How the Neo-Futurists make The Infinite Wrench work from home

The Neos' signature show is one month into its new life online.

The current ensemble of the Neo-Futurists. Photograph: Joe Mazza/Brave Lux

On the weekend of March 13, as the seriousness of the coronavirus pandemic was coming into focus in much of the United States, Chicago’s Neo-Futurists joined the growing consensus among the city’s theater community and canceled performances of their signature show, which has run in some version nearly every week since 1988.

That same weekend, though, the Neo-Futurist ensemble got to work on a plan to make sure it wouldn’t miss two weekends. On Saturday, “a committee of four of us got together and brainstormed how the show could possibly translate to a digital platform,” says the Neos’ current artistic director, Kirsten Riiber, who took the reins from predecessor Kurt Chiang just two months ago. 

The following day, at the company’s scheduled monthly ensemble meeting, the ad hoc committee presented a loose proposal for how to take The Infinite Wrench (an ever-evolving collection of “30 plays in 60 minutes”) online. “It took my breath away how unified the enthusiasm was from the ensemble to go for it,” Riiber says. And on Sunday, March 22, the company’s first go at an all-digital version of The Infinite Wrench was ready for Patreon supporters to view at home.

If you’re not familiar with the show’s usual structure, check out the primer I wrote for TodayTix not too long ago. But here’s the short version: The cast—always performing as themselves, never playing a fictional character—races to get through that week’s 30 micro-scripts before a one-hour timer cuts them off. New pieces are written and rotated in each week (the number determined by rolling a pair of dice), but the audience decides the order of performance at every show by shouting numbers from a menu of titles they’re handed at the door.

In the earliest discussions about how to take the show streaming, Riiber says, the company considered recording an audience-free version of a live show each week, to preserve some of the frenetic energy that comes from the randomized running order. “But as the developments around Covid-19 [continued], it became increasingly clear that, Oh, we shouldn't even be assembling in the theater to do this,” she says.

Thus another plan was settled on: Each week’s The Infinite Wrench Goes Viral would be made up of 30 separate video plays, with viewers at home given the option to click titles in the order of their choosing from a website (crafted by ensemble member Connor Shioshita Pickett with a blocky, ’90s-esque throwback interface), or to use YouTube’s playlist function to shuffle the week’s videos at random.

A more typical performance of The Infinite Wrench. Photograph: Evan Hanover

Even in that first hastily-assembled collection of videos last month, I was extremely impressed by how well the Neo-Futurists’ artifice-free aesthetic translates to the screen. The initial videos have included a variety of techniques—many are shot on smartphones, but some ensemble pieces are recorded on that medium-of-the-moment, Zoom. One play in the first set used charming illustrations to suggest crude animation, while another text-based piece was seemingly created as a screen-capture video of its author scrolling through a word-processor document.

“You know, we've never been known to be a high-production-value kind of company,” says Jorge Silva, the Neo-Futurists’ managing director. “We've always been known to do things DIY, and here it is again, just in a different form.”

For that first week, Riiber says, around 75 percent of the scripts were pulled from the Neos’ archive. “There was no way we were going to be able to write 30 brand-new plays on top of figuring out how to film them. We built the show from plays we were confident would translate to film, which is such a tricky and new question for us,” she says. “Our technician—who was now suddenly our film editor—was receiving clips from us, and she was splicing those together and, you know, balancing the sound and doing all that.”

After the scramble to produce the first 30 video plays, the ensemble returned to its usual model, rolling the dice to determine that seven new plays would be written and shot for the following week. But Riiber adds that the Neos may continue to re-shoot some scripts that persist in the show, either to bring in new cast members, or just to change up the aesthetic feel as everyone gets more comfortable in a new medium.

The cast Zooms out in a screenshot from “A Classic Song With Slight Adjustments for Modern Times,” a piece from the first online edition on March 22.

“The spectrum of our familiarity with, like, iMovie and video editing in general is broad. We’re learning a ton from watching each other’s stuff too,” Riiber says. And though the Neos have always had a loyal subset of regular visitors, the ensemble is extra-cognizant of keeping things fresh for Patreon subscribers who are paying to receive the show every week.

“With the traditional show, you could come three times in one month and see mostly the same menu, but it's not going to feel like the same show because the order will be different, the cast might be different. There's so many components that make it live and make it unique,” she says. “We don't want people to return and see a lot of what they've already seen. So we're really pushing against that and figuring out how to keep this fresh.”

The Infinite Wrench’s inherent ability to respond to events in the news each week should help that effort. “When our community experiences a victory or a tragedy, both can be honored and acknowledged in our show,” Riiber says. Neo-Futurist alums and other guests are likely to make appearances as well: “We have Neo-Futurist alumni who were on the other side of the country who now can participate in the show. We’re having a lot of people reach out to us saying, I want to be part of this.”

Riiber has one last important shoutout for the success of the online Wrench so far. “The unsung heroes of practically every show we do until this is over are our partners or significant others, the ones who are holding cameras. And, you know, making sure the lights go out at the right moment.”

New editions of The Infinite Wrench Goes Viral are released every Sunday at 8pm Central, with links sent via email to Patreon supporters who pledge $3 per week or more.