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Feature Mon Oct 27 2008

An Interview with John Pierson

John Pierson writes, directs and performs original work for The Neo-Futurists, a twenty-year-old theater company that's most well-known for its late-night show, Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind, 30 Plays in 60 Minutes. Here he talks about taking risks, embracing flaws, prioritizing process over product, and recognizing the allure of live performance.

How'd you get started in theater? Weren't you in Screeching Weasel making influential punk music?

I've been in theater longer than I've been in the band. During the touring days of Screeching Weasel, '87 to '92, I was also a student full-time at Columbia College -- those were very busy and monetarily poor times. For most of the functioning time in Screeching Weasel, I was averaging writing one full-length play for every record I had recorded. I'm twenty for twenty, records (versus) plays right now. I studied improvisation for nine years, and I taught it too. I'd never seen Too Much Light before I was asked to audition by my friend Stephanie Shaw, who was an active Neo at the time. It just seemed a perfect fit. I was already, writing, directing and acting in my own material, plus I had experience touring and running a company.

Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind is made up of two minute plays, with new plays put into the rotation each week. How do you go about writing a two minute play? You know, without getting brain cramps and freaking out about the time crunch?

It's all about crunching ideas and experimenting. I don't stress too much about it. One of the secrets is to not try to tackle too much at one time, just simplify an idea. I had already been writing poetry, short stories and short physical work, so it wasn't a very difficult transition for me. Staying consistent is difficult, but you just have to give in to
the fact that each play won't be a winner. And since you can take a play out after just one week, it makes it much easier to experiment with other styles -- not having to worry about sinking thousands of dollars into a single risky idea alleviates the stress of taking chances. Since we have to write every week, it forces us to look at normal everyday occurrences a bit more analytically. Instead of getting angry at the steward of the Southwest flight for telling me to take off my "I Fuck Like A Girl" shirt for the duration of the flight, I can instead write a scathing criticism of censorship and make it into a sexy dance.

What are your major artistic influences?

I'm no art historian, but I do enjoy reading art history, and through this I learned that many of the artists I admired looked to other media and sciences to inspire them. Whenever I'm working on a book, I don't read books; I go to see plays or read poems or read science journals. When I'm writing a play, I listen to music or go to food courts and watch people buy, buy, buy. Often, writing for me is putting down a word or sentence or movement to paper, and then the rest is just trying to justify its existence. Some tangible influences are: Marcel Duchamp, Hugo Ball, Buster Keaton, Hal Hartley, Cat Stevens, The Circle Jerks and Baudelaire.

How does your experience with music influence your work in the realm of theater?

For many years I kept these two major disciplines separate. I never talked about theater when I was on the road playing music, and I never wrote songs for my full-length plays or for Too Much Light. There's always been a do-it-yourself style acquainted with any artistic pursuit I take on. Part of that is wanting control and wanting to be able to experiment, but part of it is also an insecurity in my art -- not expecting that anyone would want to release, produce or publish my material but myself. In performances in general I've always preferred intimate settings and audiences, which leads to great, personal, honest contact in the music and theater, but this approach doesn't quickly (or ever) lead to fame or financial security; that is our reality. Sometimes this is what drives me, knowing that my passions are just as ridiculous as battling windmills or fighting for my life and then accidentally getting killed by a piano falling on my head.

You made a full-length show, The Fool (Returns to His Chair), that had a long and collaborative rehearsal process. What was that process like for you and why did you design the process that way?

It was inherent in the project. The Fool was my attempt to try to share my process with other artists I respected. Part of that style is diving into a topic, submerging myself in words and text, and then slowly peeling all the words and ideas away and leaving behind only physical, dynamic images and sounds. This technique takes time. Plus I wanted the show to be very physical, and the ensemble had to learn new ways of building their strength and learning how to trust each other in physically dangerous spaces.

Kurt Chiang and I also have a strong interest in creating decadent and chaotic sound. This type of sound/music can be created randomly, which takes very little time at all, or it can be created meticulously, which take hours and days and days. And then either approach takes an even longer dedication of time to building a physical world around these insane soundtracks.

Was there anything else you thought you'd be when you grew up? Tax attorney, baker, candlestick maker?

I wanted to be a math teacher or an English teacher, but I never took either options too seriously. My approach to living has very little to do with growing up or goal attainment. I am a creature of process. I am never an expert. I am never done.

Why do you think people come to see live theater? And why don't more people come to see live theater?

To enjoy truly live theater you have to enjoy the wonder of flaws -- you must understand and appreciate the unreproducible; and I just don't think that is very important to many people. Most just want to escape -- which has its place -- but I don't think it belongs in theater, not without some amount of risk or deep contemplation.

What's your next big project?

I just finished recording a record with my newest, but now old, band Even In Blackouts. The record is called Thresholds From The Basement. Our work on recording it is done, and now we start the next step of trying to get it released into the world. From the show The Fool we created a collective called "The Fool Machine Collective (on a fuck up island)" and we're starting work on a new prime-time show that goes up in October of 2009. The show incorporates many theater companies turning different spaces in The Neo-Futurarium into their vision of "fear." We've been lucky enough to have been given a full half-hour at the end of the audience's tour of fears, and we get to create it in the theater proper, which is exciting. You can visit the history-collecting site for it at:

About the Author:

Lindsay Muscato is a Gapers Block staffer who escaped from a toaster fire in Buffalo, NY at the age of four. She now lives in a slanty shanty in Andersonville, has written and performed with Around the Coyote and 2nd Story, and she's the managing director of The Neo-Futurists. Read her scribblings at

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Ian Belknap / November 3, 2008 11:14 AM

It is a privilege to share a city and a neighborhood and an office with two such lively and dynamic geniuses.

Carry on, both of you.

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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »


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