Chicago, United States

Youth on Stage: Real People, Real Stories, Real Community

Albany Park Theatre Project

December 11, 2009

Using theatre to share stories and explore the experiences of immigrant youth

Having a place to tell your story can be life changing for both the audience and the participants.

This belief has been central to the nationally recognized and award winning work of the Albany Park Theatre Project (APTP).

APTP brings to the stage the lived experience and authentic voice of migrant youth growing up in Chicago.

The Albany Park Theater Project (APTP) is a multi-ethnic, ensemble-based theater company of teens and young adults that creates original performance works based on the actual stories of immigrants living and working in Chicago’s Albany Park neighbourhood.

Since its founding in 1997, the APTP has performed over 50 original performances for more than 25,000 people and has shared the life experiences of Mexican indocumentados, Bosnian refugees, Bolivian revolutionaries, persecuted Ukrainian Jews, Palestinian-American Muslims, Persian Sufis, Polish domestics, Vietnamese refugees and other immigrants to the city.

By focusing on the stories of the Albany Park community, the APTP has created performances that tell the stories of people whose lives are impacted by immigration policy, globalization, war, inequalities in public education, poverty, child abuse and neglect, addiction, domestic violence, gang violence, the criminal justice system, prejudice and intolerance as well as neighbourhood growth, change and renewal.

As co-founder Laura Wiley described: “This is what I hope my theatre work does for people: it takes them inside a world they’re curious about but have no real access to; it bears witness to truths that many folks – both government leaders and lay people – try aggressively to distort or ignore….”

Public performances receive rave reviews, the product of a uniquely collaborative and interactive process that involves the entire troupe listening, responding and physically interpreting the raw and often highly emotional stories that the participants share. For example, the 2006 production of Gods Word was the result of a two and year process that began when a APTP student shared a reference to the challenges that she and her 15 brothers and sisters endured at the hands of their father, a religious fanatic.

Education and future success…
The APTP has also created educational programmes that help Albany Park youth access opportunities beyond the inner city neighbourhood –with tangible and dramatic results

As part of their focus on youth development, the APTP offers a free comprehensive college preparation and planning program to help teens translate their artistic success and ambition beyond APTP. Teens begin the formal program with an overview of the different types of colleges and of the application and financial aid process and then receive personalized guidance to address issues, questions and obstacles.

In Chicago, almost half of the students who enter public high school drop out before graduation. By contrast, more than 90% of Albany Park youth involved in APTP programming go on to graduate from high school (or earn a Graduate Equivalency Diploma) and matriculate into post-secondary colleges.

What’s more, follow-up studies show that APTP alumni stay in college and graduate in record numbers compared to their peers. According to the Consortium on Chicago School Research, only 8% of Chicago public high school students will graduate from college within six years after high school. However, APTP ensemble members are 8 times more likely to earn a college degree by the age of 25 than their peers. It is important to note that more than 90% of APTP ensemble members are the first in their families to go to college.

Community building
The Albany Park Theatre is located in a neighborhood of 57,000 people on Chicago’s northwest side, one of the most diverse communities in Chicago and nationally. More than 50% of residents are born outside the United States.

The diversity of the APTP ensemble is indicative of the neighborhood: APTP’s teen artists have traced their roots to Belize, Bulgaria, Cambodia, Colombia, Cuba, El Salvador, Germany, Greece, Guatemala, India, Ireland, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Korea, Mexico, Mongolia, Nicaragua, Nigeria, Pakistan, Palestine, the Philippines, Poland, Puerto Rico, Romania, Sweden, the Ukraine, Uzbekistan, and Vietnam. The list goes on.

In 2007, the APTP reached into the larger Chicago community to share its stories and success with new audiences. The theatre company founded the “The $5 Renaissance”, a roving, all ages, performing arts nightspot that brings people together to dance, eat, and move to music from the many cultures of Albany Park and Chicago.

The APTP has received numerous awards including the David Kellum Award and Chicago’s “Community Group of the Year” award. In 2004, APTP was recipient of the “Coming Up Taller Award” from the US President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, established “to recognize and support outstanding arts and humanities program that celebrate the creativity of America’s young people.”

Making it Work for You:

  • At the Albany Park Theatre Project, theatre is the medium used to build a community of support to help high risk youth. Are there other approaches or strategies that your organization could be using to benefit its target audience?
  • Local experience and voice have the power to tell universal stories.  How can you use local stories and testimonials to help your organization get its message across to the larger community?
  • Youth engagement creates future leaders and goodwill ambassadors. What is your organization doing to enlist the involvement of young people?
  • Going beyond your immediate organizational objectives to support programming that bridges school to community relationships or helps young people access or transition to further education can produce outcomes and impact that serve your mission.