Founder of Neo-Futurism

New York Foundation for the Arts Interview

NYFA: Too Much Light Makes The Baby Go Blind does 30 plays in 60 minutes. Years ago, when I
saw the show in Chicago ‐ I think you were above a funeral parlor or something ‐ one of the plays was
called Low Budget Phantom of the Opera. Someone put on a hockey mask, and tied a towel around
their neck and held a light bulb on a string over a blanket on the floor. They were playing that Bach
fugue that you always hear when someone is talking about Phantom of the Opera. And then they
slowly pulled out a pair of scissors, cut the string and the bulb hit the floor. Blackout. I actually fell
out onto the floor and was there for about ten minutes, as the reason I was in Chicago at the time was
that I was touring in …a low‐budget Phantom of the Opera. Art? Life? Of the ‐ oh half million of these
plays that have been created in the last 18 years ‐ what were some of your favorites?

GREG ALLEN: Of the 5,729 plays we have debuted in Too Much Light since December 2, 1988 (that’s
the exact figure as I write this on May 4th, 2006) it is, of course, impossible to have one or even a
hundred favorites. I tend not to have favorite plays so much as favorite performance moments over
the years ‐ since what happens on our stage is always fresh and unexpected despite it all being
scripted. In general the plays I enjoy watching the most are those that change every night ‐ usually
ones that have an element of audience participation.

I am premiering a play this weekend titled Blind Date in which I am blindfolded and then
the other ensemble members choose someone from the audience to sit with me at a table. They then
place food and drink on the table. Having no idea who the person is, nor what gender they are, nor
their sexual orientation, nor the food on the table, I attempt to seat them, drink a toast, divide and eat
what has been served, dance with them, and then pucker up for a kiss. Who knows what will
happen? They will be returned to their seat before the “Curtain!” is called and I will never know who
actually was my “blind date” that night. This type of play is what fascinates me ‐ how an individual or
an entire audience behaves from night to night, from year to year.

At one point we performing a play called something like Follow The Leader where we would
black out all the lights in the theater and then sneak out into the audience, give someone a flashlight,
and call “Go!”. On one night this happened to be the last play of the 30 and the guy who was given the
flashlight turned it on, stood up and said “let’s go” and led everyone out of the theater and out into
the street. It was completely silent and beautiful and the show ended that night without any curtain
speech or applause or even lights ‐ just a silent procession of people out of the theater and into the
streets. One of the ensemble ran up to me and said “What about the flashlight?” and I said “Just let it

There are also plays where we entrust our fellow Neo‐Futurists with control over what we
do. This obviously can be risky. I once wrote a play for Phil Ridarelli and myself called Love, Phil
(printed in our third book of plays) where at one point he gains complete control over me. The lines
are written and set, but that didn’t keep Phil from saying one night “Greg rips his clothes off on
stage”. I had to obey. Then there was a time when I did a piece called “Exposed” where I came out on
stage nude and talked about the power of nudity and some kid in the audience asked if he could join
me. I said “sure” and he ripped off his clothes and stood next to me for the monologue. There was
the night I almost sheered off an audience member’s finger. There was night I performed with a big
bandage on my leg after I was shot and Karen Christopher had made signs which popped up during
the evening which read “Greg Allen has been shot!” There was the night Greg Kotis bled all over the
stage but went on with the script, the night Heather broke her leg, the night Kristie broke her foot ‐ I
could go on and on.

Easily the most highly produced play in Too Much Light history is my play called Title which
is printed in our first book, on our CD, was performed on WNPR’s “This American Life”, and is used in
student productions and debate/thespian competitions all over the world an average of about once a
week. I wrote Title in 1989 and seemingly have never been able to top it.

NYFA: Any time you thought that the show was veering close to therapy? How do you keep that
from happening? Or do you want it to?

GREG ALLEN: There is no denying the therapeutic elements of the show for the performers. We
have something happen in our lives and undoubtedly will write a play about it for the next week’s
show. This is part of the joy of doing the show ‐ we get to turn our thoughts and feelings and
experiences into art in front of hundreds of people every week. If we want to purge something out of
our system what better way than through a two‐minute play? But isn’t that true of all art? Isn’t all
art ultimately about ourselves and somewhat therapeutic?

