Too Much Light Is Dead: Long Live The Neo-Futurists, Part I.

posted in: Art, Chicago, Family, Plays, Rant 11
Jumping for numbers. I think that's Kurt. Hi, Kurt! Photo: Chicago Neo-Futurists.
Jumping for numbers in Too Much Light Makes The Baby Go Blind. I think that’s Kurt. Hi, Kurt! Photo: Neo-Futurists.


Many people who read the ol’ PG started coming around because we share an interest in quilting. You saw me on TV or online and poked around and hey, look: blog. You know by now I’m glad you’re here.

But there are other readers. The survey this summer (which you can still take if there’s nothing good on TV) showed me a goodly portion of people are here because we came in contact with each other via the world of Chicago performance. In 13-ish years in Chicago I’ve logged untold hours as a performance poet, I do a lot of “live lit” events around the city, and from 2006-2012, I was an active ensemble member of a theater company called the Neo-Futurists.

When I am dying — hopefully a long time from now, on a divan with comfy pillows, lipstick perfect —  I will look back on my life and see plainly at that time — just I do now — that being a Neo-Futurist was one of the most gratifying and soul-affirming experiences of my time on Earth. More on that later.

Tonight, I want to tell you what’s going on with that company right now, for there is news. I aim to share the story so that anyone reading this blog, whether they’re Quilt Camp people or Chicago Performance Camp people, will come along. (And both of those things need to be actual camps.)

The Neo-Futurist ensemble was formed 28 years ago, back in 1988. The group became famous for a show called “Too Much Light Makes The Baby Go Blind: 30 Plays In 60 Minutes.” I’m not going to describe the show too much here, except to say that yes, there were 30 plays, we only had 60 minutes in which to perform them, the ensemble wrote all the plays and the show changed every week. It was not improv (go to Second City for that), and the short pieces were always true to our lives in some way.

This is because the aesthetic, or guiding principle, for the Neos was — and still is — to never pretend to be something we’re not or be somewhere we aren’t. So if I do a cheerleading routine with two other girls in Too Much Light about how I had my colon removed and how it really hurt, the audience at a Neo show knows that what I’m talking about really did happen. (I did a lot of plays about my colon circa 2011 but I never did a cheerleading routine. That would’ve been awesome.)

The one other thing to know about Too Much Light is that it was a phenomenal success. There were three performances every weekend; people would line up around the block to get in to see this thing. Our 120-ish seat theater would sell out most nights. Too Much Light became the longest-running show in Chicago theater history. Twenty-eight years that show ran.

Until it ended, very abruptly, at the beginning of this month. Which brings me to the meat of my tale.

Though the show changed every single week, the 30 plays/60 minutes format was created by a man named Greg Allen. Greg founded the company and owns the trademark and copyright to Too Much Light and the concept of “30 Plays in 60 Minutes.” Every year for a lot of years, the company would pay Greg for the rights to keep doing the show.

This was a terrible situation for the company to be in. The “rights thing” became a rug Greg could whip out from under us at any time. It didn’t have to be that way, but it was.

This is because Greg wanted it that way. A corrosive figure who behaved abominably within the ensemble, Greg abused his position of power in the company as Founding Director over and over again for years in ways too numerous and varied to detail, positioning himself for personal gain (e.g., teaching opportunities, lecture gigs, etc.) while the ensemble made the art and ran the day-to-day operations of the theater. His misdeed are legendary; every ensemble member since the company started has horror stories. He antagonized or manipulated the board of directors; he harassed ensemble members; he offended everyone; he hurt people. My grandmother would have called him “a real rat fink.” My grandmother would not like to hear what I call him.

You needn’t worry that I’m getting petty or assassinating his character: This has all been corroborated in the papers over the past month. The Tribune, the Sun-Times, the Chicago Reader, TimeOut Chicago, they’ve all covered this story because in Chicago, it’s pretty big news, what Greg did. Wanna know what he did?

