Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind

Every time I mention Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind and someone says they haven't heard of it, I go looking for wherever it is that I must have written about it, but I can never find such a writeup. So I'm tentatively concluding that I've never actually written publicly about it in any detail.

Too Much Light is a live theatrical show billed as “thirty plays in sixty minutes.” Cast members write and perform their own little playlets, an average (obviously) of two minutes long apiece. The plays are usually not fiction per se; in most of the pieces, at least some of the actors generally play themselves.

The subjects and styles of the plays vary a lot. Some are sort of jokes or metapieces. Others are personal stories or anecdotes, dramatized (and some of those are funny, while others are serious or sad or moving or angry). Others are political statements. Some are more or less poetry. Some are songs. Some are thoughtful philosophical musings.

Some examples of the jokey/meta kinds of stuff, just 'cause those are the easiest ones to describe briefly:

  • In Chicago in 1991, iIrc, there was one that consisted of two people standing on opposite sides of the stage spitting water at each other for a few seconds.
  • One in New York in 1997 was called “Good Luck Getting Through the Rest of the Show”: one cast member, chosen by the audience, drank a bunch of alcohol very quickly, and then had to keep performing in the rest of the plays.
  • Another one in that same show was a kiss auction, in which one of the actors said she was raising money to go on a trip, and so she auctioned off a kiss to an audience member.
  • One in New York a year or two ago consisted of drawing a curtain across the proscenium arch, and performing the next couple of plays invisibly behind the curtain, until the person I was seeing it with got up and opened the curtain.

There are usually, at any given performance, some plays that leave me entirely indifferent, some that make me think, some that make me laugh, some that I find interesting. And once in a while, there are the ones that totally blow me away. Two of those are on a CD of audio-friendly Too Much Light plays: “Before You Know It” and “False Positive.” You can hear 30-second samples of both of those on that CD ordering page; you can also buy downloadable MP3s if you prefer non-physical media. Both of those pieces make me cry every time I hear them. More about the CD later.

(That indirectly reminds me that a fair number of the actors are, I gather, queer, so the shows are usually very queer-friendly. They aren't as diversity-friendly in some other ways, though; for example, the casts tend to be mostly white in my experience, and I don't think the venues are wheelchair-accessible.)

But first, here's a description of the experience of attending the show, though I'm leaving out some details.

After you show up at the little theatre where they're performing, in Chicago, or New York, or (soon) San Francisco, you buy a ticket and they give you a nametag. (If you didn't buy tickets ahead of time online, then show up early; they sell out regularly.)

Inside the theatre, they give you a menu, a sheet of paper with a numbered list of the titles of the thirty plays to be performed. Above the front of the stage there's a clothesline, and on it are strung thirty sheets of paper, with the numbers 1 through 30 on them.

The cast explains to you how things work, and then they start the countdown timer running. They have one hour to get through the whole show.

Audience members yell out the number of the play they want to see next. A cast member decides what number they heard first, leaps up, and grabs the sheet of paper with that number. They read the title of the play off the back of the page, and then they say the word “Go.” And the cast of that play performs the play.

When the play is over, someone in the cast calls out “Curtain!”, which is the audience's cue to start shouting numbers again.

In other words, yes, not only do the cast have to perform thirty plays, but they have to perform them in random order.

At the end of the show, the cast rolls a die to determine how many new plays they're going to write for the following weekend. So during that following week, they have to cut that number of plays from the current menu, write that number of new plays, and learn and rehearse them.

The whole thing is a remarkable theatrical tour de force. I've seen it in person maybe half a dozen times now (and listened to the CD half a dozen times, and read all the plays that they've collected in three printed books of their plays); I haven't loved it every time, but I've thought it was interesting and worthwhile nearly every time. (And of course the set of plays has been entirely different every time.) None of the subsequent shows have, for me, quite lived up to the first time I saw it, in Chicago in 1991, when it had only been around for a couple of years and I think it still had most or all of its original cast; but that may just be because after the first time, it wasn't all so new to me. It's nonetheless remained worth seeing.

The group that does the show is called the Neo-Futurists (motto: “Futurism Now!”). They've been performing in Chicago for twenty-five years as of today. Tonight and tomorrow night, they'll be previewing what I hope will be a long run in San Francisco, which will officially start on January 7, 2014.

But my description really doesn't do justice to the experience. If you're in any of those three cities, and if the local venue isn't inaccessible to you, it's well worth attending in person. If that's not feasible, then give the audio album a try.

For that matter, even if you have seen the show, I recommend that audio recording. If you're buying the MP3 version, I recommend buying the whole album, so you can put it on shuffle play to get something of the experience of attending in person. But if you just want to try out a couple of tracks to see what you're in for, then in addition to my two abovementioned favorites, I recommend “Title,” “Idea of You,” and “You've Come a Long Way, Baba.”

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