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Feature Mon Jun 28 2010

A Theater Grows in Albany Park

"This is what I hope my theater work does for people: it takes them inside worlds they're curious about but have no real access to; it bears witness to truths that many folks -- both government leaders and lay people -- try aggressively to distort or to ignore; it makes beauty and meaning out of sometimes ugly, sometimes confusing strands of human experience; it is a creative act that, while often standing in for a memory, can actually become a new memory, can become a new truth -- that, while telling one story, can actually become a new story and inspire the creation of yet other stories."

- Laura Wiley, Albany Park Theatre Project co-founder

If anyone ever asks you to play Cat Needs a Corner, wear elbow pads; bring Gatorade--at least if you're playing like Albany Park Theatre Project (APTP). Despite the heat of this muggy June evening at APTP, Artistic Director David Feiner and a circle of 30 teenagers are playing for keeps. The game, essentially a high-stress version of musical chairs, requires one unlucky player to stand in the center of a circle of seated players, begging for a chair, while everyone else tries to switch seats at random. (No actual cats or corners are involved.) During just half an hour, the teens survive several giggle-filled collisions with each other and many battles for chairs won by desperate scooching. The game ends with a roar of cheers when Feiner loses his seat at last.

If you've ever seen an APTP show, all of this silliness may seem to contradict the serious, polished, professional theater produced here year after year. Co-founded in 1997 by Feiner and his wife Laura Wiley, the diverse youth ensemble of APTP produces rigorously devised, finely honed performances with a social justice mission. Its most recent show, Feast, explores the role of food in community members' lives and closed last month to sold-out houses and rave reviews. It returns for one night on July 20 as part of the Latino Theatre Festival at The Goodman and then again this fall in its Eugene Park fieldhouse home space, recently re-named the Laura Wiley Theater.

Feast is the first show created by an ensemble of teens who've never met Wiley, who died of ovarian cancer in 2007. But her influence remains present at every turn. Feiner says. "It's been profoundly gratifying to see that the vision Laura had, and this rare community that she created, could survive."


APTP members working on Feast

Getting-to-know-you events, like this summer evening of theater games, foster the first tendrils of camraderie, risk-taking and self-expression in potential new ensemble members. Feiner leads the night with movement artist Stephanie Paul, associate artist Rossana Rodríguez Sánchez and company associate director Maggie Popadiak. As hoped, while about half of the 30 teens here today are ensemble members of the company, about half are newcomers.

Popadiak leads the next game, where kids pair up: one partner closes his eyes and navigates the entire theater blindly, following a distinct noise made by the other partner. A quiet young man in a baggy white t-shirt and jeans slouches against the wall, like maybe he'll sit this one out. Stephanie Paul loops him in by partnering with him herself, and pretty soon, all the kids are on their feet. Half the kids fill the room with their noises, squawks, eeps, thumps and trills, and half of them shuffle along like blind zombies. The quiet young man, eyes closed, cracks a grin and makes his way forward.

Feiner says that at APTP, things build. Kids start off at an open event playing a game and start coming back week after week. They begin working on a show. They become ensemble members, working here 10-30 hours per week on artistic development or on building a show. They become part of the APTP fabric. And by the time they hit the stage for a full-length performance, they're part of a tight group of dynamic young performers who know and trust each other, bringing to life the true stories of Albany Park community.

"We're always looking for stories that allow people to experience life through the eyes of the working class, youth, immigrants, the margianalized," resident director Colby Bessera told me. "Our work allows people to enter into the lives of others, into others' lived experience... theater as discovery begins with us as artists, our perpetual discovery of one another, where we each come from, and the neighborhood around us."

The teens become the ethnographers of their community. For Feast, each story led down a new pathway of learning. The printed program for Feast outlines the year-long journey to opening night, interviewing home cooks, restaurant owners, street vendors, butchers, and many more. It reads: "We shopped together, cooked together, shared favorite family dishes with one another. We gardened and even herded sheep together. Inspired by the stories we heard and shared, we devised tonight's theatrical feast -- collaboratively imagining and realizing the scripts, choreography, music, imagery and staging."

