Looking to the Neo-Future: (Not) Just Another Day Like Any Otherby Sonya Sobieski
The New York Neo-Futurists are doing something different this month.
Their late-night staple, Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind, has delivered a new set of “thirty plays in sixty minutes” every weekend for four years. Presented in any order might be a tableau involving lawn ornaments, the confinement onstage of an audience member by means of duct-tape (to demonstrate Stockholm Syndrome) or a performer throwing her worries into a garbage can (namely that her visiting father will want to discuss politics).
It’s the iTunes of theater—with slightly less control, but if you don’t like a piece, it’s over in less than the length of a song. Let’s say that tantalizing bits on this performance-art iTunes inspire you to buy the whole album.
The Neo-Futurists’ November project is the whole album.
(Not) Just a Day Like Any Other is a multimedia extravaganza—or as much as is possible in the intimate Red Room. Performing at the saner hour of 8 p.m. and still friendly to the attention-span-deficient, it runs 75 minutes and is conceived in larger but still manageable chunks: four autobiographical stories woven together, with accompanying Bollywood music videos, relationships charted via PowerPoint, and margaritas for all.
“I think about voice a lot, because it’s unmasked. Or much less masked than it would be in a traditional piece of drama,” says company member Eevin (rhymes with Kevin) Hartsough, instigator of the project.
The Neo-Futurist aesthetic demands that performers never pretend to be anyone but themselves. (Not) Just a Day Like Any Other focuses on four momentous, actual days in the lives of the Neos involved.
“I was inspired by the election and thinking of it as a turning point,” says Eevin. “I wanted to explore this idea of the before and after.”
Kevin R. Free investigates the fallout from his mother’s death on Christmas Day. For many, December 25th is magical—or certainly it is supposed to be—but for Kevin, it’s a grim anniversary.
Eevin describes Kevin’s writing style as similar to Kevin himself: “He has a lot going on inside, and he is often masking it with his genuine charm and enthusiasm. There’s a tension in his plays between what we’re doing on the surface and what’s really happening underneath.”
Kevin will decorate a Christmas tree during the play.
“There’s gonna be a great counterpoint between the artificial jolliness of Christmas and this ‘holy crap’ story,” says Tim Caldwell, who is generating slides and video for Kevin’s scenes.
To shake things up, since T.M.L.M.T.B.G.B. is decidedly low-tech, each of the Neo-Futurists in (Not) Just a Day Like Any Other has his own filmmaker. Each Neo/filmmaker team creates a distinctive look and sound for their story. Eevin’s life-changing event is the most recent—her wedding—and will feature a horror film version of the reception by Matt Scott.
By chance, two of the stories have strong parallels. Kevin R. Free writes of the mother he barely knew: “You could say I’ve been looking for her most of my life.” Christopher Borg is on a literal search for the woman who gave him up at birth:
Borg: Did you just call me an orphan?
Kevin: Yeah. I’m trying to create some more sympathy for you. Otherwise, it’ll be hard for the audience to like you as much as they like me.
Borg: But I’m not an orphan.
Kevin: Shhh. So Borg. YOU.
Kevin: You feel your day (not) like any other, is when you, as an infant, were thrown into the care of a childless Mormon dentist and his young wife.
Borg: Yes. When my mom—
Kevin: Your “real” mom?
Borg: My mom, mom.
Kevin: Your actual mother—your birth mother.
Borg: I think of my MOM as my actual mother.
Kevin: The woman who happened to adopt you.
Borg: Yes, the woman who adopted me, I call “MOM.”
Kevin: It’s okay to feel anger about this.
Borg: I am not feeling anger, but it can be frustrating to talk about your birth history and sound like you are getting defensive over some sort of semantic misunderstanding about “real” mom and “adopted” dad.
Kevin: Borg, why do you resent your parents?
Borg: I don’t resent my parents.
Kevin: You don’t resent your religious-right Mormon parents for rejecting your gay lifestyle and cutting you out of their life?
Borg: This scene is moving faster than I had originally intended.
Home video of Borg’s origin-seeking travels to Salt Lake City will be remixed by Paul Sargent.
What makes (Not) Just A Day Like Any Other function as a whole is hard to pinpoint, and yet it works. Seemingly disparate elements share an overarching, playful sense of humor. Four distinct voices, working with four different filmmakers, mesh into a cohesive whole, held together largely by obvious affection for each other and their audience.
In addition, everything in the play adheres to the rigorous Neo-Futurist rules of creation: 1. You are what you are. 2. You are where you are. 3. You are doing what you are doing. 4. The time is now.
“I’m not against lying in art, that’s what literature is,” says filmmaker Tim, whose experiences as a Neo-Futurist audience member inspired him to take up videography. “It’s the insane lengths to capture verisimilitude, the artificiality of characters on stage pretending to be something when I know that they’re actually real people right there—that’s probably the thing about theater that drives me crazy.”
Yet if the Neo-Futurists simply stood there and said things that were true (e.g. I am on stage, you are in the audience, the lights are bright, etc.), their theater wouldn’t be the zesty, crowd-pleasing fantasia that it is.
A recent T.M.L.M.T.B.G.B. featured The Squirrel Demonstrates the Five-Act Dramatic Structure, in which the protagonist is a toy, not a real squirrel. The performers do pretend. “Yes,” concedes Tim. “But when they do, it’s obviously silly.”
The squirrel play, silly as it may be, calls to mind the bleak existentialism of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (well, not the giant killer moth deus ex machina part). The Neo responsible is Jeffrey Cranor, whom Eevin fondly calls “Mr. Abstraction.”
“He loves to think about philosophy and science,” says Eevin. “He went through a big time travel phase.”
Jeffrey’s scenes in (Not) Just a Day Like Any Other revolve around not one day, but several in his romantic past. He ponders if luck or fate led him to his wife. He obsesses over past girlfriends, particularly the one who never was. He didn’t feel attractive enough for high school pal Eryn, but the minute he started dating someone else, she never talked to him again. Years later, he finds out she’s running a llama ranch.
Jeffrey: Eryn and I had long conversations in the summer of 1993 about living together on a ranch, raising horses and cows. We never talked about llamas, but I guess that was the next logical step.
Abstraction apparently leads to puppets, which play the roles of Jeffrey and Eryn in imagined llama farm scenes (backdrops by Jason Guerrero), as well as in surreally tinted flashbacks.
The Neo-Futurists slyly sidestep the pitfalls of the autobiographical play. Exposition isn’t bland. Protagonists aren’t passive or whiny. The result isn’t sketch comedy, and it isn’t improv, although it strives for the same impulsive energy as improv. There may be fewer moments of genuine (if forcibly recreated) emotion than in traditional theater, but in its place are inventiveness, wit, and a nice actor making you drinks.
(Not) Just A Day Like Any Other runs 9 performances only, Nov 6-22, Thurs-Sat at 8PM @ The Red Room, 85 E. 4th Street, 3rd floor. $15. For tickets, www.theatermania.com. For more info, www.nynf.org
Sonya Sobieski is a playwright and teacher.