Storycatchers Theatre’s Programs for Detained and Incarcerated Youth


Storycatchers Theatre’s Programs for Detained and Incarcerated Youth

Storycatchers Theater
544 West Oak Street
Suite 1005
Chicago, IL 60610
Phone: 312.280-4772
Fax: 312.280.4837

Focus: Musical Theater

Annual Number Participating: 275

Ages: High School

Annual Budget: $269,000.00

Partners: Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center; Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice; Institute for learning, Access and Training at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra

Funders: Albert J. Pick, Jr. Fund; Blowitz-Ridgeway Foundation; Chicago Foundation for Women; Crown Family Philanthropies; Dupage Community Foundation; Illinois Arts Council; Michael Reese Health Trust; Richard H. Driehaus Foundation; The Searle Funds of the Chicago Community Trust; Woods Fund of Chicago

By the time young people enter the juvenile justice system, they — and the people around them — likely already have a “story” about the kinds of choices the young people have made. But what’s behind those choices? Chicago-based Storycatchers Theatre seeks to uncover those stories in its groundbreaking work with court-involved youth.

Meade Palidofsky, Storycatchers’ Founder and Artistic Director, has long believed — and research is confirming — that young people who become entangled in the juvenile justice system are themselves the victims of trauma. Many have experienced physical, emotional, or sexual abuse; come from troubled families; or live in communities prone to violence. Using the somewhat unexpected vehicle of musical theater, Storycatchers Theatre helps these young people explore and present their deeper stories.

Through its gender-specific approach, Storycatchers works with girls at an Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice (IDJJ) facility in Warrenville and at IDJJ facilities for boys. The Temporary Lockdown program focuses on boys in the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center. Trained teaching artists collaborate with groups of young people to help them write and share their personal experiences, often eliciting information that they have never before revealed. “Sharing the stories takes away the stigma of these horrible things that have happened to you,” Palidofsky explains.

Participants’ narratives also become the basis for staged readings, as well as the inspiration for one-act musical theater productions. Along with building communication and teamwork skills, the process of working out a play’s dramatic structure — with its characters, conflicts, and resolution — gives young people a chance to further examine the consequences of past choices and “decide what roles they want to play in the future,” notes Palidofsky.

While personal challenges might seem like unusual source material for musical theater, lyrics are often easier for performers to remember than dialogue. And, because the songs become embedded in people’s memories, so do the play’s lessons and messages of hope and resilience, she adds.

The Civic Orchestra of Chicago (the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s pre-professional training orchestra) provides instrumentalists for the shows, which are performed for residents, facility staff, families, and the public. These original productions raise the audience’s awareness of the challenges that court-involved youth have faced. At the same time, they allow these young people to “take something that was painful and make it into something that’s beautiful,” states Palidofsky.

Through the Storycatchers process, youth residents have gained considerable insight into their issues and acquired new skill sets with which to meet their individual challenges. Moreover, facility staff members have developed increased awareness of the issues that our youth face and are, therefore, better able to offer them meaningful support.

Judy Davis Superintendent, Illinois Youth Center–Warrenville