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Katie Chelena was a member of the National Rifle Association before she took her first breath.

It was a gesture from her grandfather to his unborn granddaughter: a lifetime membership that Chelena grew up to reject and spend much of her life trying to terminate. 

Then, in 2018, the NRA received dozens of blood-soaked letters calling for the cancellation of Chelena’s membership. 

It was actually red paint, and part of a play called “Congratulations on your lifetime membership to the NRA.” With balloons of paint spelling “NRA” hung behind her, she soaked her letters in red, telling her story before summoning an audience member to send them on her behalf. 

Chelena wrote the play to inaugurate a new kind of membership: one to an experimental theater troupe called the New York Neo-futurists. A native North Carolinian, Chelena had been writing to the NRA to terminate her membership since she was 18 –to no avail. So, she took it to the stage. Her performance honored a key tenet of neo-futurist theater: telling the truth.

“Neo-futurism is an experimental form of theater that follows four rules,” Chelena says. “We are who we are, we are where we are, we are doing what we’re doing, and the time is now.”

The time, now, is one of pandemic, political and social upheaval. And neo-futurist theater ensembles, from New York to North Carolina, are rising to meet it.

30 Plays in 60 Minutes 

The first neo-futurist show, Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind, opened in 1988 at Stage Left Theater in Chicago.

The form subverted both traditional and experimental forms of theater. Neo-futurist ensembles promised performances that didn’t “pretend”––meaning, actors played themselves, relayed true stories and remained in the moment. Neo-futurist plays were political, satirical, tragic, hilarious, musical and more, all in a single hour. 

The format was simple: 30 numbered pieces of paper hung above the players. Audience members would shout out a number, and the corresponding paper, also containing the name of an original play, would be ripped down and performed. The process was repeated for an hour with the goal to perform all 30 plays.

The “30 Plays” format drew national interest, migrating from Chicago, to New York, to San Francisco and beyond. Two-minute plays percolated in theaters small and large—including, beginning in 2013, performance spaces on UNC-Chapel Hill’s campus. Chelena joined the New York Neo-futurists in 2018. But before that, she was a founding member of UNC’s neo-futurist ensemble, The Modern Shakespeare Society.

“It was illuminating to … learn a form of theater that’s not present in institutions, but is so powerful––particularly for college-aged folks,” she says. 

Chelena first encountered neo-futurist theater when she saw a performance of Too Much Light at a high school theater festival. Its impact, she says, stuck with her. 

“I had never really seen a show like that,” she says. “It wasn’t improv. It wasn’t a long, scripted thing. It felt completely new, and that was exciting to me.”

Chelena is a neo-futurist through and through. After graduating from UNC in 2015 with a dramatic art degree, she moved to New York and began knocking on the neo-futurists’ door. When she finally got her shot to make art on the famous Kraine Theater stage, there was one element of her identity she was determined to bring with her, despite urban pressures and biases: her Southern roots. 

“Neo-futurism demands our full stories and our full truth,” she says. “To render a part of your background as not worthy of art—it doesn’t work. It’s impossible to ignore where you come from in neo-futurism.”

Neo-futurists come from North Carolina

The descendants of Chelena’s founding ensemble are continuing the art form’s tradition of honesty and self-revelation.

Gian Gibboney, a junior at UNC-Chapel Hill, says his first neo-futurist play was deeply personal. Gibboney auditioned for the ensemble with an original song he wrote on the accordion about his struggles with Catholic guilt.

“I feel like ever since then, I’ve started getting a much better understanding of my own issues with these sorts of things,” he says.

Another member of the ensemble, Mia Lerner, adds that a neo-futurist play that required members to take off their clothes to their level of comfort helped her reclaim her body.

“It was this cathartic experience concerning something that I’ve been so ashamed of for the majority of my adult life,” she says. “Now, here I am, presenting [my body]…it was totally mortifying and also so gratifying.”

Lerner has a background in traditional scripted theater. Neo-futurism, she says, gives her the opportunity to bring herself to her art.

“I think coming from this traditional background where you’re given a script, and you’re playing a character –– you try so hard to find truth within that character that applies to you,” Lerner says. “I was really tired of that kind of structure…I wanted to explore what it was like when it was just me and my truth.”

Zoom vertigo, and other pandemic plays 

Since the pandemic emerged, audiences––part and parcel of neo-futurist performances––have gone virtual.

Both UNC’s Modern Shakespeare Society and the New York Neo-futurists have held Zoom shows, but true to form, the ensembles are leveraging the digital medium in more creative ways. Lerner says that UNC’s ensemble is focused on what can be done with Zoom that cannot be done in-person. In a recent show, she performed a play about her experience with vertigo, spinning her laptop around to dizzy audiences.

“That’s something that you couldn’t do before, when we were in person,” she says. “It’s obviously not ideal … it feels more artificial, because it is more artificial. But part of what neo-futurism stands for is trying to bridge that gap, and make it feel as open and honest as in-person shows do.”

The New York Neo-futurists are playing with other mediums, too. The ensemble launched a podcast almost immediately after lockdowns went into effect.

“The New York Neo-futurists have been performing every weekend for 17 years,” Chelena says. “It felt important to keep that momentum going.”

Since then, the ensemble has held Zoom performances of a new show called Cyberwrench––something Chelena says is “kind of my baby.” 

“I get emotional every time I hear the opening music that we use in Cyberwrench now, because it was such a beautiful moment … to feel that Saturday night energy again,” Chelena says. 

Up and down the East Coast, neo-futurist principles are guiding the adaptation of live theater to the pandemic –– and, consequently, the adaptation of audiences’ lives to a time of chaos and instability.

A theater form for everyone 

While neo-futurist artists are eager to return to in-person performances, to focus their efforts on the future would be to betray the form’s mantra: The time is now. 

The time is one of pandemic, social and political turmoil that ebbs and flows. And ensembles, with live streaming, podcasts and videos are keeping audiences radically in the moment. 

“For me, this pandemic has really proven to me all that neo-futurism stands for,” Lerner says. “I feel like I’m much more centered in what’s happening because I have these neo-futurist lessons behind me where it’s like, this time, which has been so disruptive, is still the time that we’re in.”

Neo-futurism, Chelena says, not only weathers the present, but invites its audience to join, too. 

She says there are many things about traditional theater that she doesn’t like, but that she holds neo-futurism as a beacon of what the art form could be: innovative, playful, and inclusive. 

“We’re never going to lie to you,” she says. “We invite you to play with us, for real.”

“We invite you to rethink what theater can be.”

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