As I sat in one of those awkwardly restricting school desks, the bell rang–and I reached down as if to pick up a backpack. When the english teacher asked for our thoughts on the Great Gatsby, my desire to answer–to get it right–mixed with the intense fear of judgement from those around me (in this case, mere strangers in the audience) to form a knot of anxiety in my chest. For someone over 10 years out of high school, Albany Park’s Theatre Project’s Learning Curve, hit remarkably close to home.
This, to me, is the heart of the piece. The fictional Ellen Gates Starr High School, where Learning Curve takes place, is ground zero for a lot of social and political talking points (the CPS funding crisis, standardized testing, etc), but the most powerful moments illuminate the inner life of it’s students–their crushes, their self-consciousness, their joy–evoking memories of each audience member’s own high school experience. The piece beautifully expresses that ephemeral quality of waning adolescence–discovering one’s own creative and depth while still trapped in what feels like a prison.
As the audience of 40 enters the school, we’re unceremoniously ushered into an office to receive our school IDs. Then we wait around in the principal’s office for further instruction. Immersive or interactive theatre is often rightly criticized for robbing the audience of their role as observer. Self-conscious and put on the spot to perform, an audience member’s reactions become inevitably inauthentic. Learning Curve manages to avoid this pitfall in two ways. For one, the feeling of self-consciousness is a perfect state of mind to walk in the shoes of an American high-schooler. Who among us didn’t fret incessantly about what our peers thought of us? On top of this, the production manages to communicate an astonishing level of calculation and preparation. This is accomplished not only by the mind boggling orchestration of the audience through multiple, simultaneous performances happening in different rooms all over the school, but also by the breathtaking confidence of its talented young cast. Through a series of scenes ranging from strictly scripted to movement based to improvisation with the audience, the 22 actors that make up the cast of Learning Curve exude such competence that I had no worries about where we were going.
The show isn’t just some march through a performative museum. Not every audience member will experience the exact same show. As I watched a strange, imagistic light-play in a hidden alcove with several other audience members–I was tapped on the shoulder. The young girl mouthed “follow me” and we retreated to an empty stairwell for an otherworldly dance performance and the offer of some contraband. There were many of these moments: one-on-one experiences with actors that were usually the most engaging. Not only because I was being directly spoken to, but because these scenes were somehow the easiest to fall into. With no one else watching, I was free to explore the world created by the actor in a truly unique way.
Aside from all this, Learning Curve is satisfyingly Chicago. It is for us. Despite being sold out, APTP reports that they have cancellations nearly every day and it is worth your time to try and get in.