Greg used the election of Donald Trump as an excuse to pull the rights to Too Much Light.


For the rest of the despicable story, for more juicy details, for my best attempt at an explanation of this foolish person’s behavior, and for a whole bunch of beautiful silver linings, tune in tomorrow, my gorgeous ones.

Meditations On Theater or: Macbeth With Coconuts

posted in: Art 0
Tough crowd. "Performance in the Bolshoi Theatre," print from the Alexander II Coronation Book of 1856. Image: Wikipedia
Performance in the Bolshoi Theatre,” print from the Alexander II Coronation Book of 1856. Image: Wikipedia.

I wrote recently in my column about public speaking and how I’m used to it. In the middle of writing that piece, I got sidetracked for hours by two eternal questions. Well, they’re eternal to me; I’m not sure the rest of the world is bothering with them, but maybe the world should. And if the world meditates on my questions and comes up with something, I would appreciate if the world provided those answers. I have other questions, too, but the world can start here:

1. If a performer presents to an audience, this is making theater. If the performer presents to no one, is theater still made?

2. Does my identity as a performer run so deep that if I were shipwrecked on an island, would I write and perform plays for the squirrels?

My answer to the first question remains, after many years: “I don’t know; go ask Peter Brook.” The answer to the second question is “Yes.”

Were I shipwrecked on a remote desert island, I would without question look for a way to build a little stage in the shade. I would memorize my lines — lines I couldn’t even write down because there is no paper on remote desert islands from what I understand — and I would rehearse hours each day. I would gather split coconuts, which could be used for costume purposes. Were I to choose to produce a puppet show, these coconuts could make excellent boats. I could perhaps train a squirrel to come in on cue for a little comic relief during one of my real downers. “Just eat a nut or something!” I’d yell, and he would never, ever, ever do it. Which would be funny.

Yes, the love for getting up and being on the performance side of that ancient line in the sand runs deep. I wouldn’t change it if I could.

I don’t actively make theater these days. I miss the Neo-Futurists all the time. And how about that: the first sentence of this paragraph has led to a third question: If a person who makes theater isn’t presently making theater, is she still a maker of theater?



How I Imagine the Interview for Employment Goes at This One Coffee Shop on Michigan Avenue

posted in: Plays, Rant 2
Latte art. Photo: Wikipedia.
Latte art. Photo: Wikipedia.

How I Imagine an Interview for Employment Goes at This One Chain Coffee Shop on Michigan Avenue
by Mary Fons

(The HIRING MANAGER and APPLICANT sit at a table in a busy coffee shop.)

HIRING MANAGER: Hi! Thanks for coming by. We were really impressed with your application and I’m glad you could make it today.


HIRING MANAGER: Awesome. So I want to start out just telling you a bit about the company and what we’re looking for. We’re a full-service coffee and tea shop. We have many locations across Chicago and are really leaning in, as they say, haahahahahaa, to disrupt the market, you know, as they say, which is cool. So we want team members, you know, to really be a part of the family. I want to see if you’re a good fit, so I’m going to just ask you a few questions. Sound good?

APPLICANT: Whatever.

HIRING MANAGER: Okay: hypothetical question. A customer comes in. Chipper thirtysomething. Smiling. She exclaims, in a cheery way, to you guys at the counter: “It smells great in here! Wow! What is that? Muffins?” How do you respond?

APPLICANT: Just…nothing. No response.

HIRING MANAGER. Well, you’re off to a good start. Okay, next question. When there’s a line — and there is always a line at this location, always — and a customer finally gets to the register after like, 20 minutes of waiting, ignored, what do you do?

APPLICANT: Just stare at them.


APPLICANT: When they start to talk, I guess I’d turn to someone else behind the counter and ask them something and then go to the warmer and put something in and take something out. And then return to the register and then just wait.

HIRING MANAGER: I am…impressed. That’s exactly right. Okay. Hot tea. Serve it hot or stone cold?

