“No wimps at F.S.” reads one of many doodles on the wall of Free Street Theater’s rehearsal space in the attic of the Pulaski Park Field House. This bold, unofficial statement of intent summarizes Free Street Theater’s formal mission: to teach “acting and writing skills to youth so they can open their potential to be creative, active participants in their own lives.” Its latest production, “You Ain’t Seen This,” which the website calls an exploration of “reflection, identity and choice,” is soon coming to an end; after two months of writing, rehearsal and performances in spaces all over the city, they are re-blocking the show for its final indoor performances. These will take place today and Wednesday in the new space of mixed-media theater company Collaboraction, whose creative director, Sam Porretta, co-directed the piece. “It’s becoming a new show,” says co-director Ashley Winston, former ensemble member and arts educator. They describe the whole Summer Intensive program as “down and dirty”; the ensemble auditioned the week before the writing began, and the “whole piece is generated from their work.”
But adapting the piece to serve the needs of different communities meant the piece was already changing constantly. “We have the indoor version, outdoor, PG-13, daycare,” says Porretta. “We make a lot of changes on the fly.”
One choice that may or may not have been premeditated was to perform in the spitting face-fountains at Millennium Park. The online trailer is composed of footage of this performance; the ensemble, wearing all-white, dances in the falling water with the audience and holds up mirrors to passerby. The theme of mirrors is one that kept “popping up” in the writing process, according to Winston, as the ensemble asked itself questions about “how we see ourselves, each other, and the world.”
In preparing a piece that could be brought to different communities, the directors encouraged the ensemble to make the piece more than just about their own images, “being heard and having a voice in the world,” says Porretta. “We posed a challenge: what can you bring to the neighborhood? Make it about them, not you.” They reminded the ensemble that each of them had, once, seen a powerful piece of theater that inspired them. “We wanted to empower them as creators, inspiring a next generation of themselves,” Porretta says.
They also picked some locations specifically because they could use a little “joy.” They performed the piece at the Center on Halsted, for example, and outside the Boystown 7-Eleven where stabbings had taken place only weeks before. Winston says that one of their goals was to “address and counteract that in Chicago,” asking themselves “how to love and heal the space” even with “negative attention in the media.” Their choice of North Avenue Beach, for example, was partly inspired by the recent media frenzy over “flash mobs” and its encouragement of the perception of minority youth groups as threats.
In rehearsal, the ensemble members more closely resembled what the expression “flash mob” had initially signified—as some arrived from their lunch break, they danced to Daft Punk. An onlooker yelled “this isn’t an eighties workout video!” Eventually they concentrated their energy into a warm-up game; as spotlights turned on one at a time, they formed a mass below the lights, gesturing and staring upwards, illuminated and ready for action. (Rachel Lazar)
August 9 and 10, Collaboraction Theater, 1575 North Milwaukee, 6pm.