Former Neo-Futurists Speak Out Against 'TML' Creator, Charge Abuse Of Power
By Stephen Gossett in Arts & Entertainment on Dec 6, 2016 7:14PM
"Too Much Light Makes The Baby Go Blind" turns 25 years old this year. Photo Credit: Melody Kramer
Greg Allen sent the Chicago theatre world reeling last week with his announcement that he’s pulling the rights to the show Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind from the local Neo-Futurists group in order to revamp it as a more explicitly political show that supports women and minorities. But several former Neo-Futurist ensemble members say that a pattern of bullying behavior—the kind that allegedly prompted his suspension from the show in 2012—casts doubt on his credibility to do so.
Allen, the founder and creator of the iconic show Too Much Light, who left the production in 2012, laid out his case for taking creative control of the show in a press release last Wednesday. He stated that he intends to rebrand the long-running show into a more explicitly socially activist vehicle to combat on-the-rise Trump-ism and support women and minorities. The new version will be cast “entirely of people of color, LBTQ+, artist/activist women, and other disenfranchised voices,” according to the release. One wrinkle to this narrative: the Neo-Futurist ensemble voted to suspend Allen from the show in 2012 over harassment allegations, according to former Neo-Futurist staff. Allen did not exercise his right to petition to be reinstated as an ensemble member the following year, former staff also said.
Chicagoist spoke with multiple former ensemble members who say Allen exhibited “a pattern of mistreatment of women” when he was at the Andersonville-based theatre, which they say ultimately fueled his suspension from the company. They also insisted that the Neo-Futurists are already firmly dedicated to social activism and diversity.
In a blog post published shortly after Allen's announcement, Megan Mercier, an ensemble member from 2008 to 2013, contends that Allen was “notorious” for “behaviors that diminished and marginalized female members of the company.”
She described the December 2011 incident that led to Allen’s suspension from the company for Chicagoist, and her description was corroborated to Chicagoist by several ex-staffers who were also present in the room.
In December of 2011, the company was rehearsing it’s annual Best Of program for Too Much Light, which features a marathon of 30 short-form plays in 60 minutes. Jessica Anne, an ensemble member from 2006 to 2012, had produced a short experimental play that referenced a local, then-7-year-old theater critic, Ada Grey, as well as Anne's personal experiences as a child abuse survivor. Allen, who is friends with Grey's parents, objected to the play during its second rehearsal. According to Anne, Allen lashed out and made an ultimatum—cut the play, or he would walk out of the Best Of production days before it was slated to run:
“The first thing he said was, ‘It’s either me or the play,’” Anne said. Allen could have voiced his opinion on the play at any point during the year, she added.
“He was so dismissive,” Anne said. “The whole time he wouldn’t even look me in the eye or address me as a person, even though I was doing my very best to articulate how he was making me feel. He just ignored me.”
It was “bullying, intimidation, and abuse of power,” Mercier said of the incident.
“To try to prevent someone from raising their voice is not in the spirit of what [Allen] created.”
“It totally demolished our process,” said Caitlin Stainken, an ensemble member between 2008 and 2012. “[Allen] became combative and started belittling Jessica. He was basically calling her stupid, saying she didn’t know what it was she had written, saying she had called his friends child molesters—which was not at all what the play was about. He refused to see how he was misunderstanding the work and decided to attack Jessica directly—which is something we’d all experienced in private or in smaller moments before. But this was him doing that to a female ensemble member in front of everybody.”
When asked for comment, Allen told Chicagoist via email, "The argument in question involved content I considered to be libelous," referring to Anne's play. "I opposed it then and I would oppose it today."
The following month, former staff said, the ensemble presented Allen with a petition detailing a series of alleged harassment incidents. Allen, who walked out of that meeting, was suspended for one year and never applied to be reinstated, according to ex-Neo-Futurist staff.
