“Watch this space for a big announcement” — that’s the message David Feiner, co-founder of the Albany Park Theater Project, posted Wednesday night to a Facebook group of current and alumni members of the theater’s youth ensemble.
He spent the next several hours fielding one wild guess after the other until 7 a.m. Thursday when Feiner was finally able to divulge the secret he’d been keeping for months: Albany Park Theater Project had received a MacArthur Foundation Award grant of $400,000.
“It was a great digital celebration,” an exuberant Feiner said of the reaction to his news.
“Our teens love to post GIFs. There were all these images of people screaming and hugging,” he said. “It was like this big silent scream on Facebook.”
For the theater company, founded on a shoestring in 1997, the MacArthur grant is a “game changer,” Feiner said.
At a 2015 meeting of the theater’s board, members agreed the organization was firing on all cylinders artistically but lacked financial stability, he said.
What the theater needed was an operating reserve “to ensure everything we’ve built is not in jeopardy,” Feiner recalled.
After crunching the numbers, he determined it would take more than a decade to build a comfortable cushion for the theater — assuming no unexpected emergencies cropped up in the meantime.
“Then you get a call and in one fell swoop, [the MacArthur Foundation] gave us a grant that filled that need,” said Feiner. “It’s huge. It’s really a dream come true.”
While a portion of the $400,000 will be set aside to provide much needed economic security, part of the grant will also be used to create an innovation fund.
"It gives us the seed money to pilot new collaborations," Feiner said. "It allows us to be bold and experimental."
Bolder is more like it. Albany Park Theater Company already pushes boundaries every time its teen ensemble takes to the stage, performing original works developed from real-life stories related to social justice issues.
In addition to its home base at Eugene Field Park, 5100 N. Ridgeway Ave., the company has taken up a summer residence at the Goodman Theatre for the past several years, earning rave reviews for its productions.
Sun-Times theater critic Hedy Weiss has said the youth ensemble “easily can compete with any Equity cast,” performing with “virtuosity, ease, charm, polish, humor, political bite and, above all, an emotional depth and cohesive spirit.”
Feiner called the theater’s teens “the most inspiring and hard-working and generous-spirited creative artists I can imagine.”
“On the one hand, it never stops surprising me and astonishing me,” he said of the youngsters’ talent. “Yet at the same time, I expect that all the time.”
Albany Park Theater Project is prepping its next show, Learning Curve, which will premiere in July.
The immersive production is based on interviews with students, teachers, parents and administrators regarding their experience in Chicago’s public schools.