NORTH CENTER — "It's a Wonderful Life" is the quintessential story of neighbors helping neighbors, which makes it the perfect subject for a collaboration between American Theater Company and Amundsen High School.
For the past 11 years, ATC has mounted a radio play version of the holiday classic, which has become a tradition itself. This year, the company is adding a special Tuesday night performance Dec. 11, with proceeds to benefit Amundsen High School and ATC's education outreach programs.
Although the fundraiser is a first for the two, ATC and Amundsen's relationship dates back five years.
That's when the school signed on to participate in ATC's just-launched American Mosaic program, a comprehensive theater curriculum that brings ATC's artists into classrooms across the city. Students at various schools each rehearse a different scene from the same play and then come together at ATC to stitch together a production on a professional stage. (Wells, Hyde Park, Collins and Kelvyn Park high schools are among the other participants. This year's production should take place in February.)
"Our mission is to ask the question, 'What does it mean to be an American?'" said PJ Paparelli, ATC's artistic director. "Art is a way to process things that are happening, to help better understand things that are going on in the world."
This year the students will tackle "Columbinus," a documentary play that explores the 1999 school shooting in Columbine, Colo., through the lens of teenagers across the country.
"Of all the plays we've done so far, this is the most relevant," Paparelli said.
With arts education lacking in many Chicago Public Schools, ATC is helping fill in the gaps.
"We only have one drama class," said English teacher Nicole Matassa, who spearheads the effort at Amundsen. Through American Mosaic, "the students are able to get more exposure to theater. It's their first for I would say 98 percent of my students."
Mosaic has grown to the point where every sophomore at Amundsen outside of the school's International Baccalaureate students, some 200 in total, takes part in the program, according to Matassa. In addition to acting, students gain experience in set decoration, costume design and technical production.
"It really brings everyone together," Matassa said. "It's a good way to learn what it means to be an ensemble. The ATC artists constantly hammer home you want to make the other person look better."
In fact, Mosaic proved so popular at Amundsen that ATC followed up with the Bridge after-school program as a way to "foster the interest we sparked," according to Paparelli.
Bridge explores more advanced theater techniques and pairs each school with a playwright to develop an original work based on a topic of interest to the students, be it bullying, teen pregnancy or the class system.
"The kids really pick the thing they want to talk about," Paparelli said. The schools then perform their plays at an inter-scholastic festival.
"Our kids just love theater so much," said Matassa. "We have juniors and seniors, they want to audition for Juilliard."
Not so coincidentally, ATC is developing yet another outreach program to help students achieve that very goal. For the past two years, ATC has been piloting a Youth Ensemble that taps a select number of high school juniors who've demonstrated an exceptional gift for theater.
ATC provides the students with one-on-one training and, perhaps more importantly, walks the teenagers and their families through the audition and college application process.
"It's eye opening to parents. Without us, it would really be quite daunting," Paparelli said. "So few [minority students] audition for these conservatories because there's no route for them."
Though ATC handpicked its first two ensemble cohorts, it's throwing the program open to all Mosaic and Bridge students next year. Paparelli recently discussed this latest development with Ald. Ameya Pawar (47th), who immediately thought to put the artistic director in touch with Stephen Reynolds, president of Friends of Amundsen.
"Parents send their kids to schools where something special is attached," said Pawar, whose Grow 47 iniative is aimed at creating a K-12 school system in the 47th Ward. "How do we tell people about the great things at Amundsen?"
The benefit performance is aimed at simultaneously raising the profile of Amundsen and ATC and helping fund programs like Mosaic and Bridge. It's hard to think of a production more apt to open wallets than "It's a Wonderful Life."
ATC's version brings the audience into a theater transformed into a 1940s radio studio and "something comes alive," Paparelli said. "I'll be the first to admit that when I came here five years ago [as artistic director], I was such a cynic. I thought, 'Oh, I'll replace that.' I sat through the first technical rehearsal and I was sobbing."
ATC's benefit performance of "It's a Wonderful Life: The Radio Play" is scheduled for Dec. 11, 8 p.m. Tickets are $40 for adults and $20 for children. To purchase call the box office at 773-409-4125 or contact Nicole Meunier at firstname.lastname@example.org.