Storycatchers Theatre prepares young people to make thoughtful life choices through the process of writing, producing and performing original musical theatre inspired by personal stories. Since its inception in 1984, under the name of Music Theatre Workshop, the company has served thousands of young people through innovative programs that use the performing arts to promote change in the following areas: personal growth and self-knowledge; conflict resolution, peer relations and teamwork; healthier family interactions; and increased awareness of community issues and resources.
Storycatchers’ history of organizational partnerships has strengthened its programs and helped to expand the company’s reach and impact. Current program partners include the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice (IDJJ), Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center, Columbia College Chicago, Holsten Human Capital Development, the Chicago Park District, Target Area Development Corporation, the Greater Auburn-Gresham Development Corporation and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Storycatchers also works with the Illinois Childhood Trauma Coalition to advocate for improved quality of life for court-involved youth.
Storycatchers began developing its residential program model for detained and incarcerated youth in 1990 through a partnership with Cook County Juvenile Detention Center (CCJDC), and established a gender-specific approach in 1995. In 2002, Storycatchers implemented Fabulous Females at the Illinois Youth Center (IYC)-Warrenville, and by 2005, the program was on a year-round schedule there. In 2008, at the request of the IDJJ, Storycatchers implemented Firewriters for boys at IYC-Chicago modeled after the success at Warrenville. In 2010, with the support of the Chicago Community Trust, Storycatchers re-established regular programming at CCJTDC for the first time since 2007 with the current Temporary LockDown program.
The act of using their personal stories to create a work of art cultivates pride and increased self-esteem in these adolescents, who are often able to use the creative process to better understand and release their personal pain. The catharsis of peer group storytelling demonstrated efficacy as a consistent bridge to therapy at Warrenville and as a result, the IDJJ Chief of Mental Health Services now oversees Storycatchers’ relationships with counseling and administrative staff at IDJJ facilities, facilitating the exchange of insights into family backgrounds, mental and emotional health issues, and behavioral concerns and ensuring access to the youth most in need of Storycatchers’ programs at each partnering facility. Notably, all of Storycatchers current programs for court-involved youth were initiated by direct requests from juvenile justice facilities.
Storycatchers has achieved local, state and national recognition, with profiles on National Public Radio, in the Chicago Tribune and other local media, and in nationally released documentaries and academic studies. Nationally recognized figures such as Shirley Brice-Heath, Professor of Linguistics and English with the Stanford Center on Adolescence, and Ira Glass, host of WBEZ’s This American Life, point to Storycatchers as an example of positive youth development programming that works. In 2013, the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities honored Storycatchers for its work with detained and incarcerated youth with a National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award. Only 12 organizations nationwide receive this award each year; it is the highest honor in the United States for after-school and out-of-school programs.
- Fabulous Females for girls at the Illinois Youth Center (IYC)-Warrenville
- Firewriters for boys at IYC-Chicago
- Temporary LockDown for boys at Cook County Juvenile Detention Center
Storycatchers engages participants in all residential programs with the following structure:
- Story collection/recruitment workshops that serve as introduction to the program and engage large groups of facility residents two or three times during a program year.
- Weekly or twice-weekly workshops, in which participants write and share their individual stories, identify themes and challenges that emerge from the stories, develop composite characters and then outline and create a musical play. Throughout each program module, participants work with teaching artists to set goals that help them to practice positive interactions with peers, facility staff and families. Each session engages a group that can range from as few as eight to as many as 15 youth. The material developed in these workshops culminates in the production of original musical and dramatic material for audiences of fellow residents, families, and community members.
- Staged readings and fully produced performances of the original work developed primarily by the core group, typically engaging a cast of 10-20 youth. Residents who have not participated on a regular basis attend and participate in post-show Q&A sessions. The performances engage the full population in the process, and function as an invitation to participate in the twice-weekly workshops when a new session begins. They also provide opportunities for families and members of the general public to see the work and engage in post-performance discussions with participants.
Changing Voices, in partnership with the North Region Aftercare Field Services Office: Storycatchers employs groups of up to 12 recently released young people to write, produce and tour original one-act musicals about the challenges they face upon reentry to their homes and communities. Storycatchers trains ensemble members to engage audiences in post-show discussions and role-plays to expand the impact of the program, which the company designs to increase rates of successful reentry as part of Illinois’ new approach to post-release support.
Teens Together in partnership with Columbia College Chicago and Holsten Human Capital Development:
- Playwriting Ensemble, October-April: 8-12 high school students from throughout Chicago meet Saturdays to work with Storycatchers teaching artists and Columbia College Chicago Creative Writing graduate students at Columbia’s Loop campus. Participants write and share personal stories, and work with the instructors to edit and refine the material, which provides the basis for the Summer Touring Ensemble production. A professional composer guides participants through the process of turning prose to lyrics and composes the score for summer production. This component includes two public performances of work-in-progress, in December and April.
- Summer Touring Ensemble, June-August: 15-20 new and returning participants meet at the Cornerstone Center, 1111 N. Wells, rehearse the original musical for three weeks before embarking on a tour to parks throughout Chicago, with an emphasis on neighborhoods with limited access to the performing arts. The tour typically also includes performances at the Illinois Youth Centers in Chicago and Warrenville and local Summer Advantage sites, as well as evening performances at the Cornerstone for community audiences. Since 2009, a relationship with the Chicago Housing Authority has ensured that approximately 50% of the Summer Ensemble participants are residents of public housing or mixed-income communities.