really hurt,” said Allen’s longtime collaborator Ridarelli. “And he was building up a response.”
Allen said he regrets leaving two things out of the press release about the new “TML.” Anyone from the existing companies is welcome to join the new ensemble. He also doesn’t expect to be in a major leadership position.
“What’s very clear is that I’m a straight white guy, so I am not writing or performing in this new ensemble,” he said. “That’s not what the ensemble’s about. It’s about me kind of saying, this is what Neo-Futurism is. This is how ‘Too Much Light’ works. Go. And have me step aside so that these voices can be heard.”
Some Neos are calling his new mission disingenuous.
“I just think these issues that he’s talking about, that art is a tool for social justice, is being appropriated for a purpose that is not genuine,” said former ensemble member Chloe Johnston, who said if he’s sincere about “TML” making a difference, he should be willing to give away the rights.
In the years following Allen’s suspension, the company began to take steps to diversify. They created Neo Access, in partnership with Victory Gardens Theater, which added sign interpretation, open captioning and touch tours on top of “TML.” Acknowledging that Neo classes are a major pipeline for the company, they created a scholarship for people of color, covering tuition and materials for a Neo class.
By cutting “TML” from what is arguably the most diverse ensemble the Neos have seen, and removing a large portion of the company’s income, is Allen hurting the very “disenfranchised voices” he plans to employ in his new company? Many former ensemble members say the current ensemble is already the diverse company Allen claims he wants to create.
And then, outside of Trump and diversity, there’s the question of money.
Allen said the Neos, in negotiating the rights for “TML” for future years, were offering half of what he’d been paid before, and would have too much control over other productions. “It would put New York and San Francisco and every other future branch of ‘Too Much Light’ under its thumb.”
Kendall Karg, managing director of the company since Nov. 2014, responded in a statement: “Throughout this past year’s negotiations, Allen ignored requests to come to the table to discuss renewal of the trademark license, for which the company offered royalty rates at and above industry standards. The Neo-Futurists were not done negotiating when we received his final notice via email and subsequent press release within the same hour. Allen’s notice of non-renewal came in direct response to a joint email with our sister companies, acknowledging Chicago’s willingness to forfeit exclusivity clauses we’d enjoyed for over 28 years. … The Neo-Futurists maintain that they entered into negotiations in good faith with Allen.”
Karg said, in opposition to Allen’s statement, that the Neos had been openly willing to release rights to “TML,” and that his claims of being offered less money on the trademark license were simply untrue.
In an e-mailed statement, board president Hilary Odom said: “We’ve made changes to our company to create the safest environment possible for our staff and artists. While that ultimately means we are now facing this current transition, it also means there’s room for us to make something new and forge ahead.”
“We still have our building and our regular late night schedule and plan to fill it with Neo-Futurist programming,” said Karg. “We’ll still be here every Friday and Saturday and Sunday.”
And additional performances will be added over the coming weeks.
On the first performance of “Too Much Light” following the closing announcement, fans lined up around the block. Krimm was there with other alums. “The energy in the room was electric. Standing ovation at the beginning and the end.”
The company’s ongoing crowdfunding campaign raised a noteworthy $6,000 over the weekend and has surpassed $33,000.
“I talked to someone who said that they were really distraught when the funeral home below us was gone,” said current artistic director Kurt Chiang, who found out about the cancellation on his birthday. “And now we’re above a clinical testing facility. It was really sad that that went. But then after six months or so they were like, oh, I guess it’s still the Neo-Futurists. They’re just above a clinical testing facility.”
And even without “Too Much Light,” the Neos will still be the Neos.
On Dec. 31 at the Neo-Futurarium the final audience member will shout out the final number deciding the final play to be performed in the final 60-minute race against time. And on New Year’s day, The Neo-Futurists will still be there, ready for the next roll of the dice.