TBD performance group brings neo-futurism to the present through short plays


Photo courtesy of Taylor Feld

TBD’s promotional poster. TBD is Northwestern’s neo-futurism-inspired performance group.

Jordan Mangi, Development and Recruitment Editor

What is performance if you’re only allowed to play yourself?

This is a question members of TBD, Northwestern’s neo-futurism-inspired performance group, grapple with every time they create art together.

Following the tradition of the Neo-Futurists, an experimental performance group founded in Chicago in 1988, TBD shows consist of a series of short plays, performed in a random order, in which ensemble members play themselves in real-time. The plays are all written, produced and performed by the ensemble.

Over the past year, the group has adapted to Zoom through a virtual speed dating special event, online shows and inspiration from the original Neo-Futurist Theater itself.

Communication senior Taylor Feld, an ensemble member in TBD, said the three pillars of the group’s form of neo-futurism are brevity, honesty and chance.

When playing themselves, TBD members never lie — if someone gets slapped in a play, the person is actually slapped rather than staging a slap. But sometimes, the ensemble will bend the rules and exaggerate their personalities or circumstances.

“When there’s friction between what a play wants to be and what the form is, I think we tend to bend the form for the play,” Feld said.

TBD ensemble members at a show in Fisk Hall, pre-pandemic.

SESP sophomore Cormac Callanan is the producer for TBD, a role which entails organizing props for each play and coordinating marketing for the shows.

He explained that what TBD does isn’t quite theatre because there’s no fourth wall. But it is storytelling.

“We create art about ourselves and tell it to people,” Callanan said. “It is extremely vulnerable. It can be really funny and it can be really painful, for audience members and for actors alike — but it is the honest truth that no one’s ever heard.”

During Fall Quarter, the TBD ensemble saw a digital show by the Chicago Neo-Futurists. Instead of performing live, audience members chose the order in which they viewed pre-made plays, most of which were in video format.

Bienen senior and TBD stage manager Emma Breen said seeing the Neo-Futurists work in the digital space was inspiring for TBD’s ensemble members.

“It was so cool because they were still making art, they were still portraying a message, but still keeping it in the neo-futurist style,” Breen said. “And so we got absolutely inspired by that… we came out of that meeting and we were all like, ‘we have to do this next quarter!’”

And come Winter Quarter, they did produce an online show. Because it was over Zoom, Breen said the cast was able to expand beyond the limitations of in-person performances. Some of the plays featured ensemble members’ homes, or locations miles away from the Evanston campus, which is impossible when a show is in Fisk Hall. The group is planning on creating another show, potentially with an in-person element, this spring.

Besides making art — about everything from baby formula to nicotine addiction — TBD also spends time forming friendships and making community, which Feld said is one of their favorite parts of the group.

“(TBD members) are my favorite people at Northwestern, maybe in the world,” Feld said. “I really don’t know who I would be artistically if it wasn’t for TBD. I see neo-futurism seeping into everything else I do as an artist.”

Email: [email protected] 
Twitter: @jordanrose718

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