Inspiration from Within: The Theater of Community

"The Windy City." "City of the Big Shoulders." "The Second City." "The City That Works." Chicago has never been at a loss for nicknames. And when it comes to some of the city’s hardest working theatrical institutions, yet another Chicago nickname springs to mind: "City of Neighborhoods." Take a look at two very different Chicago theaters that have made it their mission to create programming strongly bonded to their community and neighborhood.

eta Creative Arts Foundation

Chicago theaters are known for setting their sights high, and eta Creative Arts Foundation is a prime example. For nearly 40 years this company has worked tirelessly to fulfill its aim of becoming "a major cultural resource for the preservation, perpetuation, and promulgation of the African American aesthetic in the City of Chicago, the State of Illinois, and the Nation." Along the way eta has picked up more than 120 awards and honors for quality programming and community service, and it has helped thousands of children experience and explore the joy of live performance.

Incorporated in 1971, eta Creative Arts Foundation spent a few years as an itinerant troupe before putting down roots on Chicago’s South Side. The company bought and converted a building that eventually would come to house not only a 200-seat theater, but also a library, an educational workshop space, and an art gallery as well. Over the years, eta has made itself an integral part of its primarily black neighborhood, offering residents a performing arts complex, an educational facility, and a community meeting hall—all under one roof. During that same period, the company has produced more than 180 mainstage productions penned by black playwrights—and 98 percent of those productions have been world premieres. From the beginning, a pivotal part of the company’s mission has been its commitment to arts education programming both within its own facility and through residency partnerships with the public schools. It offers comprehensive training in theater, dance, and music as well as an annual eight-week youth theater summer camp. Many young children who take part in eta’s programs stay connected with the organization throughout their high school years and far beyond.

Albany Park Theater Project

On the other side of town, another community-based theater company has been making its own mark. The Albany Park Theater Project (APTP) is an ensemble of youth artists who collectively write, choreograph, compose, and stage theatrical works dedicated to and based upon real-life stories of working-class and immigrant Americans, including Albany Park residents. As Northwestern University professor of performance studies Dwight Conquergood once put it, "it walks the balance beam between artistic craft and social conscience."

Albany Park is a neighborhood of 57,000 people located on Chicago’s northwest side. It is home to one of the city’s most diverse communities—more than 50 percent of residents were born outside the United States. Founded in 1997, APTP started by presenting performances at neighborhood libraries, schools, and churches. Today the company has its own theater space in the Eugene Field Park cultural center, which also has come to serve as a community gathering place. At a typical APTP show, audience members are taken on a journey deep into the life experiences of people who live among them. The productions engage audience members in ways that take them beyond simply watching a performance by connecting them as vital parts of their shared community. Every show is followed by a conversation facilitated by the ensemble members. There are also diverse special events that allow audiences to explore the themes of the performances in new ways. These events have included community forums on undocumented immigrants, moderated discussions about increasing access to college for Chicago Public School students, and even a Persian cooking class.

As APTP has built its reputation, it has drawn audiences from across Chicago. Yet the company still relies to a very large extent on the core audience that serves as its inspiration and its mission—the community of Albany Park.