Continuing its 25th anniversary season, Parkland College Theatre will present a very unusual and ambitious project this month. For just five performances, an ensemble of actors will tackle Christopher Durang’s The Actors Nightmare and The Neo-Futurists’ Too Much Light Makes The Baby Go Blind. Together, these pieces will seek to blur the line between audience and performers and expand some audience members’ idea of what theatre can be.
I had an opportunity to pose some questions to J.W. Morrissette, who is Department Head of Theatre Studies at the University of Illinois, and who also happens to be directing this exciting event at Parkland.
Smile Politely: Too Much Light Makes The Baby Go Blind has a long history, and it’s a very interesting concept. Could you explain it for the readers in your own words?
J.W. Morrissette: The Neo-Futurists (as they call themselves) are a Chicago–based company that has been performing Too Much Light Makes The Baby Go Blind since 1988. They have lots of other projects — including 44 Plays for 44 Presidents, which the U of I Theatre Department recently produced — but this has been one of their identifying events. It is simply an attempt to perform 30 plays in 60 minutes. New plays are written by the ensemble during the week and added to the weekend performances for inclusion in the presentation. The audience selects which plays they would like to see, and exciting, fascinating theatre ensues. To quote The Neo-Futurists, ‘Each night of performance, we create an unreproducable living newspaper collage of the comic and tragic, the political and personal, and the visceral and experimental.’ Their words are so perfectly fit in their description that I find it difficult to quantify the experience in any other way.
SP: What prompted you to think, “This would make a good show for Parkland College?”
Morrissette: Parkland is a fabulous place to celebrate the art of theatre. When a show happens at Parkland, there is a wonderful mix of Parkland and community talents combining to not only make great art in our community, but also to celebrate the work of the artists themselves. Too Much Light Makes The Baby Go Blind is a celebration of the theatrical, the people who create the theatrical, and the stories that define our human condition. Parkland Theatre is one of those gems in our community that we are incredibly lucky to have.
SP: I agree, and I’ve seen some fantastic shows at Parkland over the years. With regards to this show, I have to ask, what were auditions like? Given the format of the show, how did you determine who the best cast would be?
Morrissette: We asked auditioners to select excerpts from The Neo-Futurists collected works and come prepared to have fun! At the audition, the assistant director, Seth Valentine, and I watched their pieces, offered some direction, and spent a bit of time simply chatting with the performers. The chat proved to be the best way to evaluate the performers as potential team members for this piece. We got to know them as individuals, and their perspectives on how theatre works for them helped us to weave together this ensemble. They are such talented and dedicated people; we couldn’t be luckier to have found such a wonderful cast.
SP: How does one rehearse a show such as this? Paint me a word picture.
Morrissette: We are lucky to have the work of The Neo-Futurists as our scripts. What you will see are the scripts they’ve written over the past 24 years. In order to prepare these pieces we have borrowed from all art forms — improv, music, movement, visual art, and more — to inspire and define each individual script. Once the basic structure is in place, the directorial team needs to step out of the way and let the performers perform.
Right now, in rehearsal, we are in the process of rehearsing each piece in random order. Since the audience will dictate a different form of the production every night, we have to get the performers comfortable with the unexpected. It is incredibly exciting to see the open acknowledgement of the live aspect of the theatre in which the audience has a role to play in the creation of the piece. No film could do what the theatre does, and this production capitalizes on the fact that audience and performers are together in the process.
SP: Without giving anything away (if that’s a concern), is there any moment or mini-play you’re particularly excited for audiences to see?
Morrissette: I think the audience will be surprised by how meaningful, funny, serious, outrageous, challenging, and intense these short plays can be. The eclectic mix of genres juxtaposed against each other means that every night will be different and plays will have different meanings simply based on the order in which they are presented. The most exciting thing to me is for the audience to be a direct participant in the evening. With some productions you get the feeling the show would always be the same whether or not anyone came to see the play (which isn’t really true, by the way, but I digress…); with Too Much Light Makes The Baby Go Blind, the show can’t happen without the audience deciding what will happen.
SP: Okay, ten-word answer. Why should people come to see Too Much Light and The Actor’s Nightmare?
Morrissette: It’s a celebration of the art of theatre! It ROCKS!
So, if you’re up for a little adventure this November, check out two daring shows in a single night at Parkland College. Evening performances begin at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, November 14 through Saturday, November 17; the closing performance will be a 3:00 p.m. matinee on Sunday, November 18. For pricing information, you can find the official Parkland Theatre webpage here.