I saw the show Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind in the early 2000’s in Chicago. In their show, you see 30 original plays in 60 minutes. Things start out unusual right off the bat. Audience members line up for admission and roll a die for their admission price. Once you get briefed on the ground rules, you shout out the numbers of the two-minute plays they want to see performed next. Each play is written and acted by the ensemble and what you see constantly evolves as they cast creates new plays all the time. If you’d like to read some of them, a set of them is available on Playscripts to read/license.
It was the longest running show in Chicago theater history and is now also in New York and San Francisco. While a great premise, lots of energy, and the show I attended a lot of fun – you should expect to get plays around very particular and homogenous political/social viewpoints by a cast of mostly very young actors.
Behind the scenes, however, there were problems almost immediately (definitely worth a read). The show idea was founded by Greg Allen and rocketed to local popularity. As it grew, he moved to a new venue and formed an ensemble to perform it every day. Sadly, it turned into a classic example of a idealistic collectivist vision that quickly degraded into relatively predictable battles of egos, control, and ugliness.
“He started this company with this very egalitarian concept,” said former ensemble member Andy Bayiates. “We won’t have any leaders and we’ll have a collective and we’ll do everything together. But his actions never matched up with that vision.”
The conflicts started almost immediately. There were conflicts on expanding the franchise that might put ensemble pay structures at risk, views that Allen was cashing in on the licensing and work of the individual ensemble members, he often ‘forgot’ the lines to 2 minute plays he didn’t like, wished to retain final right of refusal on direction and which individual plays were made, personal clashes, and other issues. The ensemble documented the problems with Allen and in Dec. 2011 came the final disagreement over a play featured in a “best of” anniversary show that lead to Allen’s suspension from the company.
In 2016, Greg Allen revoked the Chicago branch’s rights to the play after “considerable artistic differences and irreconcilable personal conflicts”. The Chicago branch now performs an almost identical show called the Infinite Wrench.
Collectivism is hard
This is sad but shouldn’t be a surprise. The rise and fall of the Soviet Union took only 68 years but killed millions of it’s own citizens in political gulags and ethnic cleansings. China’s politically brutal regime also killed millions, lasted barely longer, and has largely abandoning communism for heavily controlled capitalism. The Communist revolution of Laos gave us the killing fields of Pol Pot. North Korea stands out with growing humanitarian crises, lack of development, nuclear blustering, and rule by a murderous iron-fisted dictatorship. Steve Jobs who lived at and was inspired by All One Farm (a farm commune that was owned by Robert Friedland) but by many accounts of those that worked for him was also a dictator. Sadly, egalitarian societies in the 20th century have almost universally turned into the most brutal regimes in all of human history.
There is only one form of living collectivism that has withstood time. In fact, it has lasted longer than any country or collective group on earth – monasteries. But even in those, there is clear hierarchy and rules. Something to consider the next time you want to make a collectivist group.