(APPLICANT takes out phone, plays Candy Crush. HIRING MANAGER also takes out phone. Text messages boyfriend.)

HIRING MANAGER: Anyway, the tea, whenever… Did you already answer? About the tea temperature?

APPLICANT: (Putting phone away.) I don’t care.

HIRING MANAGER: (Laughs at her own text. Puts phone on counter and glances at it through the rest of the interview. She looks up at APPLICANT.) You got the trick question? Seriously? “I don’t care” is exactly right. Oh, and here’s a tip, but don’t tell them I told you: When a customer asks, super nice, if you can heat up her beverage, be extremely, extremely sour about it. And make sure it takes forever. 


HIRING MANAGER: All right, we’re almost done. I see on your application you have no prior job experience whatsoever. Nothing. That’s perfect. Oh, also… Yeah, there’s something called a cash register. Do you think you could use one?

APPLICANT: Is it hard?

HIRING MANAGER: Nope. A baby could do it.

(APPLICANT is silent, stares off into space.) 

HIRING MANAGER: I know it’s scary. But we’d train you. Well, another employee who has been on the register for one day would train you. Melissa. She’s the girl who gave you the application that came out of the printer that needs ink.

APPLICANT: I guess I could learn it.

HIRING MANAGER: You, my dear, are hired. Welcome to the family! Everyone here is family. You’re already invited to the Holiday Party! It’s here in the shop during business hours, so we’re closed on a Thursday afternoon at high traffic time. I don’t think people will mind.


*EDITOR’S NOTE: I don’t know what to write about California. I’m still mourning Paris. I can’t handle the anger and powerlessness I feel about citizens of my city being murdered by their fellow citizens every day. I can’t process, much less speak about any of this so I wrote this silly play. But I wanted to say that I’m as anxious and depressed as all of you and maybe this (possibly true) play will distract us for two seconds. I just want to know how a person chooses to cut a brother or sister’s life short. I can’t understand it and I try not to write about things I can’t understand. I fail all the time. But I can’t even approach this one.

Cynthia!! A 10-Minute Play by Mary Fons

posted in: Plays 1
You and me, Cynthia.
You and me, Cynthia.

I am flat on my back. My goals are to eat a piece of steak and answer emails. In that order. But this morning I took a little time to write a little play. The 10-minute play is a great form. It’s just get in, get out. There are 10-minute play festivals around the country; audiences love them because in chocolate and in theater, bite-sized is probably best.

Many of you will recognize the names of famous quilters in this play; I assure you I gave each woman the script to approve ahead of time. Not surprisingly, they saw the satire as all in good fun and happily let their names be used. Resist skipping ahead to see who; it won’t make sense without reading from the start.

And now, PaperGirl Theater Presents:


by Mary Fons
© Jan 2015


MARY – Thirtysomething white woman. On-camera quilt show host, designer.  MARY gesticulates wildly and has an expressive face; some viewers are vocal about hating these qualities in her but what can she do? MARY has exceptional taste in footwear. Uncombed hair.

CYNTHIA – Twentysomething, in her first job out of charm school. She wears oversized red glasses that are forever sliding down her nose. CYNTHIA dreams of vacations she will not have for many years. She plays guitars at open-mics on Tuesdays.

SETTING: MARY’S office, morning.

MARY: Cynthia!

CYNTHIA: (rushing in.) Yes, Miss Fons.

MARY: Where am I going next week? Hilton Head? Tahoe?

CYNTHIA: Omaha, Miss Fons, and Southern Illinois.

MARY: (sipping tea) I see. Southern Illinois is a rather large territory, Cynthia. Where in Southern Illinois am I going? Carbondale, surely.

CYNTHIA: Perry County, Miss Fons.

MARY: Cynthia, in the time it took you to tell me that, I have googled Southern Illinois and discovered the region is known as “Little Egypt.” Were you aware of that?

