Since 2011 Smyra Yawn has worked as a stage manager, production manager, business manager and teacher in Chicago. She enjoys also coffee and gardening.
Chelsee Nava in a production photo for LEARNING CURVE. Photo by Liz Lauren.
LEARNING CURVE, an immersive, original show about Chicago public schools, seems a natural fit for Albany Park Theatre Project. But why now? Through its 19 years of producing new work with young artists, APTP had never seriously tackled the subject. Co-founder David Feiner says that for years audiences asked, “When are you going to do a show about education?”
For one, APTP isn’t just any youth theatre program looking to fill kids’ time after school. Their programming looks outward, seeking to impact its audience, impact the world around them. “It was something we were hesitant to do if we couldn’t add something profound to the conversation,” says Feiner, “We didn’t want to add to the noise.” Ten or twelve years ago it was discussed: it would be cool to do it in a school, it would be cool for the audience to get class schedules. The seeds of something immersive were in the mix, but it wasn’t until David and associate director Maggie Popadiak saw THEN SHE FELL, Third Rail Projects’ wildly popular theatre experience in Brooklyn, that something finally sparked. “There were things happening in there that we didn’t know were possible in a live theatre experience,” he explained. Three years before LEARNING CURVE would open here in Chicago; David knew he wanted their two companies to work together.
“We just fell in love with them,” says Jennine Willette, artistic director (along with Zach Morris and Tom Pearson) for Third Rail Projects. When David initially reached out to Jennine who spearheads the company’s educational programming, she proposed a week-long residency. She would bring four artists from Third Rail with strong teaching skills and conduct a series of workshops.
“The one-week program was really just supposed to be a technique exchange from Third Rail to us,” says David, but in 2014 Jennine came to Chicago and caught a performance of APTP’s God’s Work. After seeing the show, she says, “It was apparent that these were skilled performers who were open to trying anything.” She went back to David and said, “Why don’t we up the ante on these workshops … and give them a chance to not only make scenes that fold the audience into them, but also try it with a real audience.” Third Rail worked with the APTP ensemble for five eight-hour days. By the end, they had a test-audience moving through a 45-minute show with ten scenes. Jennine recalls that they had a remarkably evolved show. “We worked like fire,” she laughs.
The young actors leapt at the new challenges presented by the Third Rail Artists. During a site exploration of the space they would perform in, the actors were climbing fences, flipping over desks, and unabashedly eager to explore. Jennine left the whole experience positively enamored with the ensemble and the company. She recalls, “It was also amazing for us to work with teenagers. APTP–the culture and the community that they create is just fantastic. It’s a “yes” culture. Everyone has an open mind … There’s just this amazing energy that they have around them–the entire company. We were blown away. We absolutely had the best time.”
Of course, David has long known that APTP’s ensemble features some extraordinary artists. He told me, “the youth that we work with in our company, they just blow me away all the time. They’re just astonishingly open-minded … they’ll try whatever comes into the space. I don’t think they have the same sets of inscribed boundaries that many of us do if you’ve done professional training. They don’t think of themselves as actors. They don’t have those disciplinary restrictions.”
One of the main concerns going into the workshops was whether or not the teenage actors would be able to take the status positions necessary to conduct an immersive theatre performance. Historically, APTP has an 80% adult audience (LEARNING CURVE is for audiences 14 and up). Would they be able to engage, invite, lead an adult audience in this incredibly complex event? Having experienced the final product, I have to say that the poise and confidence of the young actors was one of the most impressive elements. “The response [to the workshop showing] was incredible,” says David, “From everyone. From the Third Rail artists, from the APTP staff artists, from the youth performers and from the invited audience. Everybody could sense that we had tapped into something.” That performance would generate some of the stories and scenes that are still part of the DNA of LEARNING CURVE.
Albany Park Theatre Project’s mission is to inspire people to envision a more just and beautiful world. LEARNING CURVE definitely hits the nail on the head. David attributes the efficacy of the show in part to the fact that it was about school. The ensemble had such ownership of these stories. It showed not only in their performances but in the personal nature of the material. Working on the show made Jennine reflect, “God, I forgot what it’s like to be a teenager.” There are some Big Idea scenes about standardized tests and school funding–but there are many that simply invite you to remember what it’s like to be 16 and self-conscious, or in love or scared. “The entire ecosystem of the school is something that we wanted to convey,” says David, “we get so focused on these very specific questions like ‘what’s the best way to teach reading’ or ‘which teacher script is working best for this level of math?’ But if you’ve just been shamed in the bathroom or the girl you like maybe likes you too, or your favorite teacher is getting laid off–all of these things affect what happens when you walk into that classroom.”
APTP boasts a college graduation rate of 70% for its alumni–7 times the national average for low-income, first-generation college students. While they have created tutoring programs and college access programs that certainly serve this goal, David also wants the work itself to serve the ensemble. He wants them, “to feel like [they’ve] been able to be a part of telling truth and creating beauty. And to feel the satisfaction of having worked on a project that’s a multi-year vision. I Think that’s remarkable for all of us…I think it inspires a sense of mission and vision for one’s life and the sense that it is possible that when you find the right community to work with that you can dream big.” Ambitious shows like LEARNING CURVE aren’t just artistically beneficial to the ensemble, they’re rare and valuable experiences for teenagers. “We talk a lot about the skills of immersive theatre,” says Jennine, “and they’re really parallel to exceptional social skills. You have to be able to be a hundred percent present in every moment because there’s so much of the unknown when you bring the audience into the world.” It seems like CPS, and public schools in general, could take a cue from programs like Albany Park Theatre Project.
APTP is the recent recipient of a significant grant from the MacArthur Foundation. The fund is intended to serve as an operating reserve as well support innovative new works and collaborations. Taking on this project with Third Rail yielded immense success. Tickets sold out long before the show even opened, but before all of the great reviews, it was a risky undertaking. David recalls, “we were gonna work with this company based out of New York. We’re never even worked with a company based out of Chicago before! They’ve never made a show with Youths before. We’ve never done an immersive show before–and ultimately, to pull off this show the way we want, it’s gonna require us to take over a whole school building. There was a ton of risk in that original idea. That operating reserve lets us plan to take calculated risk on new big vision projects.” David envisions a number of big collaborations in the next five years. He’s hoping even for some international ones. Whatever the future holds, it’s clear that LEARNING CURVE is only the latest in a series of impressive shows that have established Albany Park Theatre Project not only as an important pillar of its community, but an exciting and significant contributor to the Chicago theatre scene.
Editors Note: The article was originally posted naming Third Rail Productions as co-partner which was incorrect. The co-partner is Third Rail Projects and we have updated the story to reflect that.