After 15 months of online workshops, APTP finally reunited in-person in July 2021. In celebration of our newfound vaccination, appreciation of nature, and excitement to be together, I led a small group of APTPians in a creative process devoted to the Chicago River. Like the River’s movement, the ethos of the River Project was to be intentional, but not rushed. Over four months, the ensemble members and I co-created a process at Ronan and River Parks to observe the natural and urban confluence, gather stories, and create art based on the environment of the River.
After such a long period of isolation, we reveled in our shared present: with each other, the people who stopped to talk to us while they were fishing or strolling, the wildlife around us like the summer cicadas or the aggressive geese, the wildflowers that changed color each month. The teens saw the arc of the River’s history within their own, personal histories of the River –Mulay remembered wading through the brown water on her brother’s back; Ari remembered fishing with their parents and cousins; Joseph remembered lounging on top of the shipping container with friends and playing hide-and-seek along the shore. Because the teens had such deep connections from their childhoods playing by the River, we channeled our exploratory energy into Childlike Wonder – cultivating a wide-eyed appreciation for nature that allowed us to notice small details that we usually skim over.
Our perspectives continued to shift as we canoed down the River with the Chicago Park District’s RiverLab, based in River Park. We saw Albany Park in a new light – lush, green trees and luxurious waterways, not a single car in sight. We spotted three kinds of herons, sunbathing turtles, ducks and geese and even a coyote. This diverse ecosystem is a marker of the success of re-wilding efforts at River Park, in large part due to work by Friends of the Chicago River and other grassroots organizations in the area. In the daily dejection of climate crisis, the transformation of the Chicago River from a dirty sewage-way to a healing ecosystem is an instance of climate optimism that we held closely.
After our online pandemic year, we divested from the attention economy by resisting mindless Instagram scrolls and the pull of notifications. Instead, at the River, we meditated. We observed the wind. We drew the landscape. Because we were looking, deeply, we saw facets of our environment and community that we would not have otherwise. We wrote spells about the creatures we saw to enchant each other into paying attention. Lucrecia donned protective gloves and encouraged the team to spot and collect litter as we walked together along the river bank. The teens sent each other on scavenger hunts that used all of their senses. Within each workshop, we created performances for each other and the River, inspired by what we observed around us. At the end of each day together, the teens and I gathered in a line, faced the water, sent a wave through our arms, and thanked the River. We blessed it in our own ways, after it had blessed us.
By focusing on process-based work rooted in nature, the River Project Team took a collective journey in social and environmental presence. We shared our experiences at workshops for the full APTP ensemble and for the Albany Park community at the Chicago Architecture Biennial’s Water Wayfinding Tour. As Vanessa said, “my greatest takeaway from River Project was really taking in new perspectives, getting out of the routine that we are always in. The River Project gave me a chance to slow down and notice the leaves change. It helped me to connect more and appreciate every little thing we see in nature.”
Devika Ranjan joined Albany Park Theater Project as Resident Director in 2019.