Two summers ago Greg Allen started drinking. He'd made it to 40 without having much more than the occasional beer at a party, but now he caroused regularly with a new group of friends, all in their 20s. Walking from a bar to a party he'd yell out, "Midlife crisis!" "They were all very amused," he says. But Allen was only half joking.
To Allen, who's never smoked or had so much as a sip of coffee, downing a couple of bourbon and ginger ales during a night out was a serious loss of control. The drinking didn't last long, but the crisis continued. When he was served with divorce papers in April 2002, Allen, founder of fringe theater institution the Neo-Futurists, was still appearing regularly in the troupe's long-running show Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind, where the actors write short, highly personal plays about current events or their own lives. Two of his titles at the time were My Life, My Wife, My Ice Cube, in which he attempted, unsuccessfully, to melt an ice cube with a blowtorch, and Bartleby, the Shithead, in which he undertook just about anything—including dunking his head in a bucket of water—to make another cast member happy, to no avail.
Later that year Allen stopped performing with the ensemble. "I kind of went on sabbatical," he says. He stayed offstage for almost three years. He hadn't planned to be away so long, but the divorce dragged on, and he had his kids, Noah and Simone, to take care of.
The divorce was finalized this past fall, and earlier this month Allen returned to Too Much Light as a regular with a new play called My Family in 2-D, in which paper figures of a man, a woman, and two children are bent, stapled, taped together, and torn from each other. It ends with the figures of the children being passed between the man and woman, getting a little more crumpled each time.
While he was away Allen produced more work than ever before, which is saying something. Though most of the more than 500 plays he estimates he's written and performed clock in at two minutes or less, he's one of the most prolific playwright-director-actor-producers in theater. Last year he opened eight shows in nine months, including Evidence, a full-length play inspired by his divorce, at the Chicago troupe's home in Andersonville, the Neo-Futurarium, and a Brooklyn run of Too Much Light with the first new Neo-Futurist ensemble since 1988. Allen's kept up a hectic pace this year as well, opening two productions at the Neo-Futurarium and one at the Humana Festival of New American Plays in Louisville, teaching both here and out of town, and fund-raising for the company. He's also been negotiating with theaters in Cleveland, Boston, and Seattle about opening new Neo-Futurist franchises.
Before Allen introduced Too Much Light at Stage Left Theatre on December 2, 1988, he bragged about it to an actor and coworker at Powell's bookstore, where he was a clerk at the time. He said, "I'm creating a show which will run forever." The friend replied, "Greg, no show runs forever." But next year Too Much Light will become the longest-running production in Chicago theater history—and one of the biggest anomalies in show business anywhere. It changes with every performance, yet it's changed little since opening night. It's always made up of 30 plays performed in 60 minutes. Audience members still get a name and name tag at the door. The price of admission is always determined by the roll of a die. The audience, then as now, consists mostly of people in their 20s.
Now 43, Allen was 26 when the show began, and he's been playing with time since he started. In one piece, called A Fissure in the Fabric of Time, he'd stop the clock and roll it forward or backward depending on the show's momentum. But he's found that time is also playing with him. "It's so weird to be doing the same thing, basically, in the show for 16 years," he says. "You sort of get stuck in a time warp to a certain degree. 'Cause I still feel like I'm 26 when I'm doing the show, but I realize that people are looking at me like I'm some old bald guy with kids. Sadly, I'm usually the oldest person in the room."
Allen grew up in Wilmette, an oddball in the promised land. At New Trier East in the late 70s, he was a misfit even among the other misfits. "You fit into the jocks or the brains or the burnouts, or you were just a nonentity," he says. "I was just a social outcast."
In A Small Effort, a 1999 play Allen wrote and performed about this part of his life, a boy stands on the railroad tracks waiting for a train to come along and kill him. As the train approaches, its whistle blowing, he fears "he would not be done away with but instead would suffer horrible injuries which would maim him for life." The boy steps off the tracks, grows up, and ends up on a stage looking out at an audience. "He wanted to somehow tell them that everything one day will be better," Allen's play continued. "He wanted to somehow let them know that things change and it's OK to feel different, and there is love in the world for them."
At New Trier he took refuge in the darkroom, then moved to making Super-8 films. "The North Shore way of life is very repressive," he says. "It's very 'No emotions here. We're all rich and happy; you must be happy.'"
