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Visual Theater: A Conversation with Neo-Futurist Kurt Chiang

The Neo-Futurists are a staple of Chicago theater best known for their modular and ever-evolving signature show, Too Much Light Makes The Baby Go Blind, which, after a quarter-century in production, is the longest continuously running show in Chicago. Within a certain milieu, TMLMTBGB is something of a cult hit — It’s frenetic, inclusive, somewhat participatory, absolutely community oriented and just plain fun.

Perhaps less well known are the limited-run productions the Neo-Futurists stage each season. I recently had the chance to catch their new play, Analog. The production is far quieter than TMLMTBGB, but no less intimate; both share the trademark “non-illusory” first-person writing for which the ensemble is known. The play, conceived by Kurt Chiang, attempts to stage the auteur’s inner monologue as he comes to grip with both a life-threatening bout of cancer and his baffling, idiosyncratic manner of coping with the event — transcribing, by hand, the entirety of Lord of the Flies, a laborious task born of gauzy motivations. (In Analog, Chiang himself refers to William Golding’s classic novel as “not a very good book.”)

Given this publication’s focus on visual art, Analog may seem like an unlikely subject. Originally, I had no intent to cover the show here. That changed shortly after arriving at the theater. Rather than being allowed in the front, several other attendees and I were lead around the back of the building and into the alley. (This experience was immediately bewildering, no doubt on purpose, though the staff received serendipitous help from two black cats that dashed across the alley in tandem, giving us all a start.) Upon entering the back door, patrons were handed programs by disaffected ushers, many of whom are also performers, slouching in chairs, seemingly too engrossed, or at least pretending to be engrossed, in various novels.

Kurt Chiang. An early sketch of the installation, 2013. (Image courtesy of Kurt Chiang)

We were then given free range to wander through a labyrinth fashioned from draped white cloths. Reading stations were set up where attendees could thumb through copies of various books, including, most notably and thematically, Lord of the Flies. Overhead lighting was kept to a minimum, our path partially lit by the light from a projected video and vintage lamps at the reading stations. Recorded speech played simultaneously from different sources, the tracks clashing and crashing into each other. The whole thing was jarring and affecting. Something of a walk-in art installation, it merges visual art with sound, multimedia and, ultimately, theater.

I recently talked with Chiang about both the installation and the production.

Andrew Mortazavi: So describe this thing for us. What is it? The installation.

Kurt Chiang: The audience walks through a labyrinth that resembles some version of my own state or thought process. Everything feels handmade, with a lot of texture. There are images and objects that relate to the text and stories that are in Analog. There are even delicious candies.

AM: And what was the impetus for including it as a part of Analog?

KC: There is a copy of every book that we mention in the show, and the audience is invited to sit and read them, get an idea of what we’re referring to. The show is centered around this thing I did where I transcribed the entirety of Lord of the Flies by hand. I address the audience directly and try to tell them the reasons for doing this. It turns out these reasons are subjective and difficult to convey with language. So the installation is there for the audience to experience the show in an immersive, tactile way, before it starts. There are objects, images and sounds that serve as clues or links to the content of the actual show. The impetus was the question — “What did it look like in my brain while I transcribed Lord of the Flies?” But I think it’s become more connected with the actual text of the show itself.

AM: That’s interesting. Tell me about Analog, its creation and conception.

KC: Since getting into the Neo-Futurist ensemble, I have written a lot of plays for our signature show, Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind, where I created objects onstage or theatricalized objects that I made beforehand. Typically these were gifts for the audience. One of these was also called “Analog,” where I simply describe to an audience member a transcription process I did with my CD collection. At the end, I give that person a mixtape for them to keep. So this longer-length “Analog” came from the intention behind those plays. Then, through collaboration with the ensemble, it transformed into its own thing.

If you Wikipedia the word analog, you get a ton of definitions, all of which work for me. I guess I am most attracted to one that applies to recording technology and listening culture, where analog formats like vinyl and cassettes are a more actual medium than MP3s. This relates to our theater aesthetic as Neo-Futurists, where we favor actual people and situations over fictional ones.

(Image credit: Michael Sullivan)

AM: How do you think the installation adds to the experience of Analog as a whole? What kind of synergy were you hoping for?

KC: There’s a generous amount of text in Analog, and I think we do a good job of keeping it grounded, simple and accessible for the audience. Stage-theatrics are kept at a minimum. So the installation is the audience’s chance to experience something more image-based, sound-based. Since I talk a lot about physical objects, and a centerpiece of the show is a set of notebooks with my handwriting in them, I wanted the audience to have a chance to be close to those things in an active way. They can’t necessarily experience the notebooks from their seats in the theater. I had to blow it up, somehow.

