Less than a mile from Albany Park Theater Project’s doors, Albany Park Multicultural Academy (APMA) is buzzing with students and anticipation. Barbara Dillon’s 7th and 8th grade students are about to present their theater piece, devised by the students under the guidance of APTP directors Maggie Popadiak and Rossana Rodriguez-Sanchez, at the CPS middle school’s end-of-the-year assembly.
Anxiously, the 25 students wait to share the play that they have spent the school year developing during APTP’s weekly afterschool workshops. As students, teachers, and families quiet in the auditorium, these young artists eagerly begin to tell their stories of life in Albany Park.
During first semester, these middle-school students worked with Maggie and Rossana to learn theatre techniques and skills coupled with team building and trust exercises. Second semester, Maggie and Rossana guided the students to use all that they have learned to develop a theme and script to create a performance for Albany Park Multicultural Academy’s end-of-the year assembly. The students have chosen to use the prompt “From my window…” to inspire the personal stories and choreography through which they will share their life experiences and hopes for their futures.
“What thrilled me as an educator was how the students were able to interpret the visual imagery and feel compassion for the characters. This is what we refer to in education as an ‘authentic learning experience.'"
Each year since APTP’s program at APMA started in 2007, Barbara Dillon has witnessed the growth in her 7th and 8th grade students: “Students learn how to express themselves in a safe place where they know no one is judged for being exactly who they are. They learn to be ‘in the moment’ and focus carefully on gesture, movement and form. They laugh, they dance, and they play with abandon, yet in a heartbeat they can become quiet and embrace a carefully orchestrated movement exercise where they concentrate, mirror, and move in harmony. I see growth of physical sensibility, awareness, and confidence in those students who are committed to APTP. It is truly one of the most transformative experiences I’ve ever had the pleasure to behold in the lives of teenagers.”
APTP’s programming with APMA students also includes attending professional-quality performances by APTP’s year-round youth ensemble. This past April, all 300 of APMA’s 7th and 8th grade students and their teachers traveled to the Goodman Theatre to see APTP perform God’s Work. “It meant so much to them to see young people from their own community telling this story on stage at the Goodman Theatre,” Barbara Dillon reflected. After the show, the APMA students discussed domestic violence, dramatic symbolism, children’s rights, religion, set design, puppetry, and script writing, based on what they saw on stage. “What thrilled me was how the students were able to interpret the visual imagery and feel compassion for the characters,” Dillon observed. “This is what we refer to in education as an ‘authentic learning experience.'”
Many APMA students have become lead performers with APTP’s renowned youth theater ensemble. Maidenwena Alba and Lizbeth Acevedo first discovered APTP at APMA as 7th graders. Now sophomores in high school, both performed this past spring with APTP in God’s Work at the Goodman Theatre in a cast that included six APMA alumni. Maidenwena and Lizbeth continue to return to APMA as seasoned youth artists to work side-by-side with Maggie and Rossana to facilitate APTP’s afterschool workshops. For both Lizbeth and Maidenwena, coming to APMA as teachers not only reminds them how much they have grown but also strengthens their own leadership skills. “I love working with APMA students because I can do what Maggie and Rossana did for me—encourage them to step out of the box,” shares Lizbeth.
Teens like Maidenwena and Lizbeth who commit to APTP’s youth ensemble throughout high school will not only create acclaimed original plays and perform for tens of thousands of audience members, they will also have access to APTP’s free tutoring, mentoring, and college counseling programs.
"From my window I feel free. I feel it’s a world I can explore and escape. From my window I see people falling down but standing back up. From my window I see the world that one day I’ll explore."
But even for the middle-school students who don’t continue with APTP through high school, the impact is lasting. APTP helps these young Albany Park students to create a community—in their neighborhood, in their classroom, and in themselves—that allows them to find confidence and to believe in a future of possibilities. You can hear the impact in the words with which the APMA 7th and 8th graders choose to close their year-end performance: “From my window I feel free. I feel it’s a world I can explore and escape. From my window I see people falling down but standing back up. From my window I see the world that one day I’ll explore.“