Maybe he was crying with a loaf of bread under each arm, but Allen got happy almost as soon as he left. On the night before he started his freshman year at Oberlin, he noticed a girl sitting in the lobby of the hotel where he was staying. He saw her again in his dorm the next day; two days later they were a couple. "Literally the first girl I set my eyes on at Oberlin wound up being my girlfriend, my first girlfriend and my second kiss ever," he says. "I said, Oberlin is full of misfits and outcasts, and everyone here is like me; I'm going to be totally happy here. And I just declared that, and was."
Allen had some theater in his background—and that's where it stayed until his sophomore year. His parents had met while acting in a community theater production of You Can't Take It With You and took their sons to see theater regularly. But Allen's only memory of a play he saw as a child is of a grade school adaptation of Ray Bradbury's novel Dandelion Wine. "I was in third grade, fourth grade," he says, "and I wanted to make sure I was the last person applauding. I just loved it so much, so I kept clapping when the show was over, and then we had to stand up and get in line, I just kept clapping. We went out in the hall, and I kept clapping all the way down the hall."
Allen had read plays in high school—mainly because he was a slow reader and plays were short. He'd started with Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and from there moved on to other plays by Albee as well as Beckett and Pinter. But he didn't consider performing in them. "I thought, this stuff's crazy—you couldn't really do it on a stage," he says.
At Oberlin Allen finally took an acting class, mostly as a way to meet girls. When he and Blair Thomas, who'd go on to found Redmoon Theater, took another class on futurism, dadaism, and surrealism, both were knocked out. Thomas directed Allen's first play, called Angst, about a man and woman clinging to each other in the final moments before the atomic bomb is dropped. "It was god-awful," Thomas recalls. They became fast friends.
After a junior-year term in London during which he saw 60 plays in six months, Allen returned to Oberlin thinking he might want to try a career in theater. But when he graduated with a degree in English, he moved to Boston, not exactly a theatrical hotbed. He worked as a telemarketer—for a theater—and at the Boston Public Library, where he sorted old books for recycling into toilet paper.
Allen didn't stay long at either of these jobs, and in 1984 he went back to Oberlin for three months, during which he performed Italian futurist plays with his new girlfriend, actor Kate Goehring, and Thomas at a co-op where the admission price was determined by the roll of a die. "There was an Italian futurist play called There Is No Dog. And it was just an empty stage. That's the play," Goehring recalls. "They went over so well we did them again the next day, outside," says Allen.
On the same visit to Oberlin he volunteered to codirect a school production of Tartuffe, in which he also played a bit part that turned out to be fateful. Allen was to come on at the end of the show and make a short speech announcing Tartuffe's pardon by the king. There were 500 people watching, Thomas among them. He's never forgotten it. "That was one of the most amazing moments of truth on the stage in a performance I've ever seen," he recalls. "There's a huge tumult of characters and chaos going on, and all of a sudden the focus shifts to Greg as he's made his grand entrance from the top to the center of the stage. And they turn to him, they look at him, and he goes blank. The look on his face was just of absolute horror."
Allen has never forgotten that performance either. "I walked off the stage after that and said, 'I am never going to set foot on stage again.'. . . That's partially what inspired Neo-Futurism. I couldn't deal with this anxiety of having to, of knowing what I was supposed to say, what character I was supposed to be, and come out on cue and do it."
After waiting tables back in Boston for a year, Allen returned to school, this time to the National Theater Institute at the Eugene O'Neill Center in Waterford, Connecticut, where he took an intensive 14-week training course in writing, acting, and directing. His stage fright subsided, and he decided to give theater another shot. In the mid-80s, there was little question which American city was the best place to start. So Allen came home.
Too Much Light grew out of a performance development class Allen took at the Organic Theater in 1986. Frustrated by trying to write the great American play, he gave himself an assignment: take one sheet of paper and write three scenarios on it every day. When a staged reading of some of these was well received by his classmates, he combined his new exercise with concepts from Italian futurism and other avant-garde movements. The result was a kind of an antitheatrical theater, its object, he wrote later in a workshop handout, to create "a world in the theater which has no pretense or illusion." The rules were simple: "You are who you are. Your name is your name. Your age is your age. You are where you are. You are doing what you are doing. The time is now. . . . 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."
Over the next year and a half Allen worked at both the Organic and at Wisdom Bridge, where he was an assistant casting director. At the same time he plotted his own show, a live theater piece featuring audience participation and "alternative" trappings (some might say gimmicks) such as the roll of the die and the name tags, all with the goal of attracting a young audience that went anywhere but to live theater.
