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Chicago's Youngest Artistic Activists Have Unique Devising Process and Community Impact

Cofounder David Feiner shares how the teens of Albany Park Theater Project devise acclaimed community-based theater productions.

JP Marquez and Stephany Perez in Home/Land.
(Amy Braswell, © Albany Park Theater Project)
When David Feiner graduated with a master's degree from the Yale School of Drama, it wasn't exactly his plan to head to an immigrant neighborhood on the northwest side of Chicago to make theater with teenagers. Yet that is what he has been doing for the past 15 years after cofounding Albany Park Theater Project, a unique community-based company that defines itself as "a multiethnic youth theater ensemble that inspires people to envision a more just and beautiful world."

That they do, through lengthy devising processes based on interviews, research, and personal experiences related to a chosen topic. Each process culminates an annual original world premiere. After a three-month extension during the original run of their 2012 show Home/Land, headed to the Goodman Theatre this summer as part of the Latino Theater Festival, it is clear that this group of Chicago teenagers is redefining what theater can do for a community, a city, and beyond.

"Our process changes from production to production, and it has also evolved considerably over time," begins Feiner, earnestly over a cup of coffee. The company initially stuck to interviews with teenagers in the company, gradually extending them to parents, friends, and adults in the community. For Home/Land, which tells stories of undocumented immigrants in America, Feiner shares, "We probably did two dozen interviews, and for the first time we interviewed almost primarily outside of our neighborhood. Most interviews took place in Little Village, on the south side of Chicago."

The interviews are key to the process as the ensemble puts human faces to difficult topics. The company's most recent productions have been collections of vignettes based on the lives of APTP's "storytellers," those who share their stories in interviews, sometimes in spite of personal risks. Many storytellers are undocumented immigrants, but the teens can often put them at ease by sharing personal connections to immigration. As residents of one of America's most diverse neighborhoods, the Albany Park teens and their families come from all over the world.

Despite their focus on interviews, the company does not consider their work to be documentary theater: "We always hope that when one of our storytellers comes to the play, they feel like they see themselves in what we've created. But we don't restrict ourselves to verbatim use of text, and we don't use their real names," Feiner clarifies.

Bladimir Orduno and the ensemble of Home/Land.
(Amy Braswell, © Albany Park Theater Project)
Especially because they modify their source material, it is important to APTP that they are familiar with the issue at the heart of each devised production. These artists don't just report — they participate in activist events to learn about current issues and seek out potential storytellers.

"We found that it is really valuable to be able to show people what we are going to contribute," Feiner says of their participation in various organizations' meetings, marches, and other activities. "The vocabulary of the production is not strictly the script...when the performers are the people who devised the work, they have a stake in it that is, I think, palpable."

When the performers step on stage they have met the people whose stories they are telling, and they have spent a year researching the topic and creating the show. This level of preparation gives these young people confidence and grace as they speak, sing, make rhythm, play instruments, and skillfully execute their signature gesture-based movement to tell these brave stories. Sometimes the process also leads to lasting relationships with the characters they loosely portray.

"In a great many situations, the relationship evolves beyond [the storytellers] having told us the stories," Feiner explains. Some of the stories included in Home/Land last year continued to develop throughout the show's run. Having heard of a march to Crete, Illinois organized by some of their storytellers, APTP raised $2,000 at performances over two weekends for their cause. Several audience members along with twenty APTP company members showed up in Crete, the actors joining in the rally with characters they had portrayed the night before.

The impact APTP has on its youth does not stop at activist experiences and devised productions. From the day a teenager begins working with the company they are provided with guidance to selecting and applying to colleges. This year, six new APTP high school graduates will enter colleges with a significant amount of financial aid and scholarships, together totaling over a million dollars.

Over 90% of the young performers and devisors in the APTP ensemble are the first members of their families to go to college, and they are accepted to and graduate from universities at record rates compared to their peers in the Chicago public school system. These young Chicagoans are artists, activists, collaborators, leaders, and scholars. Many of them go on to pursue social change in college and beyond.

Meanwhile, Feiner and the other APTP staff continue to change lives of their company members and audiences year after year, contributing to social justice movements and Chicago's theater scene as they make innovative new work with their teenage collaborators in Albany Park's corner of Chicago.

Albany Park Theater Project's new production about evictions and foreclosures, I Will Kiss These Walls, has been extended through June 30 at The Laura Wiley Theater at Eugene Field Park in the Albany Park neighborhood of Chicago. Home/Land will be reprised at the Goodman Theater in Chicago from July 18-28.