An Immersive Play that Transports You to a Chicago Public High School

An Immersive Play that Transports You to a Chicago Public High School

In ninth grade, I transferred to a new school and spent the first few months eating lunch alone in a bathroom stall. Things got better, I made friends, and I now look back on high school fondly. But I was reminded of that painful ritual recently when I found myself alone in a high-school bathroom with seventeen-year-old Cheyenne Murphy, in a scene from “Learning Curve,” an immersive theatre production that lets participants experience life in the Chicago public schools. As I stood in a corner, Murphy faced the mirror and wrote on it the features and qualities that she disliked about herself. Then she invited me to do the same. “Big ears,” I wrote. “Plays it safe.” High school is a scar that we all share.

“Learning Curve” was co-created by Albany Park Theatre Project, a Chicago-based youth theatre ensemble, and Brooklyn’s Third Rail Project, a popular purveyor of site-specific, experiential performances. It began as a five-day workshop, in 2014, that culminated in a forty-minute presentation. The enthusiastic reception inspired an ambitious expansion, which saw several iterations before opening in its current form at the end of July. The show met with critical praise and quickly became a hot ticket. It has extended its run three times, and is sold out through its December 17th finale.

The night after the election, while approximately two thousand protesters swarmed Trump International Hotel and Tower downtown, I arrived at Ellen Gates Starr High, home of the Supernovas, the fictional school that serves as the elaborate set for “Learning Curve” and is named after the social reformer and domestic partner of Jane Addams. (Starr High is now even listed on Google Maps.) More than a dozen public-high-school teachers, nearly a third of the audience, were in attendance that evening, as part of an initiative to use the production as a text study. A pair of retired educators who had taught in Chicago’s North Shore suburb—“twenty miles and a world away,” as one described it to me—wanted to understand the experience of students in the city. They had been trying to score tickets for months.

We entered the immense four-story brick building, a former parochial school, through a metal detector, had our photos snapped for identification cards, and congregated in a principal’s office cluttered with all the expected accoutrements: desk sprinkled with Post-It notes, intercom, American flag, water cooler, tweed coat. Over the next two hours, we were repeatedly divided and subdivided into small groups, plucked away for one-on-one scenes, and marched through halls lined with cheery posters spouting bons mots of inspiration. In “Learning Curve,” each audience member follows a personalized path, ultimately experiencing only about sixty per cent of the production. Each scene lasts just a few minutes but manages, with depth and candor, to make a serious point about the personal and political stew that is public education.

My track that evening brought me to a chaotic advanced Spanish class, where a flustered teacher fought for control of her students while impatiently accommodating a timid new pupil. A real teacher in attendance remarked afterward, “Yup, that’s exactly what school’s like.” Next, I visited a distracted guidance counselor, who informed me that several of my classes were no longer available owing to budget cuts. “You can thank Rahm for that,” he said, referring to Chicago’s mayor. In another intimate scene, I spied a teacher cheating on standardized tests. When caught, she defended herself. “What am I supposed to do? Let the state slap you in the face and call you failures?” Later, I took this same test, frantically filling in bubbles with a No. 2 pencil while tortured by the ticks of an amplified clock. How quickly that very particular brand of panic returns! But then I assisted in a clever prom proposal, in a janitor’s closet, complete with a guitar and a disco ball, and remembered that, for all of high school’s angst, it provides many small moments of wonder.

“Learning Curve” is both a scathing indictment of a defective system and a tender study of the awesome awakening that makes being a teen-ager so frightening and fun. It’s rare that such a public conversation about education is facilitated by students, the silent shareholders. For audience members far removed from adolescence and professionally uninvolved in the day-to-day public-school machine, the production’s intensely personal portrait of a modern urban school district is startling.

“It’s an eye-opener for them,” Carlos Desantiago, the gregarious eighteen-year-old who played my guidance counselor, said. “They’re, like, ‘Wow, is this really true?’ And it’s, like, ‘Yeah, this is how school is nowadays.’ ” I spoke with Desantiago and a few other “Learning Curve” performers the day after the performance, at Albany Park Theatre Project’s home, which sits on a quiet cul-de-sac a few miles away from Starr High. The students hail from a sampling of Chicago public schools—magnet, military, college prep, performing arts.

