By: Francesco DeSalvatore
I’ve lived in the city of Chicago for about two years now. That’s roughly 730 days. For about 480 days of those two years I’ve been a student. I woke up every morning. Went to class. Came home. Did some homework. Occasionally hung out with friends. Ate whatever was left in the fridge because I was too lazy to go to the Jewel-Osco down the street. And then repeated it all over again. It’s a simplified schedule of my day, but one that any student can relate to and understand.
During that time most of my activities resided somewhere between the Sheridan and Fullerton Red Line El stops. More or less I came into contact with the same people–either my friends or people from work and school. It was 480 days of endless routine. And with routine came comfort, which made it even easier to forget about all of the political and social divides existing in the very neighborhood I inhabited.
In a city like Chicago, where all you need to do is look at a map and realize how segregated the city is, cohesion is easily forgotten. I wanted to find a place or a way to break down all of the political, social, and religious barriers that divided the Chicago community. Then I found Free Street Theatre.
For folks who have no clue what I’m talking about, Free Street is a non-for-profit theatre company dedicated to teaching acting and creative writing skills to youth. This summer, I served as the Artistic/Production Intern, helping create the set pieces, and blocking, running exercises, and helping advance the production in any way possible.
The summer intensive lasted for eight weeks, four days a week, eight hours a day, and focused on working with fifteen teenagers to develop a performance piece about political issues that were pertinent to their communities.
On the first day all I could think about was how in the hell could twenty people create a performance piece. Just one look around the room made it clear that there was a diverse ensemble with differing personalities, needs, and wants. Collectively the 15 teenagers involved represented practically all of the neighborhoods in Chicago- all the way from Rogers Park to 95th/Dan Ryan. It seemed like a tremendous challenge to create an environment in 8 weeks that could foster equality and openness, when so many diverse backgrounds were coming together.
As time went by it was clear there was one thing uniting everyone involved: creation. That’s the sole reason why all of us had decided to spend eight weeks in the miserable heat doing yoga on sticky mats, working our vocal chords until they stung, and churning our tired legs for one last movement piece. We laid down all of our differences for the sole goal of creating something together.
By the third week it was decided that the performance would explore the traps and binding situations that people experience due to negative influences of the media, peer pressure, and issues at home. It was a testament to the power of community. If a group of individuals chose to create a community built upon trust and respect, there was a chance that the process could free all of us from the chains that held us down.
I wasn’t tied to the traditional role of a dramaturg in any way, at least not in the way I’ve been trained to think about dramaturgy. I consider all of the work I did this summer as dramaturgical because of the holistic approach that Free Street demands. Not once did I do something because it was my special project. I did everything from painting props to blocking scenes because it meant that it would help the greater whole. And during the entire process all of the choices I made were collectively decided. Whenever we needed a scene to be blocked the performers and the directors would have a say as to how it was staged. Nothing was done unless the ensemble was on the same page. What this meant was that the final product was not the main goal, but instead it was the process that was the focus.
Now as I am about to once again begin the life as a student, I can’t help but look at the next 480 days left of my college career and want to do something different from the past 480 days. I don’t want to just fall back into routine and forget the community that I am part of. If there’s one little nugget of hope I found in the empty void that summer has come to be for many students, it’s that there is a way to transform a community and create equality and equity. This hope lies in the artistic process.