CYNTHIA: I’m afraid not, Miss Fons.

MARY: (Puts feet up on desk, chews pencil absentmindedly.) Cynthia, put on your list that every time I go to a new place, I want one fascinating fact about that place. It’s good for the blog. (Cynthia scribbles note.) Now, then. What am I doing in these places? Begin at the beginning, Cynthia. Omaha.

CYNTHIA: (shuffles papers.)  You’ll be teaching “A Quilt Called Whisper” on the first day —

MARY: (dreamy) “A Quilt Called Whisper.” Now there’s a class.

CYNTHIA: One of your most popular.

MARY: It’s no wonder! It’s what a patchwork class ought to be. Classic design. Updated palette. Tips. Tricks. Color play. All with book support. They eat it up, that one. Go on.

CYNTHIA: (reading from clipboard) Trunk show in the afternoon, then a lecture in the evening. Dinner beforehand with —

MARY: Which lecture?

CYNTHIA: “A Thirtysomething Quilter Tells All,” Miss Fons.

MARY: Aces. It’s got everything, that lecture. Drama. Intrigue. A story arc. Inspiration. There’s not a dry eye in the house when I finish that one. I make them laugh, I make them cry. Can Tula do that? Kate Spain?? I’d like to see them try. Does Angela Walters have women clutching their fellow guild members in overwhelming, emotional sisterhood feelings? Can Denyse Schmidt get people pulling out Kleenex from their purses? Please! No, Cynthia, it takes that special Mary Fons sauce to get those women truly being in their folding chairs. That reminds me… Get Denyse on the phone. (CYNTHIA retrieves cell phone; hits button because, you know, speed dial. She hands phone to MARY.) Denyse! It’s Mary. How are you? Doll, I was just at RISD and thought of you… No, no. I wasn’t speaking, just, ah, driving through, you know, to get to a remote town in Delaware… Look, DeeDee, those bolts from the new collection? You know I adore them; fabulous. Right, right. Well, they haven’t arrived yet, darling, and I just was following up… What do you mean I have to talk to your distributor?! Oh, sure. Well, see if I invite you to my Christmas party in eleven months. Just… Go schedule a retreat or something, will you?? (Slams down phone.) Unbelievable!

CYNTHIA: (hesitant; quietly clears throat) The second day in Omaha you’ve got the Ohio Star Class, then a book signing.

MARY: Did you order books?

CYNTHIA: They’re already on their way. The shop is ordering rulers.

MARY: Thank god. I hate ordering rulers. I hate dealing with warehouses. Never, ever put the warehouse people on the line with me, Cynthia. Those people drink the blood of their young.

CYNTHIA: Understood, Miss Fons.

MARY: Did you know my mother had her own warehouse?

CYNTHIA: An accomplished woman if there ever was one, Miss Fons.

MARY: Those were the days, Cynthia. Before your time. You know, every once in awhile people accuse me of riding my mother’s coattails. (laughs bitterly) Do you know how hard it is to eke out a living in the quilt world today? It’s nearly impossible. The industry is glutted, swollen with the aspirations of hundreds of designers and authors, all vying for an ever-shrinking piece of the pie. Riding on my mother’s coattails… Please. I’d be a fool. Much smarter to try and make a killing in the bitcoin world. Cynthia, check the price of of bitcoin.

CYNTHIA: (taps phone) Around $300 to the US dollar, Miss Fons.

MARY: Balls. Cynthia, make a note: invest in gold this week.

CYNTHIA: (pause) Miss Fons?

MARY: What.

CYNTHIA: With all due respect, Miss Fons —

MARY: So much due, Cynthia.

CYNTHIA: Yes, of course; with a week in the hospital and paying your own insurance as a contractor and all… Well, I’m not sure this is the time to be investing in —

MARY: Fine. Look, just finish de-briefing me. Southern Illinois. I’m getting a stomachache.