"The vibrancy of rock clubs was something that theater didn't have at all," says Thomas, who also worked at the Organic then. But performance art, and some of the shows that came into town for the International Theater Festival, did. "Both Greg and I were really inspired by that kind of stuff," Thomas says. "I think [Chicago] was ripe for a development of an underground. It needed to have this sort of unwieldy garden growing out back, which sprouted stuff like the Neo-Futurists, Redmoon, Theater Oobleck."
At a Pirandello play Allen presented at a gallery in Evanston, the audience consisted of a few of his friends and ten nonagenarians nodding off on folding chairs. "I said, I'm tired of doing theater for my friends," he says. "I want to create a show which will run as long as it can and be ever changing and have an audience that comes back, and all the elements of it will sound alternative and appeal to people who don't like theater."
In December 1988 Allen got an offer to put on a show at Stage Left Theatre. At Thomas's suggestion he proposed a starting time of 11:15 every Saturday night. He gathered together six friends and acquaintances, made a deal with the theater to split 3 percent of the door among the players, and called the gig Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind.
Six months after the show opened it sold out for the first time, and by the end of 1989 lines down the street were common. In 1990, Too Much Light moved to Live Bait, a larger theater where it continued to sell out. In June that year a teenage gang member on a Sting-Ray bicycle shot Allen in the leg with a bullet meant for a member of a rival gang. Allen performed that night with an oversize bandage on his knee. The stray bullet led to a love affair between Allen and Miriam Whiteley, the medical student who treated him in the hospital. They married in 1992, the same year the show moved to the Neo-Futurarium.
From the time he first came up with the concept, practically everything, no matter how painful, that's happened in Allen's life has been turned into a play. One of his most personal pieces, My Father, the Chair, details his relationship with his father after he'd had a stroke. "It was one of those things where I couldn't even invite my mom," Allen says. "It would just be too devastating." His father died in 1995, shortly after seeing his son's firstborn.
Cheap to produce and popular, Too Much Light has always seemed like a natural export. But while the ensemble has played New York, Edinburgh, and Transylvania, among other places, the show's remained largely a local phenomenon—in part because Allen hasn't wanted to let go. "It's always a dilemma, because it's my baby," he says. "How much do I let go of the rights and let other people do the show?" In 2003 he and the Neo-Futurists' board came to an agreement: it was time for Allen to hit the road. His title changed from artistic director to founding director, and he was enlisted as a traveling promoter for the ensemble.
Back in the 90s a group of Chicago Neo-Futurists moved to New York and had a successful two-year run before breaking up. A couple of the cast members moved on to fame and relative fortune: Greg Kotis, who cowrote the hit Broadway musical Urinetown, and his wife, Ayun Halliday (profiled earlier this month in the Reader), who's published three memoirs. Because of these connections New York seemed a natural destination, and so the first new Too Much Light ensemble debuted in Brooklyn last April. The show moved to Manhattan and was selling out the Belt Theater when the vicissitudes of New York real estate threw the group a curveball: the theater was shut down to be turned into a restaurant. Allen isn't sure if the show will reopen elsewhere.
The work of putting a new ensemble together from scratch fell to Allen and John Pierson, who's been with the Chicago ensemble for nine years. "We had to do it a lot different than at home, because we were assembling a whole cast of people who had never seen the show," Pierson says. "So we chose 20 people and then we did a week-and-a-half class—basically, a week-and-a-half audition." At the end of a week they winnowed the group down to ten. "In the classes that Greg or the Neo-Futurists teach you're doing your own material, so everyone gets really close pretty quickly," Pierson says. "You're dealing with your real life. You're not bringing in a monologue for Hamlet."
Pierson and Allen aren't sure whether they'll put the next franchise together in the same way. For now Allen schedules his trips out of town around the times he has his children. This Sunday, when he performs in Too Much Light Kids, the children's version of the late-night show that debuted last November, Noah and Simone will be in the audience.
Goehring, a close friend of Allen's since their Oberlin days, remarks that "as much as he's a renegade, he's a great, great preserver of tradition." He used to wear red Converse high-tops; he still does. "He has a series of pictures," she says. "Every year, kids on the floor between his feet. So you'd see these red high-tops, and then you'd see this kid who goes from infant to toddler. And it's so brilliant to me, 'cause the whole message feels like, You don't need to go out there and look for something new. Stick around and just look a little more and you'll see how radical the world is right between your feet."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph, Greg Allen.