On the drive home from Priya Shah’s first Storycatchers musical, she pulled over. She was teary-eyed and emotionally moved by the musical she had just watched.
Shah, who now serves as the executive director of Storycatchers, had just seen a musical at the Illinois Youth Center, a juvenile facility in Warrenville, Illinois. She watched girls tell stories of sexual abuse, battery and neglect. She also saw stories of hope and resilience.
“It struck me that these characters I had just watched struggle, joke, grieve and triumph on stage, that they’re not just characters,” she told NationSwell. “They’re based on real people with real stories.”
Shah left a corporate career to work with those girls and similar young people at Storycatchers Theatre.
Storycatchers Theatre — also known as Storycatchers — is a nonprofit musical theater group that works with justice-involved youth in Chicago. Through programming both inside and outside of the justice centers, children and young adults turn their life stories into musicals.
The young actors and actresses perform for a wide variety of audience members, including elementary school students, community members, judges, legislators and police officers. Last year, the nonprofit worked with 228 young people and hosted 127 performances inside and outside of juvenile detention centers, for over 5,000 audience members.
“It’s kind of a dual-purpose program, these young people have a place to tell their story, to be heard, to be validated, to find coping mechanisms in order to move on from their trauma,” Tory Davidson, Storycatchers’ community engagement manager, told NationSwell. “But then also we organizationally find platforms for young people’s voices to be heard and for them to inform people of power.”
Storycatchers has two programs: one that engages 13- to 18-year-olds inside three juvenile detention centers in or near Chicago, and another program called Changing Voices, which works with young people who are between the ages of 17 and 24 and are justice-involved, typically on parole, probation or post-release.
Changing Voices employs 21 young adults for 30 hours a week at Chicago’s minimum wage. Through that, they receive wraparound services, such as resume building, conflict management, financial literacy and job acquisition. They work with case managers and artist educators, who help them develop the musicals. A single day may start with a morning workshop on how to secure a job interview to an afternoon choreography rehearsal to a lesson on keeping calm in moments of crisis.
A cohort of four or five people work together to write their individual stories, create a group script, add music to the script, practice and then perform the musicals. Individuals typically stay in the program for about eight months, but some stay longer.
The Storycatchers team believes that trauma is the core reason that individuals end up in the justice system. Researchers have found a link between crime and unresolved trauma. So by telling and performing their story, they learn from the trauma and overcome it, said Shah.
“We believe that if we give diversion programming and arts programming and mental health support … it drastically changes the trajectory of their life because they understand what the actions are and what the consequences are,” she said.
The goal is to leave Storycatchers prepared for success, which may mean enrolling in higher education, landing a steady job or rekindling family bonds. Each story of success is different, said Shah.
For Quincy, success means pursuing a degree in theater. “I love acting, and I’m going to try and pursue it,” he said. Quincy, 19, learned about Storycatchers after his own encounter with the justice system. He had grown up watching Disney Channel, so acting was always a passion. He said Storycatchers felt like a great opportunity to prepare for a job and gain training as an actor. So Quincy applied, interviewed, auditioned and was accepted to the Changing Voices program.
A year and a half later, he’s performed close to a hundred shows and worked with dozens of fellow actors and actresses.
“We are all human beings, so we’re all going to make mistakes,” Quincy told NationSwell. “It’s called life experience, so you just have to live through it and think beyond the point where you shouldn’t have made that decision.”
Thanks to Storycatchers, Quincy has overcome trauma and created a foundation for a career.
For another Storycatchers actor, it meant accepting male role models. Shah shared the story of a young man who had been abandoned by his father. The actor wrote a story about his dad leaving his home and never coming back.
The life event led to a lot of anger and challenges, but by writing and performing his trauma, he worked through it.
“We saw him overcome [his trauma] and have a positive relationship with male role models in his life,” Shah said.
The playwrights, writing about their own experiences, perform in their shows but never as themselves. They assume the role of their mothers, their grandfathers, a police officer or friend, for example. The idea is for them to experience their own situations from a new perspective.
“So by role-playing, you’re having people imagine a world that’s different from what they’d imagined before,” Shah said. “From the time they start writing their stories, to the time they perform it … they’re validating their stories.”
Storycatchers began performing life stories in 1984 when Meade Palidofsky founded the organization. She started working with young people across Chicago to transform their personal stories into musicals.
She ended up workshopping and creating a show in one of Chicago’s juvenile detention centers. After the performance and workshop were over, the juveniles were aching to start their next musical, Davidson said. Their eagerness led Palidofsky to continue to work with justice-involved individuals. In 2016, Storycatchers decided to focus solely with justice-involved youth.
Twenty-nine years later, the program is still strong. The leaders at Storycatchers hope to deepen their impact in Chicago by expanding its outreach.
Storycatchers currently has plenty of anecdotal stories pointing to their success, but there isn’t evidence-based research to support their work — yet. The University of Chicago Urban Labs is currently looking at Storycatchers’ rates of recidivism and employment among its graduates to track their success. That data will be released in 2022.
“We believe in strong collaboration. We believe in strong relationships,” Shah said. “And a strong ecosystem to be able to provide an equitable platform for our youth.”
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the Illinois Youth Center is a juvenile detention center. It is a juvenile facility. Storycatchers Theatre also realigned its mission in 2016, not 1990. NationSwell apologizes for the errors.