After the initial research, ensemble members undertook yet another difficult task, bringing each story to life.

"There's something really sacred and spiritual in the experience of sharing something so meaningful with someone, especially in person," Bessera beams. "We ask ourselves, what's the best way we can use our theater space to recreate the feeling of that sacred space, to move through the words, and convey the sacred, that gut experience, through dance and music."

Bessera says that audience members have approached him after a show and asked how the company teaches the teens to act with such skill. Feiner says that APTP takes a different approach to the craft -- there's no need for teens to fake their committment to the piece. "We're not developing tools to create the impression that these stories matter; they do matter," he told me. "We've sat in the storyteller's home, their kitchen, their place of business. The kids feel a real sense of justice, and a deep responsibility, to each story."

Back in the Laura Wiley Theater, the last game has ended to cheers and applause. The teens begin to disperse, but Feiner pulls a dozen of them aside-- the Feast cast. They gather into a huddle on the risers, the same 100-seat risers where, a month earlier, audiences packed in for the show's sold-out run. He reminds them to practice choreography, lines and blocking so that when they meet for pick-up rehearsals before The Goodman show on July 20, they're ready. The teens look undeniably jazzed about performing at The Goodman, as in, "Oh my God," and bouncing up and down in their bright Converse sneakers, and ear-to-ear grins.


a shot of the live production of Feast, photo by Amy Braswell, photo courtesy of APTP's website

After the meeting they head off to the kitchen, where ensemble members talk with the newcomers and introduce them to all the free food available for the taking. On this hot summer night, teens leave the kitchen with red, orange and purple popsicles that grow melty while they talk in the hallway outside the theater.

The food at APTP isn't just a perk -- it's central to the company's vision of a community of teenagers who feel like they're at home here. Feiner says APTP serves more than 2,000 meals to teenagers each year.

College counseling here is also top-notch -- APTP teen ensemble members have a 72 percent better graduation rate, a 42 percent higher college matriculation rate and a 600 percent college graduation rate than the average for Chicago Public Schools students. Over 90 percent of teens at APTP become the first college graduates in their families.

Feiner says: "We teach them about choices, the importance of exploring a range of options. That's part of being an artist... choices matter. The choices that we make about how to tell a story, how to craft a moment, how to engage an audience... they start to recognize the importance of making choices as they chart the course of their lives. It's a real privilege to get to do it and a real responsibility to get to do it."

College counseling is just one the many initiatives pioneered by Wiley in response to the needs of teen company members. Her vision guided APTP-- and it still does. Feiner says:

"When we had to accept and face the fact that ovarian cancer was going to kill Laura, I talked with Colby (Bessera) and Maggie (Popadiak) who were on staff at the time, and we had some pretty heartwrenching conversations about losing someone who we all loved. Someone was a partner and a teacher and a colleague, to each of us on many levels. And I'm really grateful that Colby and Maggie both committed in their core to not just preserve what Laura had created but ensure that it would continue to live and breathe."


APTP's 2007 artistic retreat in Washington, photo courtesy of APTP's website

Feiner says that they continue to tell Wiley's story all the time. "There was a really lovely moment," Feiner told me: "One day Maggie was storing some stuff under the audience risers in our theater and saw a note, deep under the risers, written in black marker. This was way back underneath, in the bowels of the audience risers on one of the wooden support beams. It said, 'Dear Laura, I wish with all my heart that I could have met you.'"

"We're a community of storytellers," Feiner says, "and we continue to tell Laura's story to one another, and continue to honor the fact that we do what we do today because of her heart, her artistry, her sense of justice, and her fierce love. "

This feature is supported in part by a Community News Matters grant from The Chicago Community Trust and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. More information.

Lindsay Muscato, a Gapers Block staff member since 2007, writes at

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Radhika Sharma Gordon / June 29, 2010 10:40 AM

The Albany Park Theatre Project is one of the most inspiring, enrgizing,and moving community youth projects I have ever seen. Youth in neighborhoods across Chicago have stories to share -- they need caring adults and a safe space to nurture their unique gifts and bring them together for such amazing performances as APTP's.

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