FESTIVAL ARCHIVE  —  2022

2022 Festival Archive: The Neo-Futurists

The Neo-Futurists: I, OBJECT!: 30 Neo-Futurist Puppet Plays

January 21-23 + January 28-30, 2022

The Neo-Futurarium

Presented by Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival

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Scholarship and Resources

The Things That Bring Us Together

An Essay by Ana Díaz Barriga

Neo-Futurist cast members (Neil, Jasmine, Dan, Trent, Connor and Annie) greeted me from the stage as I walked into the auditorium at The Neo-Futurist Theater on January 21, 2022, to see I, Object!. This is the Neo-Futurist object-centered version of their repertoire cornerstone The Infinite Wrench, conceived as a compilation of pieces that they created using objects as inspiration. From the beginning, it was clear there was no fourth wall here; performers addressed the audience directly and left the auditorium light on as they explained the rules of the performance: They would set a timer to count down 60 minutes. Within that time, the ensemble would try to get through 30 plays. The audience would shout the number of the play they wanted to see based on a “menu” provided to us as we entered. There was an immediate feel of community; spectators and performers prepared for the challenge of getting through 30 plays in 60 minutes. This review will not be able to re-create that sense of community; I will, however, attempt to re-create the performance’s vertiginous pace. Through these fragments, I hope you will feel the rush that came from the sudden shifts of emotion prompted by these short pieces and the excitement of seeing these unusual activations of objects.

The Neo-Futurists indicated it was time to begin with their characteristic shout:

Next!

These are the ways they used their object-centered pieces to bring together the people in the room…  

… by reframing the value that objects have

The Mars Rover Opportunity was silenced by a dust storm last summer*, in its 15th year of service, and after subsequent unsuccessful attempts at contact this year, NASA has officially declared Opportunity’s mission concluded. (*2018)

The laughter instigated by the ridiculously long title died down as the auditorium fell into darkness. From a corner, a buzzing sound and flashing lights indicated a presence: a white, remote-controlled vehicle that was about as big as a robot vacuum. It slowly moved to the center of the stage, casting its colorful flashing lights around on the walls. Musical underscoring in the style of a sci-fi movie made it feel epic. This tiny vehicle used its flashing display to metaphorically recount all it had seen. Despite its age and imminent retirement, it kept on shining. Suddenly, any surface could be the surface of another planet, and the three feet the vehicle had traversed to get to center stage became an epic journey illustrating the determination of this little robot’s spirit. I joined the “awws” coming from the audience. We were all united in our pride for Opportunity’s achievement.

Next!

… by assigning humanity to nonhuman entities

What if these 5 plastic horses were us?

Cast member Dan went around the auditorium assigning numbers to some audience members. The same numbers were also found on a small derby race toy with little horses that would begin “running” at the press of a button. Another spectator had already been selected as the judge who would watch the toy closely and determine the winner of the race. Dan provided a backstory for each one of the audience members who now took on the role of a horse. The anthropomorphizing of these objects gave them more meaning. It also invited a reevaluation of our humanity, as fellow audience members were cast as toys. Why would we not care for all things? In the spirit of political theorist Jane Bennett as she describes how all things share the same vibrancy, I felt the invitation to see how my own body is composed of the same matter that makes up all other things—the same matter that made up the plastic horses (Bennett, 2010). 

Dan explained to us that Horse #4 had never won a single race. Dan showed the audience member playing Horse #4 a plush elephant, presenting it as what “#4 loved the most” and what the horse would lose if it didn’t win the race… The audience cheered as the horses raced. In a heartbeat, the judge called a winner. It wasn’t #4, but a fellow spectator had won. Hooray! We celebrated, forgetting the threat that seconds before had hung in the air. 

Dan interrupted the celebration, grabbing the plush elephant and tearing it apart. We were all together in our shock and pain. I felt what puppeteer Jim Lasko describes about theatrical events mediated by objects: The performance had exceeded each one of its elements; it wasn’t just the elephant, Dan, the spectators, our interactions or the disruption it created. “The theatrical event was the entire social situation” (Lasko, 2014: 102). The one that had led us to care for a plush toy. And it left us in stunned silence. 

