At 6:15 PM on Sunday, December 4, in the middle of the season's first real snowfall, there was already a line snaking down the block and around the corner at Ashland and Foster, awaiting entry to the Neo-Futurists' second-floor theater and another sold-out performance in the 28-year run of Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind.
The long line for the 7 PM show wasn't unusual, but many in this crowd were spurred by a sense of urgency: four days earlier, the local ensemble—12 actors, a small staff, and a large contingent of alumni—had learned that they'll be losing the rights to their signature show of "30 plays in 60 minutes" at the end of this month. Their founder, Greg Allen, had stunned them with a public announcement that he wouldn't be renewing their license, but would "rebrand the show with a new diverse ensemble that embraces a specifically socially activist mission."
And he blamed Donald Trump. Faced with the pending inauguration, Allen said in his statement, "I could no longer stand by and let my most effective artistic vehicle be anything but a machine to fight Fascism." His new company "will be comprised entirely of people of color, LBTQ+, artist/activist women, and other disenfranchised voices in order to combat the tyranny of censorship and oppression."
That explanation was received with ire and disbelief by Neo-Futurist company members, current and past, who say the troupe is now more diverse than it's ever been, and the breakup is not political but personal—rooted in a long-suppressed history of problems between Allen and the theoretically democratic ensemble that he formed. When Allen decided not to renew the Chicago group's license (there are separate Neo-Futurist ensembles in New York and San Francisco), he also blew the lid off ensemble members' festering discontent, which was quickly on display in social media.
In 1988, given the opportunity to create a late-night weekend show at Stage Left, Allen, then 26, came up with a concept he'd been thinking about since he studied Italian futurism at Oberlin College. His idea was to create a permanent format for an ever-changing menu of very short experimental plays, drawn from the lives of the playwrights and performed by them, with honesty and artistic freedom as core values. Ticket prices (determined by a dice toss) would be variable and cheap, to make the show accessible.
The concept was idealistic, and so was the company Allen formed to produce it, a democratically functioning artistic collective. (He acquired the title of artistic director, alumni say, only because the group came to the point where they needed to name one on a grant proposal.) And the show was a rapid success: it moved from Stage Left to Live Bait, and, in 1992, to the Andersonville space it still occupies.
Allen didn't respond to requests for an interview, but alumni say the collective decision-making quickly became a sticking point. As former ensemble member Dave Awl wrote in a Facebook post: "From the beginning, there was always a gap between the rhetoric and the reality. Like a lot of revolutionaries, Greg Allen had the ideals of an egalitarian, but the controlling impulses of an autocrat. . . . What he really wanted was for us to have a boisterous discussion—and then vote to ratify whatever it was Greg wanted us to do."
Alumni I spoke with say they found Allen difficult to work with: controlling, divisive, and more interested in promoting his own work than that of the group. In 2003, after ensemble members say they complained to the board, Allen's title was changed to founding director, a position with more of a focus on lecturing, teaching, and being the public face of Neo-Futurists. According to alumni, in 2011, after a dispute over a play Allen didn't want the group to produce, he was suspended from the active ensemble, with the option of petitioning to rejoin after a year. He didn't petition, they say, and except for a 25th anniversary event in 2013, hasn't performed with the ensemble since.
Alum Ayun Halliday said via e-mail that if she were to write a Neo-Futurist-style play about all this, "I might dress Greg Allen in an expensive sailor suit and place him at the head of a lavish table, heaped high with hundreds of toys and cakes. There's plenty to go around, but whenever one of the guests—aka the ensemble, who by the way, baked the cakes and made the toys—attempts to take a bite, or play with a toy, Greg snatches it out of their hands, shouting, 'Mine! Mine!' I'd title it something along the lines of 'Big Surprise Party.' "
The ensemble are now scrambling to assemble a replacement for the production that's always been the anchor of their roughly $500,000 annual budget (and a season that includes prime-time shows and outreach). They've also reopened a fund-raising campaign, and are seeking to raise $28,000 by the end of the year. But they're definitely not planning to fold. "We have our schedule, we have our space, we have a process for creating short Neo-Futurists work," artistic director Kurt Chiang said in an interview last week.
He reiterated that message to the Sunday-night audience: come January, "It's not going to be Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind," Chiang said, but the loud, fast, sloppy, silly, rude, poetic, and occasionally profound show will go on. v