Albany Park Theater Project at Ellen Gates Starr High, Chicago, (866) 811-4111
On a recent Sunday night, I watched a kid get bullied in a school bathroom, said Chris Jones in the Chicago Tribune. I also took a standardized test—it was harder than you might imagine—and received a dressing down from a local member of the Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps. All of this took place at the fictional Ellen Gates Starr High School, which occupies a former Catholic school and was created by Chicago’s youth-oriented Albany Park Theater Project and Brooklyn’s immersive-theater specialists, Third Rail Projects. Each audience member takes on the role of a public school student and, after passing through a metal detector and being photographed for a student ID, is guided around the four-story building. There are 26 scenes of joy and heartbreak to discover, acted out by a cast of 33 Chicago teens—many of whom are firstgeneration immigrants. “Most high school drama you’ll have seen will have inhabited merely a literal plane; Learning Curve embraces the symbolic, the inner life of the kid, the deeper context.”
The story’s stakes “are of acrophobiainducing height,” said Kevin Greene in NewCity.com. Ellen Gates Starr High is struggling academically and financially, and students and teachers know it. Yet the production’s execution “feels almost routine, as if this were not a performance but rather just another day at a Chicago public school on the verge of collapsing.” I found myself tearing up numerous times, “variously out of sadness, frustration, or hope,” said Kris Vire in Time Out Chicago. It happened during a solo encounter with a newly laid-off teacher who was packing up her things, and when a student who speaks halting English suddenly waxed eloquent in Spanish about the themes of The Great Gatsby. But the prospect of taking a math test decades after graduating left me panicked, a feeling that grew when the proctor warned that the class’ performance could affect the school budget.
One scene gave me pause, said Hedy Weiss in the Chicago Sun-Times. I came across the school’s most passionate teacher secretly “correcting” tests; she said she didn’t want the school to be closed for failing to meet arbitrary benchmarks. “Her reasoning could not be more fervent, but she is committing fraud. That should somehow be noted beyond the guilt on her face.” That episode doesn’t diminish the urgency of the show, which breathtakingly captures the problems facing urban public schools. “You want to grab hold of every politician and school bureaucrat and say, ‘Experience this show, and then do something.’”