The first day of the Albany Park Theater Project opened with the requisite introductions, but with a twist. Instead of asking workshop participants (about 20 in all) to say their names and something about themselves, APTP’s Producing Artistic Director David Feiner asked everyone to introduce themselves by telling the story of how they got their names. This prompt resulted in stories about family origins, cultural practices, and serendipitous encounters as participants represented the larger contexts in which they were given (or chose) a name.
Feiner talked through the work that Albany Park Theater Project does as a youth ensemble committed to social justice. “We devise original performance from people’s real life stories,” he said, noting that in order to devise performance in this way, their group conducts extensive ethnographic research. Before performers can weave a theatrical experience from life stories, however, they first have to build an ensemble.
The ensemble is the foundation for all the work that follows, so the first two days of the workshop were focused on creating this sense of community across disciplines and fields of study. Be the Street pulls together Ohio State faculty and students from across the College of Arts and Sciences, including Theater, Dance, Comparative Studies, and Spanish and Portuguese. “Being human is interdisciplinary,” Feiner said on the first day, and so is Be the Street. We all bring different skills, experiences, and expectations into the room, but the approaches that APTP shared give us a common vocabulary to work with.
Games are a central component of how APTP builds the trust, teamwork, self-exploration, and joy that supports ensemble. Games like Splat! and Bop! cultivate focus and require fast-thinking. Mingle-mingle, Yes!, body percussion exercises, and ‘I Come From’ Orchestra create a sense of a community as consisting of both wholes and parts. Cross the Line and When I was Young—an entree into what APTP calls short-form devising—and Life Graph center on how participants author their own lives and experiences. Handshake Sculptures, Mirroring, See and Be Seen, and Hands required both trust and care as vulnerability and power became a focus.
Other exercises, such as the daily warm-ups led by Resident Director Stephanie Paul or the Follow Your Mama Like a Baby Penguin exercise, fostered ensemble through what one participant called “shared embarrassment.” Indeed, these games contained multiple objectives. For example, following a leader in their movement choices until the group energy crescendos to a collectively shouted YES! encourages sensitivity and awareness of what other people are doing and one’s relationship to that person and their actions. Perhaps just as important, everybody looks ridiculous doing it. But if everyone commits to that ridiculousness, that collective action quickly generates something amazing from the unique contributions of each individual.
Such was the case with the ‘I Come From’ Orchestra. Gathered in a circle, APTP’s Associate Director Maggie Popadiak led the group in an exercise that began with simple statements about where they come from, and culminated in a wondrous cacophony that included everyone’s voices (and their silences) in a sound composition. Eyes closed, responding to the idea of home, participants evaluated the evolving sounds in the room before adding their voices to the mix one by one. Both repetitive and building, this exercise offered a layered illustration of society itself as co-composition, and sowed the seeds for later devising.
The ensemble members, Carlos De Santiago, Maidenwena Alba, Ashlie Hankins, and Dayana Soto paved the way for workshop participants. Though teenagers, they proved confident demonstrators for the exercises and assured participants, some many years their seniors, that they had our back. The APTP directors gave us the instructions for the games and exercises, but it was the ensemble members who really gave us permission to tackle them—in spite of looking silly, in spite of feeling uncomfortable, in spite of confusion or uncertainty. They offered sure-footed guidance, showing the way forward while remaining committed to the process of learning by doing.