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Group Efforts: young thespians' serious business

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David Feiner and Laura Wiley made it into regional theater and then decided they wanted out. They met at the Yale School of Drama in 1992, where both were pursuing master's degrees. After working for several years, he at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., and she here at the Goodman, they'd soured on big-city theater--at least when it meant established companies mounting prestige plays for bourgeois subscribers. Says Wiley, "These companies need a subscriber base of thousands, and so a lot of energy goes into propagating the operation. There's too little risk."

So in 1997 Feiner and Wiley, by then married and living in Chicago, established the Albany Park Theater Project (APTP), a community-based theater group for teens. The pair had fretted that the entrance of two Yalies into the ethnically diverse neighborhood might generate suspicion but, says Wiley, "people could care less where we went to school."

The 30 or so current members of APTP joined by walking through the door; there are no auditions. The kids start by sharing personal stories in group circles. Later they develop the most resonant tales into more finished sketches. "There's lots of give-and-take," says Wiley. "We develop consensus about how we want to present the material." Feiner and Wiley and their assistant director, Cecilia Lucas, then script the pieces into short plays, which are mounted twice a year at Eugene Field Park field house.

The young writers are the actors as well, but avoid roles that are too close for comfort. "You can't play yourself," says Feiner. "And if it's a piece that has to do with your tortured relationship with your father, you don't play your father. We don't want this to become psychodrama."

Yet the process has its cathartic effects. During the summer after eighth grade, Jessica Irizarry lost her best friend, Michael, to a gang-related shooting. "Michael was riding in a car driven by a friend who was in a gang," she says. "Michael took the wheel, but because the windows were tinted you couldn't tell that it was him driving." A rival gang member allegedly shot him 36 times. Michael's mother refused to admit that her son was dead--instead of holding a public funeral, she buried her boy in secret. "Her thought was, if no one saw him dead, then he wasn't," says Jessica.

When Michael's story was staged two years ago, "I was able to say good-bye," says Jessica. "I felt Michael could see what we'd done from wherever he is. There was closure." Jessica played Michael's mother. "That let me see things from her point of view," she says.

Feiner and Wiley also help company members with homework, hear their confidences, and function as college counselors. "David and Laura take us out for Persian food or to the Auditorium Theatre," says Maggie Popadiak, a Roosevelt High School senior. "It may not seem like much, but they're making us well-rounded."

But they're more than advisers--APTP productions are affecting, and many youngsters have developed keen theatrical skills. "Often with community-based projects like APTP there's an assumption that the art itself doesn't have to be that good," says Dwight Conquergood, an ethnographer and performance studies professor at Northwestern who lives in Albany Park. "But David and Laura care about technique. Here is a marriage of artistic excellence and social relevance."

For Feiner, the prime goal of APTP is empowerment. "First and foremost," he says, "we want our kids to be identified by their talent and their stories, not by their problems." It seems to be working. "I belong to something now," says Miguel Rodriguez, a Roosevelt sophomore and APTP's youngest participant. "When I walk down the hallways at school, people say, 'Oh my God, you do so good.' When I was at the mall a woman recognized me. If I was a nobody, I don't think anybody would remember me."

APTP is reprising its show What U Got this weekend at the Storefront Theater at 66 E. Randolph. The show includes Miguel in a gripping monologue about identity, Jessica as a girl trying to come out as a lesbian, and a wrenching look at Nicaragua during the time of the Sandinistas, with Maggie cast as a mother. Performances are this Friday and Saturday at 8 and Sunday at 2. Tickets are $10 for adults, $5 for students; due to mature themes, children under ten are not allowed. Call 312-742-8497 for tickets and 773-866-0875 for more information.

--Grant Pick

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.

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