Miscellaneous Mental Musings of an Emerging Artist
I just received the news that Laura Wiley, one of the founders of the Albany Park Theater Project, passed away yesterday after a lengthy fight with ovarian cancer.
My acquaintance with Laura and her husband David Feiner was primarily in passing; my former roommate Cecilia was once the assistant director of APTP and I had met Laura and David through her. I did not know Laura very well personally. I did know and love her work, however, and would like to speak of what she imparted to the world before she left it.
I first saw APTP perform in 2000, when I went, as a show of support, to see the show that Cecilia had been working on with a bunch of high school kids. Being fresh out of college and having by now understood the wide chasm between the quality of acting in an average high school production and the quality of acting to be found in trained professionals, I expected that I would at most find the show amusing.
I was dead wrong. The show that these kids put on was breathtaking and brilliant, and featured a number of performances that still, today, resonate in my memory as among the best stage work I’ve ever seen.
The Albany Park Theater Project builds its shows from the life stories of its ensemble and from residents of the Albany Park community, and then combines multiple disciplines to tell these stories for the stage. The commitment and poise of the group that I saw was often inspiring, especially since they were portraying some of the most difficult moments in their own lives or in those of their friends–a story of growing up with a neglectful, alcoholic father, or of being in the passenger seat while one’s friend in the driver side is suddenly riddled with gunfire, or of a family surviving Nicaragua’s many bloody political upheavals to finally make it to Chicago. Never once, when I saw them, did these teenagers fail to do their jobs to the utmost of their ability…their portrayals of abusers were unflinching, their portrayals of social strife nuanced. I saw a sixteen year-old girl play a remarkable woman from the ages of 18-80 without once feeling like I was watching pageantry. They were, in short, incredible, and consistently so.
At the Jeff Citations last week, Anish Jethmalani, the outgoing Artistic Director of Eclipse Theatre Company, made an observation in his acceptance speech (for Eclipse’s production of Blues for an Alabama Sky) that far too often the American theatre fails to tell stories about all Americans. Laura Wiley was part of a noble effort to counteract this truth, by introducing the power of theatre to youths from a troubled, ethnically and socio-economically diverse Chicago neighborhood…and at the same time, she brought the power of these youths to the theatre. Both parties, I believe, have been made richer for it.
She will be missed, although I have hope that the echo of her work will still resound in the theatre for years to come.