ANDERSONVILLE — The coronavirus-caused shutdown of restaurants, bars and theaters has wreaked havoc on Chicago’s entertainment industry. But for one Andersonville theater company, the switch to a digital format has led to a larger audience.
The Neo-Futurists have operated Chicago’s longest running late night show, with “The Infinite Wrench” being performed weekly for over 30 years. When the coronavirus pandemic caused the closure of theaters, the show’s status as the longest running in the city was in jeopardy.
“The Infinite Wrench” cast, however, is known for being nimble, as they normally stage 30 plays in 60 minutes from its theater at 5153 N. Ashland Ave. So when the stay at home order came, the cast quickly pivoted to a new digital format — and the revamped production has been a hit, said Kirsten Riiber, artistic director for The Neo-Futurists.
“It’s been very successful,” Riiber said. “This is one of those times where staying present with our audiences, who we’ve never been able to do our work without, is vital.”
The Neo-Futurists closed their performance space on March 13 and immediately began thinking about how to take “The Infinite Wrench” digital. They came up with “The Infinite Wrench Goes Viral,” which is a pre-recorded performance of the troupe’s show featuring its traditional couple-minute-long play format.
Like the in-person edition of the show, each of the digital plays is written by an ensemble member and seeks to comment on current events. The digital version of the show still has a “ripped from the headlines” feel, though now the cast members can experiment with film production and use art forms like animation, Riiber said.
The digital format of the show has meant increased accessibility to the performance. That, plus that fact that many people are still stuck at home, had made the new edition of “The Infinite Wrench” a success.
The show is bringing in 100 percent of the production’s pre-coronavirus revenue, according to the theater company. Its success has meant that The Neo-Futurists are pulling in 50 percent of their total revenue from all shows, classes and concessions just from the digital edition of “The Infinite Wrench.”
That comes despite a ticket for the show only being $3, which the company did to make the show even further accessible.
While the company’s Andersonville theater can only hold 147 people, “The Infinite Wrench Goes Viral” has more than 650 weekly subscribers from around the country and world, Riiber said. The success has meant that The Neo-Futurists have been able to pay staff and performers while providing topical entertainment.
“Accessibility has always been in our mission,” Riiber said. “Now, it’s more accessible than ever. It’s really been a motivating factor in our work.”
While most theaters are shut down, the continuation of “The Infinite Wrench” has kept its cast members busy while giving them a creative outlet to address the problems of our time, including coronavirus and mass demonstrations against police brutality and systemic racism.
The show has livestreamed vigils for coronavirus victims from the empty theater. In another play, the cast members let out a cathartic scream as a way of coping with the news.
Neil Bhandari, a Neo-Futurists ensemble member since 2017, said the switch to a digital format has been a creative challenge the cast has enjoyed solving. The show has also been beneficial from a mental health perspective, and the cast hopes that is true for the audience as well.
“Self care is communal,” Bhandari said. “We all thrive on being engaged. Being able to make this work has been integral to our mental well being.”
“The Infinite Wrench Goes Viral” debuts a new show every Sunday. Tickets can be purchased for as little as $3. For more on the show, click here.
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