This summer, APTP launched a two-year project to create Learning Curve, our first immersive theater production, in collaboration with Third Rail Projects, one of the foremost creators of immersive performance.

Jennine Willett, co-artistic director of Third Rail Projects, rehearses choreography for a scene performed in the gym at Eugene Field Park, where APTP makes its year-round home; Photo by : Joe Mazza--Brave Lux Inc.

Four artists from Third Rail were in residence for a week with 18 seasoned APTP youth ensemble members and the APTP artistic staff. The 30 of us collaborated to devise a new, 45-minute performance in just 5 days time – and that work-in-progress performance, rough and unpolished as it was, inspired some of the most passionately enthusiastic and emotionally engaged response that I’ve heard from audience members in APTP’s 17-year history.

Third Rail's Carlton Cyrus Ward directs APTP's Kiara Lyn Manriquez and JP Marquez in a scene performed in a 3-story stairwell; Photo by : Joe Mazza--Brave Lux Inc.

The 40-minute performance explored the theme of education and transformed the entire field house of Eugene Field Park (where APTP makes its home) into a high school. Four audiences of 30 people at a time traveled to scenes throughout the building. We asked them to reflect on this new way of experiencing an APTP performance. Here’s what a few of them wrote:

“Saturday was an outstanding example of a new genre (at least to me) that challenges the audience to examine personal values, commitments and authenticity. I was watching and then involved in a play which held me in a dramatic tension of action/inaction, courage and fear, ‘appropriateness’ and responsibility.” –Don

A dozen scenes took place in a dozen spaces throughout Eugene Field Park, including the basement locker rooms; Photo by : Joe Mazza--Brave Lux Inc.;

“Experiencing this performance connected with me in a more personal and intimate way than previous APTP shows I’ve seen….The material you tackle is always rich and textured and significant and complicated, but this show has the potential to connect even more viscerally….I was right there, it was so intimate, and I was observing but I was also feeling involved in a way I’m not used to feeling during a theater performance. My favorite experience was having that one-on-one moment with the girl in the bathroom, drawing on the mirror…it was so intimate, so confessional, I didn’t just remember intellectually how much I hated, hated, being a teen, how much I hated about myself…I felt its weight again. And looking at her, I just wanted to tell her how beautiful she was, and I thought about me as a teen and how much I’d like to go back and be able to offer some kindness to that young man I was. Sharing that moment with nobody but her, that nobody else was there to witness it, to judge it, that she was making herself vulnerable and that allowed me to be vulnerable…it felt special, a secret shared, a privilege.” –Christopher

Third Rail's Edward Rice stages a challenging moment of choreography with APTP's Jeremy Sebastian; Photo by : Joe Mazza--Brave Lux Inc.

“I’ve been behind the scenes [in theater] a long time, so it’s gotten harder to surprise or impress me. I can say without reservation that I haven’t felt such a powerful theatrical experience in years. That you were able to put this together in a manner of days with a new group of collaborators is remarkable….Going into it, I was concerned that what makes APTP special might be lost in the pursuit of the immersive concept. However, as soon as the gym scene started, I knew all was well. This was an APTP experience through and through. Right after the gym I was brought into the equipment room [that served as the guidance counselor’s office]. The closing of the door and being isolated with [the actor playing the guidance counselor] was a very intense experience. I felt all of my senses amplified. I had no idea what I was supposed to be feeling, or what she was expecting of me, and the danger inherent in that was very tangible. The same could be said of the locker room scene. The lines of reality and artifice were very close, even with my knowing many of the actors from previous work. I was equal parts scared, confused, excited, and intrigued.” –Ryan

Third Rail's Jennine Willett and APTP's Maggie Popadiak collaborate to stage a scene; Immersive Workshop (2014); Photo by: Joe Mazza- Brave Lux Inc.

“APTP used experience and our sordid history of urban educational failure and asked us to put it before our eyes as a mirror. We did and were dissatisfied with what we saw. The power of the experience was profound and illuminating.” –Chuck

“Thanks once again for an unforgettable experience with APTP. I continue to think about what the show revealed to me about myself and about my experiences as a Chicago high school teacher.” –Ellen

Carlton Cyrus Ward, Third Rail company member, and JP Marquez, an APTP alumnus who returned for the immersive project workshop; Photo by : Joe Mazza--Brave Lux Inc.

“With all of the performance safeties removed – lights, curtains, assigned seating – the characters became more real, more like people we knew and were in high school. The moment for me where being able to interact so closely with performers hit home was in the girls’ restroom. I was there by myself as a performer looked in the mirror and tried to correct her flaws. When she handed me the lipstick she was writing with, I at first joined in and followed her lead – and then remembered I wasn’t in high school anymore and could change the course of what was happening. I scratched everything on the mirror out and left the room feeling many things – but most importantly that change was an option and that things could get better. The performers becoming more than just characters gave me agency and a greater stake in the story unfolding.…If this is what happened in a week, I imagine the final production will be a game changer for Chicago theater.” –Morgan

Third Rail's Marissa Nielsen-Pincus rehearses an APTP ensemble member; Photo by: Joe Mazza- Brave Lux Inc.

APTP has always been a theater company that evokes a personal and emotional response. As these reflections attest, this new project has the potential to make the relationship between our audiences and our art even more meaningful. You can feel it in the care and detail with which they relate their experience back to us.

I can’t share details quite yet, but our work on this project will continue…and expand. To follow the journey and be one of the first to hear about the next set of workshop performances, make sure you’re on our email list.

Immersive Workshop (2014); Photo by : Joe Mazza--Brave Lux Inc.

And in the mean time, I encourage you to learn more about our marvelous collaborators from Third Rail Projects. Experiencing their production, Then She Fell, in Brooklyn a year and a half ago is what inspired me to launch APTP into our own exploration of immersive performance.