Strangers On A Kraine: My Tiny Ode to the New York Neo-Futurists
Author’s Note: Too Much Light Makes The Baby Go Blind closed a few years ago when Greg Allen revoked performance rights in Chicago, but the Neos I know still put on a weekly show called The Infinite Wrench. I have yet to have the pleasure of seeing it live, but it seems similar to Too Much Light in a structural sense. Learn more about it and them here.
Whenever I want to impress someone, be it a friend, family member, or date, I take them to the Kraine Theatre on East 4th street in New York City on a Saturday Night.
Firstly, you should know that the Kraine Theatre is little more than a tiny black box you might find in a high school auditorium, or at a theatrical workshop at some overpriced summer camp. It’s so small because it’s built into what used to be the parlor inside of an old Manhattan brownstone. The even tinier box office is in the foyer beside the stairs that lead up to the second-floor bar and bathrooms. I believe people actually still live on the third floor, but I’ve never been up that far, so I can’t know for sure. Regardless, it’s a former house that now functions as a ninety-nine-seat theatre for some of the most ridiculous performance art I’ve ever had the privilege of introducing to others.
Every weekend, the Kraine Theatre plays home to a particular troupe — The New York Neo-Futurists. To be frank, I’m not sure how to best describe The Neo-Futurists. A few words come to mind — odd, humorous, brave, authentic, outlandish — but there’s nothing I can say succinctly to do them any real justice. However, I can tell you that they originated in Chicago, and that there’s another troupe out in San Francisco. The New York Neo-Futurists make up a fairly large group, too. I probably saw two dozen different playwrights and performers over my years of attendance to their shows.
It was sort of an accident that I came across the Neo-Futurists in the first place. Actually, it had to do with a flavor-of-the-month obsession of mine — a podcast called Welcome To Nightvale. You see, when something in media captivates me to the degree that Nightvale did back in 2014, I conduct an alarming amount of research until I absorb every small, ‘fun’ fact I can find about it. It’s truly done wonders for me at trivia nights.
As it happens, I learned that the creators of Nightvale met as New York Neo-Futurists, and that most of the show’s recurring voice cast were Neos themselves. Predominately, Cecil Baldwin, Dylan Marron, and Meg Bashwiner.
Knowing this, I immediately purchased tickets to their reoccurring show, Too Much Light Makes The Baby Go Blind. Admittedly, I really just wanted to rub elbows with the Nightvale cast. My father, who had no idea what Nightvale was, came with me as an excuse to visit the city. It’s our favorite city in the world, after all, where we both spent formative years.
I’ll quickly tell you that, yes, after the show, I met Cecil Baldwin for the first of six times. It was a dream come true back then, and I was shaking from head to toe in true fangirl form. I proceeded to watch in shock and awe as my father bummed a cigarette off him outside. As they smoked together on the neighboring stoop, I was struck by the sheer magnitude of one truth: All of Tumblr would kill to be my father right now.
Anyway, Too Much Light is a production that boasts the performance of 30 plays in 60 minutes. These ‘plays’ or vignettes range from ten seconds to five minutes a piece while an analog timer ticks down on the wall. The audience receives a ‘menu’ of plays coming in, and have to SCREAM the number of the play they want to see as soon as the previous play ends. Neos then grab the loudest number called off a clothes line hanging over the stage, read the title of the play out, and scramble to get started. If this sounds wildly anxiety-inducing to you, it kind of is. But it’s also exciting. Delightful. Hilarious and, often times, HIGHLY impressive.
Of course, there’s more to it than that. For instance, if the entire house sold out for a show, the Neos would order pizza for everyone. If you bought your tickets at the door instead of online, you paid $14 plus whatever you’d roll on a 6-sided die. If the timer ran out before all the plays were finished, a randomly selected audience member would be allowed to grant additional time, if they so wanted. Everyone received a name tag on their way in with titles like ‘Sword of Damocles’ written in sharpie. Most of all, the production thrived on audience participation. I don’t just mean shouting things from your seat, but getting up and onto the stage to become part of the act. And fast.
I have seen Too Much Light eleven times, and my affection for the production has long outlived my interest in Nightvale (my capacity to enjoy ongoing podcasts has atrophied a lot over the years). This is especially because the show was different every time you saw it, since the micro-plays were brand spankin’ new each week. More, throughout my eleven-show tenure, I found myself becoming familiar with strange Neos in an awful hurry. I mean, we were being timed.
The first time I stepped on the stage, I was invited to sit at a table with a MOUNTAIN of snack food piled on top. One of the Neos — Ezra Reaves — directed me to pick anything I’d like to eat out of the dozens of bags of chips, sodas, and baked goods. I was mid-bite into a chocolate muffin when they announced to the audience that everything on the table was found in a dumpster. I ate the entire thing before returning to my seat. Later, an audience member was wordlessly served a gin cocktail. Nothing happened for a while, until we all realized that show wouldn’t proceed until the house collectively paid the bar bill of $12. I’ve never seen so many people frantically search for loose change all at once.
The second time, several Neos where performing a parody of THIS viral campaign. It was the one that aired years ago featuring complete strangers kissing each other and reacting. As the timer ticked down, five Neos stood silently on stage and waited to be kissed by strangers. For the sake of moving things along, I took the lead and made out with the actor farthest to the left. Four others followed suit, including my date for the evening who was visiting from Canada. My Neo was a great kisser. Coincidentally, I managed to get his number in a play that followed shortly after. We subsequently texted back and forth for two days before he ghosted me. My poor, lonely, twenty-something-year-old heart was devastated.
I’ve sort of lost track of when I did what, because a whole lot of ‘what’ happened throughout. I pantomimed a dramatic kiss with another audience member to Madonna’s ‘Like A Prayer’. I danced in huge circle while someone dabbed my forehead with paint. I ate chocolate chip cookies a Neo had baked with the stand mixer she was ranting about. I deep-throated a cold, vegan sausage while a Neo gave me a lap dance. That was pretty awful since I couldn’t get the taste out of my mouth for days. At one show, I had my shirt AND pants off while one of the Neo’s talked about coming out of the closet to his whole family. I know this sounds wild and raunchy, but it was actually a very somber and meaningful piece about the power of vulnerability. Many of those plays were powerful in ways that weren’t funny, too, as they explored concepts like death, disease, fear, heartbreak, loneliness, sexism, racism, and violence. Something I still think on often is when a Neo named Katy-May Hudson shared a story about her deceased father. At the end, she looked me right in the eye and said: “I will try very hard not to forget you. Will you try hard not to forget me?”
If you were to ask my fiancé to describe something ‘fun’ or ‘unique’ about me, she’d probably tell you that I run into people I know everywhere we go. She’s not exaggerating. I mean, I was in Florence, Italy once and somehow ran into my childhood best friend at a bus stop. Then again, because I’m a performer and a very outgoing sort, my network of friends and acquaintances is pretty big.
But, inside that humid, creaky, parlor-sized theatre deep in the Ukranian Village, I had encounters with completely strangers that’ll stick with me forever in all the best ways. I’ll always cherish feeling part of something bigger than myself without it having to be so serious. Without knowing names, where-are-you-froms, or what the hell was going to happen next, I found a tiny family of fellow artist, writers, performers, and humans at the Kraine, and I owe them a great debt for jump-starting my own inspiration at times.
Oh, and for teaching me just how awful vegan sausage tastes, no disrespect intended.