Already in less than 72 hours, APTP’s home theater and ensemble has transformed—school desks fill the building, furniture is dispersed across the theater, APTP teens interact with rooms and objects as though they are fellow actors, and the entire Eugene Field Park field house (which houses APTP) is evolving into a multi-floor, multi-room performance space. This week, APTP hosts New York’s Third Rail Projects to learn the art of immersive theater. By Saturday (less than 72 hours from now), APTP and Third Rail will reveal the original 40-minute performance experience they have co-created in just five days.
DAY ONE: Third Rail Projects’ Jennine Willett, Marissa Nielsen-Pincus, Edward Rice, andCarlton Cyrus Wardjump off the plane from New York and dive into afternoon workshops with APTP, immediately exploring their artistic home for the week.
The APTP transformation begins with site exploration, as Third Rail leads the company to re-discover the entire field house with new eyes and questions: What is the tone of the space? Does the space feel balanced or weighted in certain areas? What does this space remind you of? With these questions Third Rail teaches APTP the movements and language of acting with the dimensions and objects of a space as a means of storytelling. A beautiful amalgam of expression flows from the teens’ movement in exploring couches, chairs, and school desk—complete with desks gracefully but unintentionally tipping and creaking as APTP learns to act with these objects before heading home for dinner.
"As you work within normal every day places, a staircase or a cramped closet starts to become your dance partner."APTP ensemble member
DAY TWO: Tuesday morning’s warm up begins in organized chaos as Edward directs APTP ensemble members to fill the space while wiggling out energy through their arms and legs at varying degrees of intensity, from barely perceptible shrugs and shuffles to erratic kicks and punchy jabs. Finding their ground and connecting to the movement of their bodies, the company continues to build upon the foundation of their immersive theater learning experience.
In one exercise, APTP teens each engage with their school desk, relating to it as a character and vehicle of experience where they spend so much of their daily life as high school students. Jennine guides APTP teens to share the images, memories and behaviors that these simple desks evoke in each of them: trying not to fall asleep in class, finishing a homework assignment that is due next class period, passing notes to friends, doodling instead of taking teacher’s notes, fishing for a pencil in your book bag, finding the words, drawings and even gum etched and stuck to the surface.
"One of the things I love most about immersive theater is that all the walls are broken down between performers and audience. You're really able to create something unique for yourself and the people watching you."APTP ensemble member
This brainstorm solidifies into a series of gestures: Find your pencil; Get your homework done; Hide from someone; Look at the clock; Cut class. Together the 18 APTP performers and 4 Third Rail directors and 4 APTP directors choreograph each of these daily experiences and shape a synchronized classroom of students moving through their day—fidgeting feet, raised hands, and obediently stiffening bodies as the teacher passes by each row.
DAY THREE: By this evening, the school desks have now moved to the gym, and ensemble members are already rehearsing the opening choreography to what will open this Saturday’s performances of Immerse Yourself. Each teen starts to become his or her character in the devised classroom and learns the micro expressions and movements that will help them connect with audience members: a heavy sigh, a small smile, a slight tilt of the head, a shift in body weight. With these tools APTP teens are dispersing throughout the building to continue working on their scenes as students, teachers, and principals in stairwells, in locker rooms, and throughout the building. Echoes of creative ideas and school remembrances sound throughout the halls.
"I'm so impressed with the fearlessness and willingness and joy that the APTP teen artists possess to try new things. I teach college students who are working to become actors, and they do not have the same motivation and drive that these youth bring each and every day."Third Rail Projects
As I observe the foundational building blocks of this new performance being set through exercises, devising activities, and late night creative meetings, I am not only being transported to my own days in high school but also gaining perspective on what a day in Chicago Public Schools feels and looks like for our ensemble members.
With two days of workshops left, I am amazed (as with every APTP production) at how confident, fearless, and professional our teen ensemble members are in their storytelling and artistry, and how Third Rail Projects has so quickly become part of our APTP family.
I leave the building for the day, and the excitement of what audience members will experience on Saturday hits me, butterflies in my stomach and a grin on my face.