Monday, August 15, 2016

Immersive Adventures in Chicago: "Learning Curve"

This is going to sound like a review, and I don't mean it to, but I need to rave about this show.

I was in Chicago from Thursday until yesterday for the 2016 ATHE conference (Association for Theatre in Higher Education) and I had put myself on the waiting list for tickets for "Learning Curve," the immersive theatre collaboration between Third Rail Projects, Albany Park Theatre Project, and the Chicago school district. It's been getting amazing reviews and its entire run has been sold out but there's an option to add yourself to the wait list for any given performance, which is what I did, and I got lucky. Actually, because the tickets were only $40, I ended up getting three because I had expected to pay over $100 (I just bought tickets to "The Grand Paradise" and they were over $100, as are tickets to "Then She Fell," and if they're not $100, tickets to "Sleep No More" are close). I found two other people two give those tickets to at the conference hoping to give someone an amazing experience. I'm the type of person who will buy everyone she knows a copy of her favorite book - Imajica - just to make sure they get a chance to read it, so now I'm also the type who will buy friends tickets to immersive theatre, in the hopes of creating new obsessions.

"Learning Curve" deals with the issues surrounding high school, both from the perspective of its students and its teachers & administrators. What makes it incredibly powerful is that it's all performed by high school students, who are incredibly vulnerable and effective, and really took me back to my own years in high school. It also helped that THIS particular school probably hadn't been renovated since I was in junior high, and it reminded me of Elm Street Junior High School before its renovation in the early 90s. Aside from metal detectors, the presence of security guards, and constant reminders that cell phones exist, nothing had really changed in the last 20 years.

I was extremely lucky to have three moments of incredible intimacy with characters - similar to "Then She Fell," the audience is on rails during this performance (though slightly less so - it's a bit more random, and the audience is larger). And as intimate as the "one-on-ones" that I've had in "Sleep No More" and "Then She Fell" were, this is key: nothing beats the "one-on-one" with yourself from 20 years ago. Aside from the angst of being in high school there was also the relationship this project had to its city and its particular school district. For me, the realities behind this - and the fact that the performance was taking place in one of the closed schools - combined with the near universal truths of being in high school, make this a far more emotional and effective piece than any other immersive I've seen up to this point.

One of the people I brought with me was David Kaye, who was a professor of mine at UNH when I was in undergrad. He had never been to an immersive theatre production before and this, I think, blew his mind. Afterward we talked with one of the students, who was really excited to learn that we were theatre professors in Chicago for a conference. He asked a ton of questions about our respective schools.

I feel like every time I see something extraordinary I say "this is the best theatre I've ever seen." And it becomes silly after awhile, so I don't know that it means anything to say that anymore. This is light years better than "Sleep No More," better than "Then She Fell." If you live ANYWHERE near Chicago or if you're going to be there before November 20, put yourself on a waitlist or twelve. There are no witches or raves or stunning scenic pieces or secrets to unlock, but the emotions it creates are real and inescapable, because we've all been through them. I'm incredibly glad that I did this, it was the highlight of a very full weekend.
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