Storycatchers Theatre serves justice-involved youth in Illinois through a healing centered performing arts methodology.
Storycatchers Theatre guides young people to transform their traumatic experiences into powerful musical theatre, developing the courage and vision to become leaders and mentors. By creating support for youth within the criminal justice system, Storycatchers prepares them to change their lives and emerge successfully from court involvement.
Storycatchers was founded in 1984 and originally conducted residencies in the Chicago Public School system to create and perform original musicals inspired by the stories of students. In 1990, the company began developing its immersive residential program model for justice-involved youth at the Cook County Juvenile Detention Center. It was at this time that the methodology expanded to incorporate the youth into the full process of writing and performing as a way to explore and begin to move beyond past trauma.
Storycatchers initiated a remarkable, longstanding partnership with the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice (IDJJ) in 2002 when the company moved into what was then the state’s only secure facility for girls in Warrenville. It was at the Illinois Youth Center (IYC)-Warrenville that Storycatchers established its nationally recognized, award-winning process of delivering creative youth development programs through a trauma lens. Storycatchers has been conducting residential programs in three separate facilities on a year-round basis since 2010. In 2014, in recognition of the need for trauma-informed post-release support, the company expanded into employment for young people returning home to Chicago with the Changing Voices performing arts jobs program.
Storycatchers structures all programs to guide justice-involved youth to accomplish the following objectives:
*Create meaningful, entertaining performances that educate the community about the challenges these young people face, and how individual and institutional resources might better meet their singular needs;
*Develop improved behavior management, communication, and leadership skills to navigate court involvement and reentry successfully, and become productive, engaged citizens.
In addition, Storycatchers designs its post-release jobs program to guide each youth participant to develop an action plan to follow upon program completion to next-step education and/or employment opportunities.
Storycatchers designs its programs to address the unique needs of justice-involved adolescents and emerging adults. These youth are disproportionately impoverished, poorly educated, exhibit high rates of exposure to trauma, and lack positive social networks. Their ACE (Adverse Childhood Experiences) scores range from 4-7, reducing life expectancy by an average of 20 years. They are also overwhelmingly people of color -- according to the IDJJ 2020 internal report, the population of incarcerated youth in Illinois averages 71% African-American, 9% Latinx/Hispanic, and 2% Biracial or Other. Most come from lower-income homes, frequently located in communities affected by decades of structural racism and low public investment.
A wide range of challenging issues characterizes this demographic, including risk factors for psychiatric disorders and suicide, and high experience rates of verbal, physical, and sexual violence. Their emotional lives have been shaped by disproportional rates of complex trauma. Sources such as the National Child Traumatic Stress Institute and the Northwestern Juvenile Project state that over 92% of youth in the juvenile justice system have histories that include exposure to trauma. Even prior to detention, 74–90% of justice-involved youth have childhood histories that include high levels of maltreatment, victimization, and abuse. This pre-existing trauma is then compounded by the dehumanizing environments of secure facilities, which rob boys and girls of their still-evolving sense of dignity, autonomy, and selfhood. It is unrealistic to expect these young people to work and live productively unless they have access to meaningful support during incarceration and upon release.
Storycatchers has achieved widespread recognition for its work with justice-involved youth, with profiles on National Public Radio, in the Chicago Tribune and other local media, and in academic studies and documentaries such as the award-winning 2009 film, GIRLS ON THE WALL. 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, praise Storycatchers as an example of creative youth development programming that works. The company was honored by the White House in 2013 with a National Arts & Humanities Youth Program Award from the President’s Committee on the Arts & Humanities. Storycatchers’ leadership and innovative programming is consistently acknowledged through fellowships, grants, and other forms of recognition, both locally and nationally.
There is considerable established evidence that performing arts programs are effective at preventing violence and improving behavior, particularly in youth. One of the most significant reports on this subject is Shirley Brice Heath’s “Living the Arts Through Language and Learning: A Report on Community-Based Youth Organizations,” a landmark 10-year study on the effectiveness of after-school community programs. Brice Heath found overwhelming evidence that youth arts programs were more successful than other programs at helping young people develop self-reflection, leadership abilities, and respect for themselves and others. She concluded that participation in the performing arts is particularly beneficial to at-risk youth because these programs demand that youth find a positive way to channel anger and aggression as a condition of participation in the collaborative process.
According to psychiatrist Judy Herman, a pioneer in the understanding and treatment of complex trauma, “Restoration of the breach between the traumatized person and the community depends, first, upon a public acknowledgment of the traumatic event and second, upon some form of community action.” Through Storycatchers, these young people share their experiences without attendant shame and receive public recognition for overcoming their challenges.
In July 2020, Governor J. B. Pritzker unveiled a plan to transform Illinois’ juvenile justice system, moving detainees from prison-like facilities into more residential-style homes. Storycatchers was specifically named by the governor during his announcement of this policy as an organization that had “dedicated years, if not decades, to lighting the way for the change that we are making.” This transformation will take place over a four-year transition period, and Storycatchers anticipates taking an active role as a resource to young people at all stages of court involvement. The company’s program model is uniquely adaptable and scalable to secure facilities, group homes, and expanding post-release employment.
Storycatchers Theatre’s long-term vision is a statewide network of residential programs and multiple Changing Voices ensembles operating from different anchor sites. The Governor’s Plan for Transformation offers a promising template upon which to pursue that vision.