Sitting in a circle on folding chairs, in the middle of a black-box theatre, they discussed the show’s evolution, which occurred under the guidance of David Feiner, the founder of Albany Park Theatre Project, and Jennine Willett, the co-founder of Third Rail. (The show lists eight directors in all.) Nearly fifty teen-agers contributed to the creation of “Learning Curve,” drawing on their own experiences, and on dozens of interviews with teachers, parents, administrators, and peers. (“So I brought in my guy from my school who sells all the chips, and we interviewed him here and that’s how ‘Contraband’ was made,” Desantiago said of one of the scenes that I didn’t experience.)

In the course of building “Learning Curve,” the students found sympathy for the elusive authority figures in their lives. “The process of doing the show is starting to get me to notice how much stress they’re being put under,” said Brandon Lorbes, who spends the play in uniform, as a member of a junior R.O.T.C. program. When teachers attended performances, the students saw that the empathy was reciprocated. Nichole Espineli, a sixteen-year-old who speaks in emphatic bursts, reported that a teacher in the audience cried after witnessing the Spanish-class scene, because, she told Espineli afterward, she had recognized her own impatience. “Learning Curve” suggests that the old cliché about walking in someone else’s shoes may be effective when enacted, rather than merely imagined.

Eventually, the students began to open up to me about their frustrations with their education. “I knew that I didn’t get the full high-school public education like others in the suburbs get,” Desantiago said. “They get the best. I know that I had to work with what I had.” The others agreed, and I thought about the high school that I attended in the suburbs of Los Angeles—“twenty miles and a world away” from many of the challenges that “Learning Curve” depicts. Lacking resources makes students recognize larger systemic shortcomings, which I had little awareness of; it made me consider the dubious privilege of political ignorance that I had experienced as a teen.

The student performers were also upset about being sorted into “gifted,” “honors,” and “double honors” castes, like members of a hotel rewards program. “The gifted program, it was like watching through a window,” Desantiago said. “I’m outside, in the rain, and I get to see this house with a fire.” He was still mad that he didn’t have the opportunity to raise chickens one year. Jade Trejo, a fourteen-year-old who played a cheeky student in my Spanish class, attends Albany Park Multi-Cultural Academy, which is nearly eighty per cent Hispanic and ninety-five per cent low income. That school shares a building with Thomas A. Edison Regional Gifted Center, which is nearly sixty per cent white and less than ten per cent low income, and has mandatory French classes. “They stay on their own floors,” she said.

Others in the room, self-identified as “regulars,” shared the indignity of attending class in stifling heat while the gifted kids got air conditioning, and of having to take photos of textbooks with their phones to complete homework assignments, because there aren’t enough books to bring home. But some who had gone through the gifted program offered another perspective. “We felt so excluded,” Maria Velazquez said, of the social isolation. “No one liked us.”

The students considered this, and spent a few minutes debating whether such programs are valuable, whether the precious titles are more problematic than the actual concept of multiple pedagogical tracks, and whether the scarce resources could be more equitably shared. (All thought that they could.) And they reflected on their own role in perpetuating the student-versus-student divide. “We just thought the gifted kids were stubborn,” said Murphy, my bathroom confidante, who turned out to be much more self-assured and talkative than her character. “But little did we know we were being stubborn as well.”

This being two days after the election, the students connected the dots from homeroom to homeland. Trejo said, “With the President that we [will] have, we really have to fight for our voice.” Velazquez, who is eighteen, had just voted for the first time. In “Learning Curve,” she played my civics teacher, who gets laid off while giving a lesson on the history of protest in Chicago’s public schools. It’s a history that runs up to the present: in April, the Chicago Teachers Union staged a one-day walkout; in June, several hundred students cut class to demonstrate against budget cuts. At the Albany Park headquarters, Velazquez said that the show “made me want to surround myself with people that are pursuing change.” Around the circle, those people nodded.