WBEZ CHICAGO: one of spring’s most coveted ticketS

‘Port of Entry’ is staged in a former storage warehouse. The interior was converted into a faux apartment building. Manuel Martinez/WBEZ

“A Chicago theater company without a season, stage or professional actors has one of spring’s most coveted tickets”
WBEZ Chicago

Mike Davis
March 6, 2024

On a recent sunny afternoon, the green room at Albany Park Theater Project comes alive.

About a dozen youth performers are scattered about the small room. Some hang out in the kitchenette, cracking jokes as they grab snacks. A few lounge on small sofas and armchairs. Adolescent banter zigzags back and forth in multiple languages.

The scene itself appears chaotic. But these up-and-coming actors, all of whom are currently students, are two weeks away from reviving Port of Entry, one of the hardest theatrical shows to get a ticket to in Chicago this spring — and one that goes against nearly all the traditional methods of the art form.

Co-director Miguel Rodriguez speaks to performers on set during rehearsal. The production has a rotating cast of 44 youth actors. Manuel Martinez/WBEZ

This show has no stage. Instead, it takes audiences through a Northwest Side building — one that began as a fireproof storage warehouse in the 1920s and has been rebuilt into faux “apartments.” There are no seats. The audience is split into four groups and moves through the apartments with each group experiencing unique stories. There are no set ticket prices. It’s pay what you will with a sliding scale from $35 to $140.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic grinded the arts to halt in 2020, theaters across the country have struggled to get audiences back into seats. Port of Entry has managed to not only get audiences to come out, but the company behind it has sold out two runs in a row and is embarking on a third beginning March 8. And they have done so by mining a contemporary issue — immigrants living in local communities — for stories that are presented in a beautiful spectacle that blurs the line between audience and performers.

The sets in ‘Port of Entry’ is meticulously crafted; details for the design were collected during in-home workshops conducted by Albany Park Theater Project and Third Rail Projects. Manuel Martinez/WBEZ

The set itself, which took more than a year to construct, is a three-story, 12,000-square-foot replica of an Albany Park apartment building with multiple units and a courtyard. The production has a rotating cast of 44 youth actors pulled from the theater’s afterschool program and nine adult directors — not to mention the numerous production electricians, AV engineers and the rest of the production team.

Keeping in mind that only 28 audience members can attend each show, and the ticket prices are on a pay-what-you-choose sliding scale, the looming question is, How is this possible? The answer: an authentic and timely story, a unique and immersive experience that people can’t get from Netflix and a huge fundraising push.

With a staggering cost of $2.5 million to produce, Port of Entry is by far the most expensive and ambitious project Albany Park Theater Project has taken on in its 27-year history.

‘Port of Entry’ features a rotating cast of young actors. Here, Xytlaly Garcia tries on a quinceañera dress as part of her role. Courtesy of Eric Strom and Sarah Joyce

The process of making Port of Entry started back in 2018 with an idea. The company has a mission to not only tell the stories of Albany Park’s community, but also to engage its youth and allow them to tell their own stories. David Feiner, the co-founder and co-executive director of Albany Park Theater Project (also a co-director of the show), said the idea for Port of Entry was to take one of the apartment buildings in Albany Park, where people from all over the world live next door to one another, and share the different stories of the families that make up the community.

From there, the theater partnered with Third Rail Projects, a Brooklyn-based arts collective that specializes in immersive [performance].

“We came in, and we were doing a workshop led by the directors about homes and people were describing what makes a place feel like home,” said Edward Rice, associate managing director of Third Rail Projects and co-director of Port of Entry. Rice says a key component of prepping for the production was visiting the actual homes of young people to get the most authentic understanding of how they should design the 360-degree sets.

The audience is moved through a walkway while performers interact with each other. The paper flowers are created by audience members during the show, and left behind to become a permanent part of the set. Manuel Martinez/WBEZ

These workshops and home visits became the building blocks for the actual stories Albany Park and Third Rail Projects teams tested on traditional stages. After two successful test runs, the team began plotting an immersive experience. To get the ball rolling on a set that would be unlike any other, Feiner hired a general contractor and launched a funding campaign in Fall 2019.

It took three years to raise enough money for construction. Currently, the list of funders for the show has grown to more than 300 contributors. With support from foundations, local government and individual funders, APTP was able to fund the show on the front end.

This spring, the company is bringing back the show for a third stretch, and it’s already nearly sold out through June (tickets were offered by lottery to people who signed up for previous waitlists or who donated to the theater in the past year; there’s a signup to be alerted to last-minute tickets and cancellations). The show is now being sustained by both funds raised and ticket sales, and Feiner said the show will continue “as long as it remains creatively and financially rewarding for the [youth artists] at the center of it and as long as audiences want to see it.”

David Feiner (left) is the co-founder and co-executive director of Albany Park Theater Project and Miguel Rodriguez (right) is the co-executive director of Albany Park Theater Project and co-director of ‘Port of Entry.’ Feiner says that the show will run as long as audiences want to see it, and it remains creatively rewarding for those at the center of it. Manuel Martinez/WBEZ

Co-executive director Miguel Angel Rodriguez explained why audiences are so intrigued by this production.

“When you get rid of what is designated as ‘the audience space’ and the ‘performer space,’ and you make everything a plain space, you invite audiences into intimate spaces and scenes, and there’s something transformative right there. There’s something absolutely magical,” Rodriguez said.

Walking through the set and spending time in the apartments, the uniqueness is palpable. When you are on the set of Port of Entry, you feel like you are in an apartment. Every detail is meticulously crafted.

“We would spend three hours on the pink color in this dining room,” Rodriguez said, standing in one of the set apartments. “Because we want you to look at something and have it remind you of home.”

This production is also different from the typical theater experience because the stories change and morph over time. So, if you saw the show in the first run, you may not know every story being told now. And there are activities — a card game, cooking in the kitchen — happening between actors and audience that will make any individual experience with the show special.

Each time new audiences enter a space, a story may be told by a different cast member, from a different perspective or audience reactions may elicit different responses from actors. This also makes each show fresh for the actors.

Each time new audiences enter a space, a story may be told by a different cast member. This also makes each show fresh for the audience and the actors. Courtesy of Eric Strom and Sarah Joyce

“It’s fun to have [audiences] being able to interact with me,” said Tyler Lackey, a high schooler who plays multiple roles. “A lot of them are just relating. They love to see the character evolve and give such raw emotion. It feels like they’re just being drawn into the story.”

And that draw is what keeps audiences coming back.

If you go: Albany Park Theater Project’s Port of Entry is currently scheduled to run March 8 through June 15 at 3547 W. Montrose Ave. Sliding scale tickets start at $20. The show has currently sold out, but you can sign up for last-minute ticket alerts here.

Mike Davis covers theater for WBEZ.