Evanston student show “Am I the Only One Here?” tackles belonging, identity

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Courtesy of Andrew Biliter

Cast members rehearse in an Evanston park this fall. The cast and devising team of “Am I the Only One Here?” was made up of five Evanston teenagers.

Jordan Mangi, Assistant Audio Editor

In the spring of her junior year, ETHS student Carmiya Bady was supposed to play Velma Kelly in “Chicago” — but the pandemic closed schools before the show could begin. Countless performances, both at ETHS and Evanston’s several community theatres, were subsequently postponed, canceled, or went virtual.

As summer came, with no end to COVID in sight, Tim Rhoze, Fleetwood-Jourdain Theatre’s artistic director, approached Andrew Biliter, the artistic director of Mudlark Theater, with an idea.

Rhoze proposed a partnership between Fleetwood-Jourdain, Mudlark and Piven Theatre Workshop that would provide Evanston high school students the space and funding to devise their own show, with Biliter acting as the devising facilitator.

“(Tim’s) idea was that we should basically give teens the mic,” Biliter said. “Let them say what they want to say, whatever that happens to be, not trying to control it. Help them to shape it into some sort of theatre performance.”

Throughout the fall, a cast of five ETHS students met socially distant in local parks to devise scenes for the show. By December, they had created “Am I The Only One Here?,” a forty minute virtual show dealing with themes of belonging, identity and being a teenager during the pandemic.

Matías Kruse, ETHS junior and cast member, said he didn’t know the rest of the cast well before rehearsals began, but quickly got close to them. The group frequently stayed after rehearsal time just to talk.

“We are so comfortable with each other,” Kruse said, calling the cast a “little community.” “It was a lot easier to create stuff with each other and know what we wanted to tell.”

Cast member Carmiya Bady said it felt important to have made a space to share their experiences through art.

Bady said the show is a little piece of the lives of its cast members, particularly because many of the scenes are based on the cast members’ lived experiences.

“We were all kids of color — except for Matías, who was Latino,” Bady said. “Hearing the stories of these kids’ culture, and how we need a way to express all that’s going on in our minds and in our lives — there isn’t usually an outlet for that.”

In addition to the five cast members, the show also had a student stage manager and script advisor. Olivia Nicholson, ETHS graduate and sophomore at the University of Southern California, was brought on as a co-facilitator.

While the show was initially slated to be performed outside in mid-November, the team made the decision to move to a filmed, virtual format when COVID-19 cases rose in the fall.

“Our thought process was, ‘Whatever comes out of these teenagers is going to be valid and important and poignant,’” Nicholson said. “I like to think of it as the show perfectly summing up all the good that we’ve gotten from the year, and the laughs we forgot and the clarity that we found.”

The show represents a culmination of 2020, Nicholson said, and so the performance was aired on New Year’s Eve.

Biliter, who is working on other pandemic-safe performances and workshops for Mudlark, said he was particularly proud of the work this cast produced.

“They were just a remarkable group of people, I was just in awe of them every day,” Biliter said. “That was probably the best thing in my life, other than being a parent. The best thing to come out of this really rough year was the experience of working on the co-production.”

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Twitter: @jordanrose718

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