A series that explores youth ensembles in Chicagoland, the communities that encourage them, and how young people create theatre for young people.
Albany Park Theater Project (APTP) has now produced over eighteen years of poetic, daring, justice-seeking work that has generated nineteen plays seen by 50,000 audience members, a yearly production slot at the Goodman Theatre, and an unrivaled reputation for the youth ensemble. APTP remains a theatre committed to authenticity, where the work is created from stories told by fellow community members—but they are always ahead of the curve. Before APTP, ensemble members Gustavo Duran, Kito Espino, Maria Velazquez, Chelsee Nava, and Kiara Lyn Manriquez thought theatre was “Shakespeare,” that it was “boring,” and that it wasn’t “for them.” But what they experienced at APTP was, as Manriquez described, “like nothing they had seen before.”
Currently, APTP has partnered with Third Rail Projects to create an immersive theatre production performed entirely by youth artists. Many youth programs regularly incorporate full-scale immersive productions into their seasons for young audiences. APTP sees this innovation, meets it, and expands its possibility with Learning Curve, an immersive theatre experience created by and with young people, along with the acclaimed creators of the long running immersive show Then She Fell, Third Rail Projects (TRP).
After seeing Then She Fell, APTP artistic director David Feiner and associate director Maggie Popadiak invited the Third Rail team to do a workshop with the youth ensemble. Jennine Willett, artistic director of Third Rail, then flew out to Chicago to see God’s Work and was “blown away by the performance.” She realized that their approaches to storytelling and devising work were very complementary. The workshop turned into a weeklong intensive which culminated in a forty-minute showing, and that turned into a promise to embark on a two-year collaboration between APTP and TRP to create a full-scale production together. Learning Curve is now in workshop productions through the middle of May.
But APTP and TRP are not exploiting a trend. Willett says,
Sometimes works are created in an immersive setting for the sake of jumping on the “immersive” bandwagon rather than because the form really serves the idea. You can tell a story about what it is like to be a high school student in a Chicago public school from a stage, looking out into the audience as they sit safely in their seats. Or you can tell the story to your audience by putting them in the shoes of a high school student within the walls of a Chicago public school. And who else should tell these stories but high school students themselves?
Willett noted that there was something “magical” that happened with the original showings. I was cast in the role of a student voyeur at one of these performances, and I watched an opening assembly where a movement sequence played out on top of school desks; then I headed to art class, English, the locker room, and a final assembly where a student I had witnessed struggling to read English at the beginning of the performance became class president. The chance to participate in this high school experience—and reimagine my own—was nothing short of magical.
A particularly harrowing moment of my journey through the school happened in the girls’ restroom. A performer led me in front of the mirror as she corrected her flaws with lipstick on the mirror. When she handed me the lipstick and prodded me to write on the mirror with her, I followed her lead and was transported back to all the ups, downs, and in-betweens of trying to fit an impossible mold. And then I remembered that this was theatre! I wasn’t in high school anymore and I could change this moment. I was faced with a choice to relive high school, or to recreate it. I wiped off all the arrows and circles and left that makeshift restroom with a feeling that I had just practiced changing the world.
Being forced to make choices within a story does more than make an audience weepy for the plight of students attending the Chicago Public School system. It makes them take action. The discourse surrounding public education in Chicago heated up after Mayor Rahm Emanuel shuttered fifty schools, raising questions of who and what systems dictate which students are allowed access to the best education. CPS themed shows like Forgotten Future at Collaboraction and Ike Holter’s Exit Strategy provided possible answers to this question from a safe distance, but walking a day in the shoes of an actual CPS student through theatre wasn’t possible until Learning Curve. Kito Espino summed up why it works so well: “Immersive theatre sparks more of a conversation.”
Espino’s personal story helped to develop a character in the play that enters CPS as a freshman. He came into elementary school without being able to speak any English, and went on to become an A student and class president by eighth grade. Gathering stories like this from fellow ensemble members and community members led Kiara Lyn Manriquez to realize “how important it is for us as students to open the minds of people who don’t realize how much education affects everyone in the community.” Gustavo Duran further explains,
When there’s a story about a school closing down, there’s an immediate conclusion—it’s either the students or the teachers. But they don’t get into what’s actually going on—what’s going on outside or inside of school. This play opened my eyes.
During a recent visit to APTP, Feiner led me to observe a locker room scene, but he stopped along the way to point out a tucked-away room where I saw not much other than a painting on the wall and a bench for viewing it. He explained that they had considered using the space, but it hadn’t worked because the bench didn’t lend itself to much more movement than sitting, and it would be better to use a different space where each object could be a scene partner to the performers…
I suddenly saw the ordinary space as a place of potential. What Learning Curve, APTP, and TRP do is inspire its ensemble and audience to see the world in a new way. Gustavo Duran said he hopes that after seeing Learning Curve, “There’s one person that starts that domino effect.” By treating a school desk as a dance partner or a CPS high school as a place of possibility, those who come in contact with APTP are challenged to imagine the world as a place with more knowledge, love, and justice, a place where another fifty schools won’t be shuttered down. Willett sums it up as “a ‘yes’ culture, where everyone is willing to try anything and open to experiment.” APTP and TRP are yes companies—places that says yes to young people, yes to creating only the best art with them, and yes to the challenge of changing the world.
Up Next: Youth Empowerment Performance Project (YEPP)
Photos: joe mazza—brave lux inc.