In this theater we always play ourselves on stage and deal with our own immediate issues
and experiences in front of an interactive audience ‐ that’s one of the credos of Neo‐Futurism. That’s
the “living newspaper” part of our mission statement. But somehow we seem to avoid the “selfabsorbed”,
“solipsistic navel‐gazing” moniker. No one ever leaves our shows and says “Oh, that was
so self‐indulgent.” In fact, in the seventeen years I have performed I have never heard that criticism
from anyone. The focus for us is always to express our own personal truth on stage. And even
though we can be addressing some very personal issues, the honesty element seems to humanize the
performances and make them more universal than individual. A good two minute play doesn’t
supply an answer so much as ask a question. Hence it’s rarely “oh this bad person did this bad thing
to me ‐ aren’t they an asshole?”, so much as “Why do these things happen? What was my role in this?
What has lead to me feeling this way about it? What are my options? How do you, the audience,
feel?” It’s the interaction and creativity and constant questioning that keep it from being self-indulgent.

NYFA: You’ve made some really interesting theatre out of material that most people would think
was too esoteric, that doesn’t have any place there. Like Kafka. Or Freud. Or Joseph Cornell. Or
Milton Berle jokebooks. And yet when I’ve seen them, they seem to have this weird theatrical
immediacy and urgency. They don’t seem cerebral at all ‐ they seem pretty visceral, especially your
adaptation of Kafka’s The Trial. Speaking as a playwright, how the hell do you pull off that one?

GREG ALLEN: I take great pride in tackling things that tend not to be thought of as theatrical material
and turning them into theater. I usually find something that I can’t understand, that I’m wrestling
with emotionally or intellectually, and then try to turn it into theater. The aforementioned Neo‐
Futurist aesthetic and its constant awareness (if not actual interaction) with the audience tends to
take care of keeping things immediate. Since we do not play characters on stage we have to find
ways to dramatize issues with our actual selves and our actual lives on stage. Our immediate
relationship to the audience in the theater plays a large part of that as well. How do individuals or
groups respond when handed these responsibilities or watching these events or being asked these
questions? When I do a show it’s not so much about the subject (The Trial, Joseph Cornell, Marcel
Duchamp, King Lear, etc.) so much as my personal relationship to the subject and to the audience.
With Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious I tried to write a play where these highbrow
intellectual theories were put forth on stage by three actors who demonstrated the theories in
practice. It was my first full‐length lecture/demonstration piece. But then as I was creating the show
with the actors, as the playwright I became implicated into the action by forcing them through these
actions to demonstrate my own intellectual struggles. I simply couldn’t figure out a way to keep
myself off stage. I couldn’t avoid taking the responsibility for forcing these relationships and these
lines into the actors’ mouths without displaying that to the audience. So in the end I wound up being
the top of the stage hierarchy because I was the playwright, the one who had created the hierarchy to
demonstrate these high‐fallutin philosophies of Sigmund Freud and Henri Bergson and Herbert
Spencer etc. and that relationship to the show had to be exposed as well. What was my Freudian
intent in creating a show aiming at putting the final nail in the coffin of comedy by explaining it to
death? Needless to say, at the end of the show I wind up chasing after the female cast member with
my pants around my ankles saying I wanted to fuck her. It was awful. It was the lowest form of
comedy, the Bennie Hill moment, and I had to do it.