That incident was reportedly one of several, Stainken said. Stainken—who said Allen also committed scores of smaller aggressions, such as addressing her as "sweetie" instead of using her name—outlined an incident, also from 2011, in which Allen picked her up during performances in a way that put his face near her crotch, even when she specifically asked him to pick her up differently:
“I had a play [Die, Fruit Flies, Die] where the ensemble would pick me up and carry me from the stage. Each cast member was assigned a place to hold me so that I wouldn't get dropped. Greg was supposed to have one of my legs at the outside knee, but every time we did the play he would go between my legs and scoot up instead, so that his face was basically in my crotch. It made me extremely uncomfortable. I made sure we went over where each person was supposed to hold me multiple times, and he would do it correctly at rehearsal. But at show time he would do it his way. It was clearly deliberate. When I asked him outright to please stay in his place he said ‘the audience; thought it was funnier his way. I ended up cutting the play early.”
Greg Allen / Neo-Futurists
“The current ensemble is busy looking ahead. So they can't speak. The people that Greg is yet to recruit for his new TML initiative can't speak because they don't exist yet. But I want to protect, warn and caution them,” she said.
In addition to feeling a sense of duty toward the current ensemble, Mercier pointed to a culture that prevents people who have experienced harassment from sharing their stories.
”I think that our society at large has a very unhealthy relationship to a victim's authority over their own experiences,” she said.
Stainken echoed those sentiments while stressing that Allen’s actions were habitual. She added, “I feel that the story of why Greg was disciplined falls too heavily on Jessica Anne. It's true that what happened to her was the final straw that forced us all into action. But it was a very long time coming, and was the result of many similar instances.”
Asked for comment about the allegations, Karg declined to elaborate “out of respect for everyone involved,” but added, “ those stories are for the individuals to tell, and if they’re ready to tell them, this organization will stand with them.”
As for Allen’s claim that TMLMTBGB or the Neo-Futurists themselves are in need of a radical, enlightened retool: Ensemble members, past and present, pointed toward the cast and audience diversity along with a demonstrated history of activism.
“There is age diversity, cultural diversity, all the things [Allen] lists, it’s already there,” Mercier said. “I don’t know if he said that out of ignorance You’d think he would know the demographic. So I’m not totally sure what he means by that. It’s just not accurate at all.” Nearly 70 percent of the current ensemble is comprised of women, people of color or transgender members.
Karg also says the company has a long history of outreach. She told Chicagoist:
"As a company, we’ve started a lot of initiatives that open our doors wider: We launched Neo Access last year, which has brought artists and audiences with disabilities to see our work; we launched scholarships for people of color within our education and workshop series, which diversifies our student base, which in turn feeds our ensemble. And we’re very committed to the LGBTQ community here; much of our audience and ensemble identifies as LGBTQ; and every year we celebrate that with Chicago’s Pride performances—and donate proceeds to an organization that serves that community."
(Mercier wrote that Allen in 2012, after he was suspended, withheld royalties generated by fundraiser performances that benefited LGBTQ youth in Chicago; Current artistic director Kurt Chiang verified the claim, and Chicagoist independently obtained documents that also confirm.)
At the same time, the Neo-Futurists are pressing on, closing out the as-we-know-it Too Much Light run to packed houses and sharing info about what comes next. On Friday evening, the company posted a video in which Chiang revealed—aside from the awful coincidence of having received news of Allen’s decision on Chiang’s 35th birthday—the company intends to fill TMLMTBGB’s regular weekend timeslots with new work at the same theatre, starting right away in 2017. It has also reopened its CrowdRise donations page amid an outpouring of fan support. As of Tuesday morning, the campaign had generated nearly $30,000.
“Our company’s mission is to be a living newspaper and tell true stories, especially to those unmoved and unreached by conventional theatre,” Karg told us. “We’re going to be responding to the world around us every week at a quick pace. These practices have been built up over 28 years We’re working together to figure out what exactly that looks like. But Neo-Futurism is still alive and well; and people will recognize this ensemble and the art they make on our stages.”