“I come from a river that starts downtown and ends up in Albany Park, a neighborhood that exposes me to the world.” In a circle, young teens tell each other where and what they come from, confiding in one another origins founded in laughter, pain, fear, and joy. Every statement is unique. Some are poetic, others more straightforward, but all are impressive and sincere. Seeing teenagers who were strangers to each other just a day ago find this level of trust is breathtaking. But this “I Come From” circle is just one example of the beauty of Albany Park Theater Project, a place of taking risks and not being afraid.
Every year APTP holds a Summer Camp: six days of theater games, improvisation activities, trust exercises and storytelling, all with the goal of introducing youth in this immigrant neighborhood to the tightly-knit APTP family that they can choose to join. This year the camp is welcoming nearly 30 APTP newcomers—31 if you include me. As the marketing and communications intern at APTP this summer, I find myself in the unique position of seeing the day-to-day work behind the scenes with staff while also taking part in this environment of love and trust with the youth ensemble.
From the very first day, I learn that APTP’s Summer Camp is about becoming aware of your own physicality while simultaneously directing your attention to others. In one game, the campers create a movement to represent their name, attaching a physical presence to their identity. In another game called “Blind Cars,” they close their eyes and let themselves be led by others—hands lightly pushing on their shoulders—becoming aware of their own bodies and surroundings, while learning to entrust their presence (and safety) to others. And as I participate in “Face Mirrors,” I copy my partner’s facial expressions with such diligence that I forget I’m not her. For a moment, I feel that I, too, have glasses on my nose and a bow in my hair. I allow Ely, someone I barely know, to become a reflection of myself.
“I come from a river that starts downtown and ends up in Albany Park, a neighborhood that exposes me to the world.”
From these first hours, the trust only continues to build. Imagine this: everyone is walking around the theater and a girl shouts “Me,” lifting her hands up and stiffening her body. Immediately, a group assembles around her and they lift her body into the air, sharing her weight and cushioning her as she floats above them. At this point she can move however she wants, standing herself up on their palms and walking, or pushing against them in a backflip, as they make sure to conform their hold to her midair movements. APTP calls this game “1, 2, 3 Flying,” the third in a series of lift exercises. Intended to foster unity and confidence, these lift exercises show these teens that by working together, they’re capable of incredible strength. At one point during the exercise, one of the heavier newcomers approaches Maggie, APTP’s associate director, and whispers in her ear, “There’s no way they can lift me.” Encouraged to take a leap of faith and to trust in his peers, he surprises all of us by shouting “Me,” just as we’re about to end the exercise. Without hesitation or doubt, a group forms around him and they lift him up in the air, with as much ease and care as they did for everyone else.
In the days and hours leading up to Summer Camp, APTP directors and “veteran” ensemble members work to create this welcoming and unquestioning atmosphere. Sitting in their planning meeting, I listen to Kito, Vincent and Ely brainstorm ideas: “Maybe we should leave this game for Day 3, so that they feel more comfortable around each other before they have to engage in so much physical contact,” or “This game would be great for Day 1 because it will get rid of all the awkwardness.” As veterans of the company, they remember their first day at APTP. They remember the things they liked, and they remember what made them uncomfortable. They work together to create the best experience for the newcomers, with the hopes of having them become a part of APTP’s year-round youth ensemble, which devises original theater productions and performs for thousands of audience members each year. APTP’s work is arduous. It’s time-consuming, emotional, and very real. In addition to creating a space where young people can get to know each other, playing goofy games and becoming comfortable with their physical presence, APTP’s Summer Camp also serves to introduce teens to the reality of the work that APTP youth artists commit to year-round.
In addition to creating a space where young people can get to know each other, playing goofy games and becoming comfortable with their physical presence, APTP’s Summer Camp also serves to introduce teens to the reality of the work that APTP youth artists commit to year-round.
In a game called “Handshake Sculptures,” two teens shake hands and form a pose together in silence. Once the pose is solidified, one of them steps out, examining the remaining image and then figuring out how to best re-insert himself into the picture. Once he has found a place for himself, his partner steps out and does the same. They continue taking turns evaluating what role they will play in the physical image that they are creating. Like many of the games played at Summer Camp, this one serves as an example of how the APTP community functions daily. By encouraging these teenagers to become aware of each other and by pushing them to focus on how they can become part of a larger narrative, APTP creates an environment of co-dependence, cognizance and collaboration. Because at Albany Park Theater Project it isn’t a question of whether or not you fit in; it’s a question of how.