Incarcerated Youth Find Freedom In Theatre

As the audience members settle into their seats, the cast prepares to take to the stage. Lined along the back wall, a simple row of chairs promises the kind of minimalist, yet impactful theatre that comes from reducing a play down to its barest elements. The cast members take their places and open their scripts—just as they would at any ordinary reading of a new musical. But this isn’t an ordinary musical and the audience isn’t in an ordinary theatre. Everyone here is gathered at the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center on the west side of Chicago and the musical that’s about to enjoy its stage debut is being done by young people who are accused of crimes—some of the charges are so severe that many of these young people are at risk of being tried as adults.

The show begins, and over the next hour, thirteen actors perform a series of scenes and songs that they’ve written themselves. Audience members laugh at their jokes, cry at their struggles, and even see themselves in their journeys, as one story and song after another translates life on the streets of Chicago to the musical stage. These are true stories—and this is Storycatchers Theatre.

Storycatchers Theatre was started in 1984 by Meade Palidofsky—a writer/director who was touring Chicago schools with a theatre troupe, performing plays based on social issues. That touring company ended up at the Juvenile Temporary Detention Center and the performance there ended with some role-playing with the students. Role-playing grew into writing and eventually Palidofsky did a play with the kids that featured their stories and some raps. And at the time, Palidofsky thought that was the end of it.

“I went away for a week, and when I came back, they were all like, ‘Where did you go?’ And they already had an idea for another play that was going to be more of a real story—they were really ready to go. And I realized that I could not leave them. So I didn't.”

That initial impulse grew into a structured multi-session program that runs throughout the year at the Center—with kids taking part in either a single session or the entire year-long process. Over the course of four ten-week cycles, the kids come in, share their stories around a central theme, and then, at the culmination of those four sessions, they turn those stories into a 60-minute musical that is performed for their families, the community, and other kids at the facility—with the goal of changing lives for the better.

But how much of a change could really happen through this process? These kids have frequently been exposed to a life of violence and insecurity that will likely remain with them for the rest of their lives. Can writing and performing a musical about their often-traumatic experiences really make a difference at all?

Program Manager Cheryl Coons thinks so. “In all the Storycatchers programming, there is something inherently therapeutic for the kids about telling their personal stories with the clear witness of the community. There is an honoring of their experiences—both the painful and joyful ones. It’s amazing to see the transformation in them over the course of time. While the experience of being locked up for a long time creates kids who have become ‘institutionalized,’ the process of sharing stories and doing arts-related activities can be humanizing.”

Palidofsky adds that the change doesn’t stop when the performance ends—it’s transformative and ongoing. “It helps them understand the traumas they have been through, and that the process of creating music out of these painful experiences can make them universal and beautiful. When you sing about your journey, it becomes a shared experience. It takes your emotions and words from being individual to becoming everyone's song.”

That universality reaches beyond the other students at the facility and their families—it affects the staff and even the judges who are presiding over the trails of these kids. Palidofsky explains, “The Center staff has said the program is rewarding for them because they see kids grow in ways that maybe they couldn't imagine. It allows them to have positive conversations with the youth—because you can talk about their stories, the play, their performances—what they are achieving instead of ‘don’t’ and ‘stop.’ We've seen judges make different decisions about the kids’ sentences because they've seen them display strength and potential. It just opens up everyone to the possibility of what they can become.”

And that is precisely what happens at these shows—possibilities are opened. The most recent show was organized around the theme of “second chances.” And at first, it seems obvious what events these kids might be drawn to in relation to that theme. But many of the second chance stories had nothing to do with life in the facility. There were scenes about teenage couples wanting to give their relationship a second chance after a breakup. There were songs about mothers and daughters fighting and the need to give each other another opportunity. And yes, throughout the show there were accounts of kids getting arrested for gun possession or shooting someone or a variety of other crimes.

But the mix of stories—from things that are commonplace teenage experiences to events that are specifically violent or criminal in nature—is a strange juxtaposition. These kids slide through their language, one moment talking about a crush and in the next moment talking about an AT—as if they are equally fluent with both topics. And while anyone who has been a teenager knows what it is to have a crush on someone, only a young person on trial for a serious crime knows that AT stands for Automatic Transfer—meaning that their cases would be automatically transferred to adult court and when they turn eighteen, they will be transferred from the juvenile facility to adult jail as they continue to await adjudication. The sentencing difference is huge: between a few years in a juvenile facility and potentially decades in prison. In general, teenagers are not known for their sense of perspective, and the weight that these students put on topics that are way out of proportion to each other—a crush versus a life in prison—illustrates the thinking of a teenager in a visceral way.

But when these concerns are put into stories—and ultimately a musical—it allows the students to get perspective on their lives and their choices. They never play themselves in the musical—they always play someone else. This gives them the opportunity to see themselves from a different perspective, and it gives them a chance to share their story and their song with another performer.

Palidofsky describes what happens when the kids take the stage, “They release their stories, because the only way to heal from trauma is to tell the story and have it validated by the community. The process is rewarding because you see such changes. You just have to ride with the chaos. You have to not be afraid of chaos.”

And it can be chaotic, both logistically and emotionally. Palidofsky shares a harrowing story about a student who was one of the chief playwrights of the yearly musical. She was released to a placement instead of her home before the show was performed. But a few days before the students were set to begin rehearsal on the show, news reached the facility that the young woman had been murdered—and what was supposed to be a celebration of her triumph over her struggle became a memorial.

Coons tells a story about a rehearsal that was not going well—two kids who were playing brothers were acting unusual towards each other. So she stopped the rehearsal and asked what was going on, and they told her that one student’s friend had been killed—likely at the hands of the other student’s gang. She says:

“We processed for a while, and then the kids talked with each other briefly. We finished the scene and ended the rehearsal with—no kidding—laughs and hugs. I couldn't help thinking of those great lines from Shakespeare in Love: ‘Let me explain about the theatre business. The natural condition is one of insurmountable obstacles on the road to imminent disaster. Strangely enough it all turns out well. How? I don't know. It's a mystery.’”

And despite the seemingly insurmountable odds, this program does make a difference in people’s lives. Palidofsky is still in touch with students from her first class—and they work with the program whenever she needs them. They know the value of what they experienced and are bonded forever by the process of telling stories together and creating theatre as a group. And Coons just finished a cycle that ended with judges giving the kids a standing ovation—and that performance happened to fall on one of the kid’s eighteenth birthdays. Because the judge in the audience gave that young person a second chance, he wasn’t being transferred to an adult prison on his eighteenth birthday—instead, he was performing in a musical of his story to rapturous applause.

But it isn’t always happy endings and it continues to be enduring, difficult work. However, Palidofsky can’t imagine doing anything else, “When somebody tells me their story, and I look into their eyes, and I see the light go on because they're telling the story for the first time, it makes me feel proud of them and it makes me feel good. We have to see that if we weren't there—how would the stories be told?”

But their stories are told—because of Storycatchers Theatre. And when the audience gathers, and the performance begins, and the students start to tell their stories, theatre does what it always does. It transports everyone in the room to somewhere else—somewhere where people are listening to the ignored stories of kids from the streets of Chicago. And for an all too fleeting moment, those kids feel truly free.

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