CYNTHIA: (consults contract) A one-day engagement; afternoon workshop with “Whisper” and the “You Call That a Quilt?” lecture in the evening. A large guild, maybe two-hundred or so.

MARY: Nice big audience and another fine lecture. The women of Southern Illinois have impeccable taste. I’ll tell them as much in my follow-up thank you note.

CYNTHIA: I ordered more thank-you notes.

MARY: You did? Oh, Cynthia. You’re doing a fine job. I’m grumpy this morning and I apologize. It’s the three bags of blood they transfused into me this week. Can you believe my veins are pumping with the blood of three different people right now?

CYNTHIA: (visibly recoiling) It is…strange, Miss Fons.

MARY: I feel like one of those warehouse people.

CYNTHIA: Well, you don’t look like one, Miss Fons. You look great.

MARY: That is what I pay you for, Cynthia. Buttress me! Constantly buttress me. I need lunch. Let’s go to Daniel.




Differently Abled.

posted in: Day In The Life 1
The Gallaudet Cheerleaders, 2013. Photo: Gallaudet University.
The Gallaudet Cheerleaders, 2013. Photo: Gallaudet University.


I’ve returned to my Bikram yoga practice and it feels great, except that the first time I walked into the Capitol Hill studio on New Year’s Eve day, a real cruddy memory came flooding back.

In 2009, I was here in D.C. with the Neo-Futurists, performing for a month at Woolly Mammoth theater — which is just a few blocks from my new home, incidentally. It was that trip that caused me to fall in love with D.C. At the time, I was extremely committed to my yoga practice and would get up at five in the morning to walk to the Capitol Hill studio to take the six a.m. class so that I could be showered, fed, watered and at the theater by nine o’clock rehearsal. I kinda can’t believe I did that.

I had an ostomy bag for many years. I had my first bag for about a year and then the surgeons poked my intestine back into my body. I got sick again right away, so I had to get an ostomy again. The second time, I had it about two years. When I was well enough during both periods, I kept practicing yoga. Bikram yoga is 90 minutes inside a room heated to 105 degrees. An ostomy bag is attached to the body with a wax seal and a sticker. Before every class over those years, I would have to tape up my bag with athletic tape so it wouldn’t fall off, then empty it, and then explain to the teacher before class that in between the standing series and the floor series, I would probably have to go empty it again. I usually did; the second half of a Bikram class is done largely on your belly. A bag full of… Well, you can imagine. Typically, it’s not cool to leave a Bikram class at all, so it was my responsibility to apprise teachers of my special case.

The only time any Bikram teacher ever made me feel bad about my ostomy bag was at the Capitol Hill studio, and I’ve practiced in Bikram studios coast to coast.

“Hey, hi,” I said to the teacher with a smile. “I just wanted to let you know, I have an ostomy bag, and I usually have to go to the bathroom between the standing and floor series, so if that’s cool with y—”

The teacher looked at me like there was a bug crawling across my face. “Oh. Well… Is it…visible?” she asked me, her lip kind of up by her nose.

I blinked. No one had ever asked me that before.

“Uh… No, not… No. I mean, you can see a little bit of the appliance and the tape, I guess, poking up over my shorts…” I trailed off. I felt so lousy. It’s amazing how the differences we have become our “normal” until someone makes them bizarre and therefore wrong.

The other day in the changing room, I heard some very unusual sounds. Two girls were making the sounds, which were kind of breathless squeaks. I turned to see two young ladies smiling and jumping up and down and signing to each other like crazy. Either they hadn’t seen each other in awhile or one of the girls was having a really great day and telling the other about it. One of the girls had a Gallaudet sweatshirt on and I remembered that the prestigious college for the deaf, Gallaudet University, is here in D.C.