I just wrote and performed a show with Donovan Sherman called A Child’s History of
Bombing where we wanted to directly explore the history of bombing and American war atrocities
on stage. How the hell do you do that? Especially without playing characters or letting the audience
drift into a comfortable distance? Well we hit on the concept of performing the whole show in the
second person ‐ rather than saying “I am a helicopter pilot flying reconnaissance over My Lai” or “Joe
was a helicopter pilot…” we said “You are a helicopter pilot …”. And by god it worked. We wound up
not sticking with the second person for everything in the show but it certainly was successful at
implicating the responsibility of each and every one of us and making people identify with the
twisted tragedies we addressed. And this was, of course, the point ‐ the whole show was about what
we are doing in Iraq this very minute and how do we take responsibility, take action.
As far as staging K., my version of Kafka’s The Trial, that was easy because the book actually
has a fair amount of very visceral scenes in it. What I added was a sense of meta‐theater where a
man wakes up one day and is suddenly thrust into the role of Joseph K. ‐ in some way’s the actor’s
nightmare. Now it’s his challenge to get out of playing the doomed role. Finally he realizes what he
has to do is to take control of the show itself and drive it towards Kafka’s inevitable end. Only by
taking control over his fate does he feel he has any power in the world, so he becomes ‐ in theatrical
terms ‐ his own stage manager. In the end does he die? It’s hard to say. He looks to the audience for
help but they too are impotent to avoid destiny. The other main thing I brought to The Trial is
humor. It’s a wildly funny book. Often people overlook this. But if you really get into the absurdity
of it it’s very amusing. Orson Welles’ screen version is the only other adaptation to recognize this
that I’m aware of. Read The Metamorphosis again. It’s hysterical.

NYFA: Are you one of these writers who constantly have seventeen ideas they’re working on? Do
you get blocked? Do you churn it out in a hurry? You’ve been pretty prolific ‐ 26 plays for the
Neos? You must never get blocked.

GREG ALLEN: I sometimes get blocked like any other writer. The reason I set up the Too Much Light
turn‐over schedule the way it is (a random 2 to 12 new plays per week) is because I work much
better on deadline. If Tuesday rolls around and we have to have 11 new plays for the menu, I know I
simply have to write two or three plays to propose that night. I HAVE to do it. It’s need, not desire.
Similarly I tend to sign up to write and direct and sometimes perform a new full‐length show every
year. I have a deadline, an opening date. There’s no getting out of it. Necessity is the father of
invention. Last year when I signed up to write a play about the history of bombing I had no idea how
I was going to pull it off, just that I was inspired to do the research and ask the questions. Come
February 3, 2006 I had a show ready to open.

By next January I have to have a new show written using national questionnaires which ask
Americans what they would most like to see in a play and what they least would like to see in a play
(inspired by Komar and Melamid’s art project “Paint by Numbers”). I then have to write and direct
those plays and open them on opening night. How? I don’t know. Will I get it done? Yes. The first
couple years of Too Much Light I could write on inspiration. After that it was almost always because
of a deadline. I do tend to have a long list of plays to write (currently I think I have 117 of them) but
that doesn’t mean they see the light of day. I am currently working with another company to adapt
and create a show for this fall. Right now it will either be a new adaptation of Woyzeck, an
adaptation of a novel by Nabakov, or perhaps a staged version of Kafka’s The Hunger Artist. A stage
version of The Hunger Artist? Impossible! Great ‐ I’ll do it.

NYFA: OK, the dreaded question ‐ who are your influences?

GREG ALLEN: This is actually fairly easy. Neo‐Futurism is based primarily on Italian Futurism with a
fair amount of Dada, Surrealism, Brecht, Cage, Cunningham, Fluxus, Happenings, ’60s environmental
theater, Bread and Puppet, Wooster Group, Theater Oobleck, and Augusto Boal thrown in for good
measure. Filmically I’m very inspired by Godard, Bunuel, Tarkovsky, Bergman, Fassbinder, Fritz
Lang, early Wim Wenders, documentaries, and early silent Soviet cinema. Sonically I look to Pere
Ubu and Jonathan Richman, NPR and “This American Life”. I tend to never read novels, only nonfiction
‐ The New York Times and Harper’s.

NYFA: What’s the greatest compliment you’ve ever received from one of your plays?

