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American Theater Company reconstructing ‘Project(s)’ for schools

American Theater Company's acclaimed production of "The Project(s)," with members of the original cast pictured here, will be reworked for an educational program in collaboration with Chicago's National Museum of Public Housing. (Photo: Michael Brosilow)

Shortly before his untimely death in a traffic accident in 2015, PJ Paparelli, then artistic director of Chicago’s American Theater Company, staged “The Project(s),” a riveting world premiere work of oral history that chronicled the birth, complex life and precipitous decline of Chicago’s public housing.

Now, Paparelli’s acclaimed documentary play is about to get an intriguing “second life,” as the American Theater Company (ATC), in collaboration with the National Public Housing Museum (NPHM) — the Chicago-based museum founded in 2007, and projected to open its permanent home in 2018 — has announced plans for a new partnership to co-create and pilot an educational curriculum in the Chicago public schools. At the program’s core will be the production that was conceived, co-written (with Joshua Jaeger) and directed by Paparelli. In addition to the curriculum, ATC will condense “The Project(s),” originally a two-hour show, into a 50-minute educational touring production.

The National Public Housing Museum, slated to open in the last existing building of the Jane Addams Homes at 1322 W. Taylor, is the first cultural institution in the United States dedicated to interpreting the American experience in public housing. It stated mission is “to draw on the power of place and memory to illuminate the resilience of the poor and working class families of every race and ethnicity to realize the promise of America.”

A rendering of Chicago’s National Public Housing Museum, set to open in Chicago in 2018. (Rendering courtesy of Landon Bone Baker Architects)
A rendering of Chicago’s National Public Housing Museum, set to open in Chicago in 2018. (Rendering courtesy of Landon Bone Baker Architects)

Elements of the 50-minute production of “The Project(s)” will tour to Chicago public schools as part of ATC’s American Mosaic program, an intensive six-week arts residency. Participating schools include Roberto Clemente Community Academy, Kelvyn Park High School, Wells Community Academy High School and Bronzeville Scholastic Institute. Students will study the condensed version of the play and produce a portion of it with the guidance of ATC teaching artists. The NPHM will enhance ATC’s existing curriculum by providing the historical, cultural and social context of public housing to the students. In addition, ATC’s college prep Youth Ensemble will perform the condensed production for two weekends next summer on the ATC stage at 1909 W. Byron, with dates still to be announced.

In a prepared statement, Jaeger noted: “The three-plus years during which I had the privilege to work alongside PJ on “The Project(s)” were easily some of the most formative for me, not just as an artist, but as a person in the world. Through it all, PJ and I had many conversations about the ultimate goals of the play, and I think that in the back of our minds we knew that while we were bent on creating a powerful piece of theater, there was the potential for an even more powerful educational component to the piece. There is no better home for the play, in my mind, than in our classrooms and places of learning.”

Leading the process for the school production will be director Jess McLeod and dramaturg Sarah Slight. Leading the curriculum process will be the NPHM’s new associate director, Robert Smith III.

According to Smith: “The Museum’s mission is to preserve, promote and propel public housing as a human right, and ‘The Project(s)’ does this in the most powerful form of art possible- storytelling. Now that we have the keys to the [museum] building, and a plan to open next year, we are excited to launch this partnership with ATC in order to bring the stories of public housing to as many audiences as possible.”

As ATC’s curent artistic director, Will Davis, explained: “Our development partnership with the National Public Housing Museum perfectly encapsulates ATC’s mission. The Chicago public school students we work with, along with our Youth Ensemble, will all participate in various phases of the development, and the finished touring production will continue the work of the original show, drawing audiences into vital community conversations.”

From 2010 until 2014, Paparelli conducted over 100 interviews with scholars, historians, and former and current residents of Chicago’s public housing at Cabrini-Green, Robert Taylor Homes, Wentworth Gardens and Ida B. Wells Homes. The world premiere of “The Project(s)” at ATC in 2015 interwove this verbatim interview material with a cappella music, body percussion and stepping. The show was originally funded through a grant from the Chicago Community Trust, which will continue to fund it with an additional $75,000 grant to ATC for the development of the play and the tour, and a $25,000 grant to the NPHM for the development of the curriculum.

PJ Paparelli, who devised “The Project(s)” for American Theater Company. (Photo: Courtesy of ATC)
PJ Paparelli, who devised “The Project(s)” for American Theater Company. (Photo: Courtesy of ATC)