Sean Benjamin: Neo-Futurist Alumnus
Artistic Director and Ensemble Member Kurt Chiang writes about current prime-time show Pseudo-Chum’s creator, Sean Benjamin.
My career as a Neo-Futurist ensemble member spans over six years, since I joined the company and performed for the first time in Too Much Light on Friday, August 8th, 2008. Within that time, I have written 205 plays that have gotten into the show.
In writing those plays, all of them on a weekly deadline, I have inevitably resorted to recycling ideas here and there. This is common practice amongst Neo-Futurist ensemble members. One idea/motif/trick I routinely revisit is to light my plays using our theater’s stand-up ghost light. That light adds a stark, concentrated mood. Or sometimes I click it on and off to punctuate the text in a particularly satisfying way. It makes the writing stand out. If I ever write something, but I’m stranded for staging, I’ll often stick a ghost light in it. Works every time. Of those 205 plays I’ve written, nine of them use the ghost light in this way, to highlight the words and bring focus to the room.
Another common practice amongst Neo-Futurist ensemble members is to steal from each other.
The ghost light idea I stole from Sean Benjamin.
Before I was a company member, I saw Sean perform his play The Sleeping & The Dead in Too Much Light. This was in early 2008. He performs the play sitting in a chair, lit by the ghost light. The play’s text is only three stanzas. Between each stanza, he reaches up and turns off the light. He pauses, and he waits for a moment in the dark. Then he reaches up again, turns the light back on, and speaks the next stanza. This action repeats until the play is complete.
That was a great play. It was full, and it was complete. I could hear Sean’s voice in it, his point-of-view, as he told the story of driving his daughter around to get her to fall asleep in a cemetery. He recites the names engraved on the tombstones. He recites his daughter’s name. It was a punch of quiet in a show of chaos. It was nice.
I’m teaching a class right now, where we teach the process of making plays for Too Much Light, and the students are required to see the show. One of the students said that a surprising thing they noticed at the performance was how the plays stuck out as individual writing. They expressed, “I really got the sense that each play was created by one person. I never thought of the show this way before.” I think that’s very true of Neo-Futurism. It’s important who the writer is, whose point-of-view is being perpetuated. Sean — and his plays — stuck out in this way. Sean’s plays were SEAN PLAYS, and they were very very very good.
I talked about Sean’s writing with another Neo-Futurist alumnus, Jay Torrence, who is the writer/creator of The Ruffian’s Burning Bluebeard. The conversation was about what makes Too Much Light work as a whole, and one of those things is to have writers bring that kind of strong individualized voice to the show, and we pointed at how Sean epitomized that. He brought solid, straight-up, true and immediate storytelling. No frills. Phil Ridarelli talks about him in our book The Neo-Futurists: Body: “Sean brought a blue-collar sensibility to the show. His art is grounded and accessible. You wanna put a label on it? Refer to it with some precocious, academic terminology? Go right ahead. But I’ve got work to do.”
Sean was a Neo-Futurist from 1996 to 2009. No, those binders of paper aren’t just his plays from that time. Those are our paper archives (our only archives) of the plays we created in those years. It’s a lot. And although Sean’s individual voice is only a fragment of all that work, that voice bleeds through the entirety of it. The influence we take from each other courses through all those plays. That’s what makes us an ensemble, as opposed to completely individualized artists. When I stole Sean’s device of the ghost light in 2008, that was a only a drop in the pond. Neo-Futurists steal everything from each other. I’m not going to dig through too closely right now, but I can guarantee you that you’d be able to pick up on that “blue-collar sensibility” from a chunk of the writing that’s stuffed in there.
Pseudo-Chum, Sean’s current fuller-length play at the Neo-Futurists right now, is the first show of a season that features work by creators who are Neo-Futurist alumni. In February, Lisa Buscani (active ensemble from 1989-1992) will present Redletter, and in the spring Phil Ridarelli (active 1990-present, although Phil is deactivating this month, very sad) will throw up Trust Us/Screw You, along with current ensemble member Dan Kerr-Hobert. I’m excited to celebrate this year of artists that built the groundwork of what I do. I can sit back and be a fan again. And maybe I’ll steal some more ideas.
Pseudo-Chum plays Thursday, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30pm. (Thu always pay-what-you-can)