GREG ALLEN: I was doing a play called A Small Effort (printed in our third book). I took a bowl of
frozen peas and puppeted them to tell a parable about a boy who had lost hope of there being no love
in the world for him, so one day he decided to kill himself. He was miraculously spared and he lived
on and grew up and found love. And then one day he found himself on stage and he looked out at the
audience and he saw a lot of people who were just like he was when he was a boy, and he wanted to
somehow tell them that there was hope and love in the world for them. At this point I drop the peas
and directly address the audience and say “So he picked up some peas and told his story”. (I’m
paraphrasing here ‐ quoting from memory.) After a performance one night I was selling t‐shirts and
a young girl came up and waved me to where she could whisper into my ear. She whispered “Thanks
for the play with the peas” and then looked into my eyes and walked away. I totally knew what was
going on for her and that I had given her hope. That was the greatest compliment I ever got.
I have also had a girl create a “Skipping Revolution” at her high school (where she skipped
every day throughout the rest of her high school career, and got her friends to join her) after seeing
my play Let’s Change The World.

NYFA: What was the funniest?

GREG ALLEN: The funniest compliment? Just a few years ago we were named “Chicago’s Best
Improv Troupe” by a local paper. We don’t do improv.

NYFA: It looks like you work very closely with your collaborators, all of whom seem very sympatico.
How important are the actors you’ve cast to a new play you’re working on? OK, that’s a softball.
What do you look for in potential collaborators?

GREG ALLEN: I cast nice people I can work with, not great actors. I cast smart people with
interesting lives and experiences and strong voices for my shows. For my 2004 full‐length play
called evidence I wanted to ask the questions “What really is the truth about a past event, and who
really knows it ‐ the participants? the witnesses? the historians?” I wanted to apply these questions
to a relationship (I was going through an ugly divorce at the time). So I asked an actor couple I knew
who had been going out for years if they would agree to be in the show and allow me to use their
actual relationship on stage for material in the script. They said they had a very solid relationship
and had no secrets from each other and that they were up for it. I sent them numerous personal
questionnaires about their past experiences to use as information to fuel my Interrogator figure in
the show. The male actor’s name was Tim and I happened to cast an actor named Tim as the
Interrogator. This gave me a fascinating doppelganger to use on stage. Wild disparities emerged
from the couple ‐ like the fact that the guy had slept with over a hundred women, where the woman
had only had four partners. I then had the Interrogator really stick this evidence to them in an
attempt to break them on stage. But the fact remained that they loved each other and were very
happy together. The actuality of the actors’ lives is what made the production work.
In terms of formal collaborators I do look towards someone who has a similar sense of
history and theory as I do, or at least a willingness to research it with me. Donovan Sherman is
actually almost twenty years younger than I but was very much a kindred spirit for Bombing. Same
with Nicole Burgund for A Hundred Boats Sinking Except One and John Pierson for A Duchampian
Romp, even. We researched these things together and shared our findings and ideas as equals. I
have also had the great privilege to work with Connor Kalista on both Crime & Punishment: A
(mis)Guided Environmental Tour with Literary Pretensions and Boxing Joseph Cornell, as well as
Jeffrey Essmann on Lear’s Shadow ‐ both of whom seemed head and shoulders above me in terms of
knowledge and brilliance, but I always found something to contribute to compliment their strengths.
I love to work with geniuses and I think I have found some.

And then sometimes it’s just luck. My collaborators for The Complete Lost Works Of
Samuel Beckett As Found In An Envelope (partially burned) In A Dustbin In Paris Labeled: “Never
to be performed. Never. Ever! EVER! Or I’ll Sue! I’LL SUE FROM THE GRAVE!!! were Danny
Thompson and Ben Schneider of Theatre Oobleck. We met for the first time to develop the show
three days before we opened. We then had a sold‐out run in the Rhino Festival, a sold‐out remount
in Chicago, a sold out run in a little theater in Vermont, a sold‐out run at the New York International
Fringe Festival (where we won the best comedy award), a sold‐out remount at the Present Company
in New York, and a sold‐out run at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. And this propelled us on to a
successful run at the Riverside Studios in London (an old haunt of Beckett himself) and a threemonth
UK tour. Right now the show is being staged for a Beckett festival in Atlanta, a run in
Dusseldorf, and a run in Europe of the show translated into German. All this from a show we put
together in three days. And at the time I hardly knew the two other guys. But we loved every minute
of it. Sometimes things just work out.

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About Greg
Founding director of the Neo-Futurists, Greg Allen has taught writing, theater, and performance at the University of Chicago, the Actors Theater of Louisville, and Depaul University. More »
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