Publicity still from ‘Learning Curve’ by Albany Park Theater Project and Third Rail Projects.

How I Learned to Stop Worrying About Design & Start Immersing Myself in Characters

An exploration of ‘Learning Curve’ by Albany Park Theater Project and Third Rail Projects

I think it’s safe to say that my love affair with immersive theatre has revolved around pieces with elaborate design aesthetics. My gateway drug was Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More, as it likely was for most in the US. That piece, with its six floors and hundreds of rooms, each lushly & impeccably designed, down to every scrap of paper in every drawer helping to tell the story, was a designer’s dream come true. I didn’t even realize at my first visit that I could spend time following characters — I just wandered through the set, becoming immersed in the period design, in the darkness, the mood, the atmosphere.

The second piece I saw was Third Rail Projects’ Then She Fell. Again, it had elaborate period design and dark, fantasy elements. This year I saw Wilderness’ The Day Shall Declare It in Los Angeles, and upon entering the space immediately thought — does every immersive piece have to take place in the same time period? The music and costumes and even the bar felt so familiar to me. And recently I’ve begun delving into the world of horror immersives, where the mood (and ostensibly the design aesthetic) gets even darker. I have tickets to two at the end of September and can speak better to that then.

Which is why it was a bit of a surprise to me that I fell so hard for Albany Park Theatre Project’s Learning Curve. While this is certainly a large scale performance, its modern setting meant I wasn’t sure what my reaction was going to be. Up until the night I became a student at Ellen Gates Starr High School, I had largely seen immersive theatre for the design elements, and while there are design elements present in every production, all designers have projects that they are drawn to more than others, and a play taking place inside a high school, in present-day Chicago, doesn’t usually appeal to me. I hoped that it wouldn’t be difficult for me to find something to draw me in, like how the scenery for Sleep No More drew me in several years ago.

I started to get the sense of what I was in for during the first scene, in which the students in a classroom alternated between trying to focus on their classwork with the teacher present and passing notes or causing trouble when she’d stepped out for a minute. All performers in Learning Curve were high school students, whether students or teachers, and this really added emotional impact as the night progressed. The contrast between what was important to the teacher or the school (classwork and order) versus what was important to the student (interactions with friends) was heightened, as was the students’ frustration at having to sit still and wait until the bell rang to dismiss them. When that happened, we were led out in groups of two or three, and another woman and myself were led up a short flight of stairs into a small bathroom. This is where the magic really started for me, and where I was hooked.

At first it seemed like it was just the three of us in the bathroom, but when the girl who has led us in stepped into the stall, a second pair of boots stepped down off the toilet, and another girl joined her. The two danced briefly before the one who had led us in left, taking the other audience member with her, and I was left alone with girl number two. She didn’t seem to see me, but went over to the mirror and studied her reflection for awhile, not liking what she saw — an expression I remembered not just from high school but from that morning in the hotel mirror. She turned to the side, tried to appear thinner, looked at her profile, her hair, her skin, her lips. She frowned. And she took out a marker. She wrote on the mirror, “what do you dislike about yourself? Below that, she drew a face, and then listed three things — forehead, eyes, lips. And putting the cap on the marker, she looked up, and locked eyes with me in the mirror. It was an incredible moment — she hadn’t acknowledged my presence at all, and now she drew a second face on the mirror, and held the marker out to me.

Three things? I have so many.

I’ve written so often about the intimacy that happens in immersive theatre, but this was something entirely different. I knew this girl. I’m not sure that I was her when I was in high school, but if I wasn’t, my friends certainly were, and like I said, at nearly 40 I still am looking in the mirror and trying to figure out how to appear thinner. This was not the same thing as being taken into Hecate’s lair, an experience that, while magical, isn’t something to which I can relate. This was familiar, and painfully so. And while I’m sure it was just the luck of how my path through the show ended up, it was the first of several encounters I had with this particular actress that evening, each subsequent one feeling like it had stemmed from this first moment of intimacy. Later on she would ask me to watch her dance alone in the stairwell, follow her outside, and then surreptitiously share a sip of Captain Morgan that she’d taken from her parents’ liquor cabinet (the security guards caught us at that moment). It brought back memories of hiding drinks I wasn’t supposed to have, or sneaking around at night, or skipping school — real memories of things that happened in my life, with real emotions coming along with them.

Later in the evening, I followed another student, a boy, as he was tasked with bringing a stack of AP physics books to a classroom. There was another audience member with me who was adamant she was NOT going to be carrying anything up any stairs. The boy’s backpack was unexpectedly stolen from him, and instead of carrying books, we all wound up in the boys’ bathroom trying to get it back. At this point, the unhappy woman walked out — she apparently didn’t want to be in the boys’ bathroom any more than she wanted to carry books up stairs. I was alone there while two larger boys beat up the first boy; eventually they left and handed me his bag. As he slowly emerged from the stall, sniffling, he asked me quietly for his bag. I handed it to him and he started talking to me about the boys, about how this always happened to him, and about how he didn’t know how to stop it. My heart ached, and suddenly I was in a one-on-one with myself from over 20 years ago. What do you say to yourself in that situation? That you should punch back? “I’m not strong enough to do that,” he said. That they hate themselves? “Everyone says that,” he said. It gets better? Wait two years? None of it helped me then, none of it helped him now.

In contrast to what the students were experiencing was what the teachers and school administrators were going through. The students were aware of and concerned with the issues surrounding the Chicago school district: layoffs, over reliance on standardized testing, severe budget cuts, and school closures. But mostly the students wanted their high school experience. They wanted to be kids. They wanted to go to prom. To be with their friends. To graduate successfully. When we got to see what the teachers were going through in order to give this to the students we understood just how much they cared and how difficult the situation really was –one teacher in particular was trying to teach a class, knowing that at any minute she could be called to the office and fired. Another teacher, in order to give an obviously gifted student the opportunity to gain confidence speaking English, had set up a reading group on her own time for students whose primary language wasn’t English. I am now a teacher myself — a college professor, though I don’t work in a situation that bears any resemblance to Chicago’s schools. But I found myself empathizing not just with the students, having once been one, but also with the teachers, now that I am one.

Did I mention the set design? I did not. There’s a reason for that — I didn’t really notice it, apart from the similarities the school bore to my own junior high school (which, in itself, speaks volumes to the funding these schools receive, considering I was in junior high in 1990, and that building at that time hadn’t been renovated in 30 years). For once in immersive theatre I wasn’t there for the design. I was there for the people, the characters, and their stories, which were to some small degrees my stories. As much as I love Then She Fell and Sleep No More, I can’t really say the same about the Mad Hatter or Hecate.