"Ghosts definitely live here," I say.
Maybe only one, and I talk to her sometimes.
You might think that I’m an asshole. You might think that I drink too much. You might think that I’m self-centered. You might think that I am awesome. You have a knack at being right.
APTP is bouncing through my head today. APTP stands for Albany Park Theater Project. It is a youth theater company, which was founded by David Finer and his late wife, Laura Wiley in 1997. This company is impossible to describe. APTP brings art, hope, success, and pride to kids who, in all honesty, don’t get any of these things from the community that they live in, the schools they attend, and even their families. How the hell am I going to describe this theater company? This is an example of a review from one of their recent shows.
“Scorchingly graphic and emotionally crushing…a thrilling piece of art made all the more potent by the presence of such young but exquisitely honed performers”
-Chicago Sun Times.
They are showered with rave reviews, but the actors have never taken an acting class in their life. They are simply involving themselves. They are honestly living the story on stage without pretension or ego, which is unheard of in the real world of actors. APTP’s productions, which are acted completely by neighborhood teens, are simply unbelievable. True stories of prejudice, neglect, abuse, genocide, and rape are not uncommon to their stage. And a large majority of the stories come directly from the actor’s real lives. The stories are grim, distressing, and tragic, but they are real, and there is redemption. Not in any standard entertainment sense, where the clouds part after the rain and everything is perfect and glorious. Real life redemption, “I’m getting better,” style redemption. “I survived hell and am here to tell you all about it,” style redemption. “I will be more than the sum of my tragedies,” style redemption. This theater company does nothing short of save lives. I worked on Laura’s last production, God’s Work. I was hired as the sound technician. God’s Work is a story of a girl, Rachel, and her ten brothers and sisters who are forced by their exceedingly religious father to live in the basement of his house. He barely clothes and feeds them. He forces them to memorize bible passages. He beats them if they dictate the passages incorrectly. He beats them with his fists, with his belt, with any number of instruments that he has collected, with a police baton named Mr. Brown. He beats them regularly in God’s name. He forces them to beat each other, as it is God’s will. There are complex relationships between the siblings as they try to protect each other from their father’s wrath, relationships that are not “acted out,” but rather put on display. There is redemption for Rachel in the end, but the last scene has the rest of the brothers and sisters still crouching in the basement as she begins her new life. It was intense, heart wrenching and beautiful. I know Rachel in real life and she is funny, smart, and attractive. She is attending college. She is succeeding. She has a life beyond that tragedy. Many of her bothers and sisters (there are sixteen in real life) came to see the show. They were embraced by the cast and eventually talked with us about some of the more brutal scenes, as well as some of the more serine ones. There is a scene where the only thing the children have to play with is a ball of lint collected from a carpet. And another scene were the boys see how many wasps they could each kill because there was a dumpster outside the basement window and wasps would get in and sting the babies. There were always babies being brought down there. The mother was perpetually pregnant as Niko, the father, thought he was doing God’s bidding by bringing more children into the world. Even now, the story chills me to the bone.
It was Laura’s last production before she died of ovarian cancer in 2007. She was 41. I’ve never met such a strong woman, and I used to tell her, “You are the strongest woman I know, and I’m glad I’m on your good side.” I visit her grave sometimes. I don’t do that for anyone else, but sometimes I find myself driving out there and walking around. I find her headstone, say hi, and talk out loud about my life and how important she is to who I think I am. Working with her, David and all the members of APTP was one of the most gratifying jobs I have ever had. Granted, it was also one of the most stressful as I was flying by the seat of my pants praying that the sound system didn’t crash as it always seemed to do in rehearsals. There was only one malfunction for the entire ten-week run of the show. The computer froze up and I remember looking over at Laura and saying through clenched teeth, “we have a little problem.” She simply patted my shoulder in the dark as I sweat bullets restarting the system. Later she told me it was all she could do to not bust out laughing at the panic in my face as I said, “little problem.” She and David taught me about “Tikkun Olam,” the traditional Jewish phrase / idea / value which means healing the world. I asked if I could be part of APTP’s college prep program and began tutoring some of the kids who were failing Chemistry. One of them raised her grade from a D- to a B. Maybe I didn’t heal the entire world, but I really nailed that column on her report card. She’s in college now, also. There is no question that she wouldn’t be had she never walked through APTP’s doors.
I am working with APTP again. Yesterday, I got a phone call asking for some technical assistance on the new show, Remember Me Like This, which opens tonight, in a matter of hours actually. They were having some trouble with the sound, so I jumped in my car and headed over there. It was really only a matter of tweaking some setting and twisting some knobs, but I was happy to be there. It felt so good to walk into that theater again. I only know two of the actors in the cast of sixteen, but they were happy to see me, and still as edgy as ever. The new cast is very young, some are in eighth grade. They made fun of my hair and head band, asking me if I was a time traveler from the 70’s. Adorable little punks. I ran sound for their final dress rehearsal yesterday and was completely floored, again, by the production. It is a heavy, brutal story about a girl’s struggle with immigration, disownment, drugs, rape, depression, institutionalization, and suicide and it is amazing. If you are anywhere near Chicago, make it a point to visit APTP and relearn what real theater looks like.
I stole the first line of this post from You'll Never Eat Lunch in This town Again, by Julia Phillips as part of Law With Grace’s Stolen Lines Project #2.