Bikram yoga is a class that is taught by one teacher who has a 90-minute “dialogue” that he or she recites. It’s the same every class. You listen to the words, you do the poses. Those girls come to yoga, but they can’t hear the words the teacher is saying. But Bikram yoga is also — and always — taught in a room with a floor-to-ceiling mirror in the front of the room. So you don’t really have to hear the dialogue, I realized; you can just watch what the class is doing and keep perfect pace.

I understand why “disabled” is a term that a lot of people don’t like. “Differently abled” is a far better choice of words.

Welcome, Members!

"Rick, this is Mary. Mary, Rick. Oh, and there's Dave! Dave, this is Mary, and this is Rick. You see Gina or Rob? I think they're here. Mary, Gina and Rob are..."
“Rick, this is Mary. Mary, Rick. Oh, and there’s Dave! Dave, this is Mary, and this is Rick. You see Gina or Rob? I think they’re here. Mary, Gina and Rob are friends of Rick’s. They’re here from Cincinnati — Rob is hilarious! Who wants shots?!”

I live within spittin’ distance of Chicago’s legendary downtown Hilton hotel. The Beaux-Arts-style building takes up a whole city block; there are over 1,500 rooms! It has some neat history, too: every U.S. president since 1927 has stayed there, and someone recently told me that when the riots broke out during the 1968 Democratic National Convention, so much tear gas was used by police on the protestors in Grant Park that the gas made its way inside the Hilton, where Hubert Humphrey was taking a shower. Sorry, dude.

The sky-high lobbies inside are gorgeous, especially this time of year; the whole place is festooned with pine bunting and poinsettias and twinkly lights aglow. There’s a towering Christmas tree inside the main entrance, too. Yesterday, I saw a kid nearly fall over backward while he looked up at it.

As I mentioned in a previous post, I’ve been working over there during the day. I’ve found an even better spot: downstairs, in front of the lounge fireplace. I go over each day and the first thing I do, the very first thing, is go to the hotel event screen. This is the big screen near the bank of elevators that tells what conventions are being held that day at the Hilton. (Though there are two hotels in the city with more rooms, nobody has more meeting or event space than my Hilton.) Nothing but nothing entertains me more than looking at a list of what people congregate to talk about. Here’s who’s meeting at the Hilton this week:

E & J Gallo Winery
Customer Supply Chain Connection, University of Chicago
The Mid-American Competing Band Directors Association (MACBDA)
Thompson Holiday Event

I love it! I love to think about a band director literally bumping into a wine salesperson in the long line at the interior Starbucks. She spills her latte on him, he’s nice about it, they laugh about holiday craziness and bam! They fall in love. Years later, at a party, they recount the tale to their friend Julie. And now, a short play.

The Hilton Made Me Love You
A play by Mary Fons (c) 2013

(A party.)

SUE: Darling, why don’t you tell it?
CHARLES: Tell what?
SUE: How we met. Julie wants to know.
JULIE: Tell, tell!
CHARLES: (beaming at SUE.) Well… We were in Chicago.
JULIE: I love Chicago!
CHARLES: We do too, don’t we darling?
SUE: Oh, Charles!
CHARLES: I was there for Gallo. Sue was there for MACBDA, if you can believe it.
SUE: Back when I was still a band director! Isn’t it incredible?
JULIE: I’m so glad you moved into aeronautics.
SUE: Me too. Go on, sweetheart.
CHARLES: We were in line at the Starbucks and Sue bumped into me. She spilled her entire latte all over my shoes. It was an absolute disaster.
SUE: (swatting him.) It wasn’t the whole latte!
CHARLES: It was an entire latte.
SUE: Oh, you!
CHARLES: We got to talking. Sue actually got on her knees to wipe the milk off my shoes and we started laughing… Honey, that was the first day of the rest of my life.
SUE: (with a wink.) Room 1423?
JULIE: (gasps.) You didn’t!
CHARLES: Thirty years later, you’re still the girl of my dreams.
SUE: Charles, you’re my hero.

(CHARLES and SUE embrace, kiss. End of play.)