Grantee Partner Spotlight: The Neo-Futurists

Sivan Spector and Annie Share during rehearsal for SWITCHBOARD

Switchboard Rehearsal Image 1

By Mark Hallett, Director of Grants Programs

Read Time 6 minutes
January 17, 2024

The S.S. Eastland was a passenger ship commissioned to transport Western Electric laborers and their families to a company picnic on July 24, 1915. Despite never leaving the dock, the Eastland capsized downtown in the Chicago River, resulting in the death of 844 passengers and crew members.

Sivan Spector and Annie Share, two experimental theatre makers, received an Illinois Humanities Activate History Microgrant to create an experimental puppetry show about the Eastland disaster drawing from archival materials collected by the Eastland Disaster Historical Society, as well as other books about the topic. The Neo-Futurist puppetry show, Switchboard: Missed Connections from the S.S. Eastland, centers on fantastical representations of two historical figures tied to the Eastland disaster - Leander Leighton and Margaret Condon.

The show explores themes of negligence, capitalism, communication, and public/private memory, asking "Who gets to be remembered and why?", "Can you pay to be remembered?", "Can you pay to be forgotten?", and "What are the missed connections in our own lives?".

SWITCHBOARD performances are February 2 - 10, 2024.

Purchase Tickets


A Q&A with Sivan Spector and Annie Share

Spector is an educator, actor, clown, and puppeteer / Share is the associate artistic director for Neo-Futurists  

Q: Tell us about this project on the history of the Eastland. What is the key thing that drew you to this chapter in history? Why don’t more people know about this incident?

Annie Share: Our project is called SWITCHBOARD: a Neo-Futurist puppet show inspired by the Eastland disaster and Western Electric. We intertwine our personal stories with narratives tied to the Eastland, exploring themes such as memory and miscommunication. I first learned about the Eastland when I was a Segway tour guide in the Loop during the pandemic. I was surprised that I had never heard of it before, considering it was the largest loss of life from a single shipwreck on the Great Lakes. No one else I talked to had heard about the Eastland, either - it was shrouded in mystery. 

Annie Share

Annie Share

Sivan Spector: That’s one of the themes we explore in our show – why don’t people remember this huge maritime disaster? And going off that – how is collective and personal memory created?  

Annie Share: Part of why so few people know the full story behind the Eastland is the multiple layers of bureaucratic negligence. Many of the people in power knew that the ship had long-standing stability issues, but it continued to change hands and there was no clear entity to blame. And when it capsized, the story got even more lost in the throes of a complicated trial.  

Q: How is puppetry an effective way of conveying this history? Have you seen other examples of creative interpretation of history that inspired you?

Sivan Spector: One of the big things we are exploring is technology. A lot of the technology we use in the show is defunct, for example, we use old-school overhead projects and our amazing sound designer Spencer Meeks is playing with manual creations of sound. Our use of puppetry is an extension of this; the manipulation of the puppets is not hidden. I’ve seen other examples of puppets used to tell historical stories. Chio Cabrera - who helped design and create some of the puppets for our show - has a show called “Juana and the Missing Mayan Book”. She is taking a historical narrative about the colonization of Mayan culture, and translating it to a puppet story for children. 

Sivan Spector

Sivan Spector

Annie Share: One of the tenets of Neo-Futurism is that we don’t play characters. We tell true stories from our own lives and perspectives. We wanted to bring other voices into the room - real people tied to the Eastland - without pretending to be them. Puppetry allows us to bring their stories on stage in a way that still feels honest to who we are. There is no suspension of disbelief. We want to establish a live relationship between ourselves in the present and these puppets as representatives of history. We’re also interested in how objects or artifacts are used to tell stories. Puppets are objects we bestow meaning on - so can be true for things from our everyday lives: mix CDs, apple peelers, anything. 

Sivan Spector: And we have shadow puppets, and overhead projectors. We have been working with a wonderful archival group – the Eastland Disaster Historical Society - that collects stories of the crash as well as photos and other archival data. But even with their work, many people don’t know about the story of the Eastland.

Q: What in your own backgrounds led you to this work?

Sivan Spector: Through working in the Neo-Futurist style, a lot of the content in the show is autobiographical: connecting our own stories to the history of this disaster. In the show, I talk a lot about the town I grew up in where there was a suicide cluster. There are a lot of similar themes around grief and responsibility, not knowing who to blame for tragic events. That really drew me into the complicated history of the Eastland. 

Annie Share: I joined the Neo-Futurist ensemble in 2020 and most of my work is short-form and autobiographical. Sivan has more experience with puppetry than I do, and when we decided to collaborate we thought that this project could be a fusion of our backgrounds. After learning about the Eastland as a Segway tour guide, I started researching Western Electric and its history in Chicago.

Swtichboard Rehearsal Image 2

Switchboard Rehearsal

I was intrigued by the technology they developed in relation to long-distance telephone calls - and the telephone in general - and how this was connected to the Eastland. One of the ‘characters’ we include in our show is Margaret Condon, who was the head telephone operator for Western Electric. After the ship capsized, she stayed at her switchboard for 34 hours straight. We were curious about the calls she was receiving and what calls she didn’t get.  

Sivan Spector: Throughout the show, we are drawing parallels between the past and the present. Both in a personal sense and also in a societal sense. The early 1900s were a pivotal moment in technology: steamships and telephones were beginning to become very common. Annie and I are part of the last generation whose first phone was not a touch screen. We’re asking how technology impacts our memory. 

Annie Share: In the same decade as the Eastland disaster, Western Electric engineers developed the vacuum tube technology that allowed for long-distance phone calls. We’re exploring losing and forgetting, and how memory is affected when communication changes. 

About the Neo-Futurists

The Neo-Futurists are a collective of wildly prolific writers/directors/performers who create:

  • Theater that is a fusion of sport, poetry, and living-newspaper.
  • Non-illusory, interactive performance that conveys our experiences and ideas as directly and honestly as possible.
  • Immediate, unreproducible events at affordable prices.
  • Performance and educational programming that embraces those unreached or unmoved by conventional theater – inspiring them to thought, feeling, and action.

The Neo-Futurists practice consensus-driven decision-making and radical honesty in our pursuit of accessibility, racial equity, and queer liberation.

Follow @theneofuturists: Website | Instagram
Follow Sivan Spector: Instagram | Follow Annie Share: Instagram
Neo Futurist Logo color scaled

About the Grantee Partner Spotlight Series

Illinois Humanities highlights the work of our Grants partners through our monthly Grantee Partner Spotlight. It shines a light on our grantee partners' work and allows readers to get to know them better through a Q&A with members of the organization. Read more by browsing the "Grantee Partner Spotlight" series here.