Next!

… by reconsidering the value that objects have (in their relation to us)

 I, Object

The ensemble members stood in a line. Taking turns, they each introduced an object with a deep personal meaning: a box containing a dog’s baby teeth, a teddy bear that is shared among friends, a copy of a book gifted to the owner by its author, a necklace from an in-law, a set of keys to a first home, a chess set made by their mother for their father. The stories imbued the objects with psychological weight. They were no longer everyday things, which showed as each cast member put an audience member in charge of their object for the remainder of the performance. The solemn handover underscored the vulnerability the objects now held and the trust in the audience they conveyed. These emotionally laden objects mediated our communion and turned us into a community.

Next!

… by inviting us to imagine ourselves as nonhuman

Will you take me

A pigeon sang to a bear and a fox about its vulnerability. The pigeon was afraid to go to certain towns where its friends came from or loved to go. The pigeon feared what other beings might do to it because of its appearance. The bear and fox promised to take him, but the pigeon’s fear was tangible as it continued to sing. It told us how it felt parts of this country were not safe for it.

The cheerful tune of the song heightened the poignancy of the message. Although cast member Neil puppeteered the pigeon marionette, we saw him. His brown skin contrasted with that of his white peers who were wearing the bear and fox masks. It wasn’t just about which animals represented which actors, i.e., predators standing in for the white cast members—the masks meant that his fellow ensemble members’ bodies were part of the bear and the fox. They occupied space. The performers’ bodies became one of the materials that the puppets were made of and allowed them to have an effect on the space around them. The pigeon, on the other hand, was simply held up by its strings; its movement was limited and shaky. 

If only we had more time to reflect about—

Next!

… by having us interact through the use of things

THE SHOW CANNOT CONTINUE UNTIL SOMEONE MAKES THIS RIGHT

The ensemble said the title and then left the stage. Three spotlights lit three objects: a doughnut, a bite-sized doughnut hole, and a plate. After a couple of seconds looking at the objects, three audience members from different parts of the auditorium got up at the same time. Instead of returning to their seats after seeing someone else get up to participate, they decided to collaborate. They each handled a different thing, putting the doughnut on the plate and the doughnut hole in its rightful place. My heart warmed as they shook each other’s hands, congratulating themselves for a job well done. Through the object, these strangers came together; as puppeteer Jim Lasko suggests, these objects “released a spectacle of human interaction” (2014: 101). We saw the beauty of how objects bring us together. 

Next!

Conclusion

When the buzzer rang to announce that the 60 minutes were up, the spectators groaned. I felt yanked out of a wonderful world where objects instigated clear and tangible ways in which humans could relate to each other. The objects functioned as “the third thing,” described by Lasko as the neutral object that, by absorbing everyone’s input, lets all of those present participate and be a part of what is created in the space (2014: 100). While Lasko’s accounts focus on participatory outdoor performances, the Neo-Futurist’s audience engagement, generated through their direct address and quick-fire approach, turns their more traditional theatrical setting into a space of participation. Sure, we are not accidental spectators who happened to stumble upon the performance, but we become the participants who have agreed to join in through, or thanks to, the mediation of the object.  

1  As they introduced themselves in the production.

2  The performance started with two short pieces by Myra Su presented at the entrance hall. The space of this review does not allow for me to examine the contents of these pieces—Inked and String of Echoes—but I wanted to make sure I mentioned them since they would be worthy of a separate review by themselves!

Festival Performances

About the Performance

January 21-23 + January 28-30, 2022

The Neo-Futurarium
5153 N. Ashland Ave.

From Chicago’s celebrated Neo-Futurists comes this all original, all new series of short works by local theater makers giving audiences a dunk into object performance and high-speed theater. The folks that made the short form famous bring you the same energy, intellect, craft and humor, this time of course, with puppetry at the core. Be amazed as The Neo-Futurists perform 30 short puppet works, in random order, chosen by the audience. It’s chaotic, irreverent, honest and messy. In addition to The Neo-Futurist ensemble, a guest artist will be featured each night.

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Past Performances and Further Reading