Five teenagers slouch on the furniture in the Pulaski Park field house, gossiping, joking, and talking about getting some junk food to ease the late afternoon munchies. Kelley Minneci shares her news: she just found out she's been accepted into the acting pro-gram at NYU. Congratulations are offered all around. And then it's down to the business of show business.
The kids are all inaugural members of PANG--Producing Arts for a New Generation--a program run by Free Street under the direction of playwright and performer Bryn Magnus. Where most youth theater programs--including Free Street's own TeenStreet--focus on acting and writing, PANG teaches its eight participants how to produce, curate, promote, and do all the nuts-and-bolts work necessary to get a performance in front of an audience. As far as any-one at Free Street can de-termine, it's the only pro-gram of its kind in the U.S.
Magnus, who's worked with Jellyeye, Curious Theatre Branch, and other alternative performance ventures for over a decade, is intimately familiar with the challenges of shoestring production. "We really have to get the rest of these postcards out to get good houses for these last two weekends," he reminds the group. "So everyone needs to take a stack and hand them out around school."
The other tasks for the day include making a thrift-store run for bedsheets to use as backdrops for the upcoming performance, writing thank-you notes to past performers, and conducting a makeshift rehearsal for this week's artist, Canadian dancer-choreographer Shirka Urechko. Urechko's piece is second to last in this year's series. But that doesn't mean the work will stop soon.
"We have to start learning how to give presentations to corporations for funding," says Magnus. "We really have to get into this marketing-sales thing this summer, doing the corporate pitch, but coming at it creatively."
The afternoon's work is divided up. Minneci agrees to get the sheets, while JoJo Klonsky, Mariana Barajas, and Dinorah Jimenez start writing letters.
Magnus and Leo Asuncion move downstairs to the gymnasium, which is littered with crayons and tiny chairs from the preschoolers who share the space. They meet Urechko, and start setting up for her rehearsal.
But producing is never a smooth operation. As Asuncion starts up Urechko's music, an irate Park District staffer storms in. According to her, PANG isn't supposed to be in the space until after six. Magnus gives a weary smile and heads back upstairs to work out the conflict.
Free Street's artistic director, Ron Bieganski, says PANG was started because "we'd get wonderful, creative kids [auditioning for TeenStreet] who just weren't performers. We'd be auditioning 150 kids for 20 places. We thought this would be a good way to keep them involved in theater."
Though some of the visiting performers came to the series (which has been running since January) through Magnus's many fringe theater connections, others were found and pursued by the PANG members. "We'd search on-line," says Minneci. "Or through other contacts and networks that we had," adds Klonsky. Each member serves as the primary contact for at least one artist in the series (ten different performances were slated for this first season), and the other tasks--from running lights to staffing the box office to writing press releases--are divided up equally. The group meets on Tuesdays and Thursdays after school and on Saturday afternoons, with performances on Friday and Saturday nights.
Each visiting artist also leads a performance workshop for the PANG members. None of the work is particularly geared toward youth issues, and that suits the group just fine. Says Asuncion, "What was appealing about this to me was the idea of getting adults and youth into the same theater, and seeing something other than Saturday Night Fever."
Says Bieganski, "They're taking the responsibility for their own education and their own entertainment. They've been bombarded with such crap. They don't even get real rock 'n' roll anymore--just these prefab groups. What we're doing with them is creating the passion for the art first, and then saying, 'If you want to do this, these are the skills you need.' A small arts business is as tricky to run as any business."
PANG presents Kent Alexander's solo performance piece Zulu Pet on Friday and Saturday, April 13 and 14, at 7 PM at the Pulaski Park field house, 1419 W. Blackhawk. For more information call 773-772-7248 or visit www.freestreet.org.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/J.B. Spector.