AM: I think it really works as a prelude. When I saw Analog, I arrived early and thus spent a good deal of time milling about inside of the installation, first admiring it and then trying to pass the time reading a magazine (sadly, not Lord of the Flies, which, yes, isn’t so great of a book really). The ambiance was definitely unsettling.

KC: Lord of the Flies is an unsettling thing, as is the process of writing and creating, as is dealing with health problems, all of which are addressed in the show. So the installation matches that feeling. It’s no accident that the first thing on stage, after the audience has walked through the installation and taken their seats, is a ritual of healing done by Hank [Vogler] and Tim [Reid].

AM: The installation is far from the only visual element to Analog. The Neo-Futurists employ many elements of visual art in their work, such as dance and the creative use of props and lighting. In Analog, for example, I really liked the use of chairs and desks as props and set pieces. How do you approach the intersection of the visual with the theatrical in your work?

KC: Neo-Futurist theater approaches anything we do onstage with a sense of task and the non-illusory. So our sets and props are never meant to transport the audience to a fictional place. If we have things onstage, they have a practical use. In the case of Analog, I have this written monologue and I need somewhere to sit. So I have this desk made where I can sit, talk to the audience and have all these items that I’m talking about right there. The desks also evoke the schoolboy world of Lord of the Flies without us having to dress up like schoolboys.

AM:Yes, but once props are on the stage, they’re employed in ways that aren’t immediately practical or, one might argue, absolutely essential. That’s the case with the chairs and desks. When they’re not in use, the

A projector screening Jessica Silent by Logan Kibens. 2013. Chicago, IL. (Image credit: Michael Sullivan)

performers Tim and Hank stack them in various ways that are clearly meant to be aesthetically and artistically intriguing. On one hand, they’re clearing the stage, but at the same time, it’s also performance art.

KC: More like art in performance, maybe? But in our theater — and all theater, I think — that’s just staging. We’re concerned with telling the story, moving the plot forward and highlighting moments in the text. In those scenes where Tim and Hank move and rearrange the desks while I speak, the important part is less the image that is made and more the tension created from these guys shifting the playing space as I attempt to communicate with the audience. And when an image is made, such as Tim’s makeshift desk-altar he arranges behind me, during a pivotal moment in the monologue, that image serves as a frame for what’s being said — hopefully an aesthetically and artistically pleasurable frame, but just a frame. I’d be worried to call anything we do “performance art.” There are select people, past and present, that are way more disciplined, way more focused on that brand of performance: They get that title. The other Neo-Futurists and I, we’re writers, performers, theater-makers. We’re impatient renaissance people telling lots of stories and creating lots of things on a stage.

AM: You mentioned earlier when we were talking over email that the installation, and the show as a whole, was a collaborative effort?

KC: I like to think of the show as a collage of individual voices. That’s what theater is like, generally. It takes a ton of people to make an idea into a show that is ready for people to see. I had an idea, I drew a picture of what it might look like, then I gave that to Anthony, and he made it into a real thing, according to practical concerns and his own sensibilities. With the show, I wrote a monologue, and then the rest of the ensemble wrote more, responding to it. Then we try to glue things together, to make it cohesive, make it look and sound good.

AM: With whom did you collaborate on the installation?

KC: Matt Baye does lighting, Nick Kawahara sound. There are individual charcoal drawings of each of the 44 presidents of the United States done by one artist, Michael Sullivan. There’s a silent movie, Jessica Silent, done by our friend, Logan Kibens. Anthony Courser created the walls, which can be assembled quickly and packed away in a small space. Special mention should be made of the people who put up and take down this thing every night: Zach Brown, Cathy Crocco, Nick Hart, Amanda Hiles and Andy Venneman.

AM: Do you think the installation was a success? What about the production? Would you change anything if you could?

KC: I’m working with my favorite people, at my favorite theater, in my favorite city. That feels like a success. Lord of the Flies actually isn’t a very good book, so maybe I’d change the fact that I spent so much time on that thing. Otherwise, I’m happy and looking forward to creating more stuff.

Kurt Chiang has been a Neo-Futurist ensemble member since 2008 and has written many short plays as part of Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind. Among his upcoming projects is a performance in Jay Torrence’s play, Ivywild, opening this spring with The Hypocrites.

Analog runs through April 6, 2013 at The Neo-Futurarium, 5153 N. Ashland Ave., every Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $20 for general admission, $10 for students and seniors. Thursdays are pay-what-you-can nights. For ticket information, visit www.neofuturists.org or call 773-878-4557.

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