Letting their guard down: Incarcerated teens present musical ‘Dear Sky’

It’s 30 minutes until showtime at the Illinois Youth Center-Warrenville. In the large gymnasium, draped with 30-foot burgundy curtains, four stuffed rubber chairs loom large on stage left and a sextet of musicians are tucked away on stage right. The audience consists of family members, theater supporters and incarcerated teens. The multi-level stage features a center catwalk. Nearly all 100 stadium-style chairs are filled.

Superintendent Judith Davis appears and says, “Ladies and gentlemen, the story you are about to see is true. Only the names have been changed to protect the innocent.” It’s a line borrowed from the opening of the TV series “Dragnet.” Unlike “Dragnet,” however, these stories are told from the perspective of the incarcerated. The original musical being performed, “Dear Sky,” is a form of narrative therapy based on the personal experiences of and performed by the youth at IYCW, a maximum-security prison for young adults.

“Dear Sky” is a collaborative effort between the Negaunee Music Institute and Storycatchers Theatre. Founded in 1990, Storycatchers specializes in creative youth development programs that serve young people at all stages of court involvement, from probation or detention to incarceration, and eventually to post-release employment. According to its website, Storycatchers provides an “outlet for court-involved young people to experience success through the process of writing and performing original material inspired by their personal experiences.” Since 2002, Storycatchers has provided musical theater programming at IYCW, and the Negaunee Music Institute has collaborated with the facility since 2008.

Storycatchers’ passion and commitment to altruistic projects are widely celebrated, and the group has received many awards and much recognition, and most important, has generated success stories that attest to Storycatchers’ worth.

The musical featured two gender-specific ensembles of incarcerated adolescents: Firewriters and Fabulous Females. Participants wrote, shared and discussed personal stories, and identified common themes and challenges. Through this process, they explored the root causes and long-term consequences of their behaviors, and were guided by expertly trained faculty, Chicago Symphony Orchestra staff and Civic Orchestra of Chicago musicians. The result of all this training, introspection and practice was extraordinary to behold.

The young actors’ ability to understand their characters’ complex backstories was informed by their deep understanding of the source material. For example, the eponymous character had difficult syncopated rhythms and notes up and down the staff, but the actor’s ability to relate to Sky revealed a purposeful vulnerability.

Musicians from the Civic Orchestra worked alongside the Storycatchers team. These talented, young professionals shaped the musical numbers, attended rehearsals, performed in the pit orchestra and even played characters on stage. During an early run-through, horn player Renée Vogen, who portrayed an estranged mother, attempted to get into character by offering a sympathetic gaze, a regretful stance and an apologetic exit after a scene of confrontation. However, Meade Palidofsky, artistic director of Storycatchers, immediately coached Vogen to look angry and confused while stomping off stage. Vogen quickly realized how little she “understood about the environment these kids were coming from.”

Violinist Carmen Abelson said, “They’re just a bunch of good kids. They want the chance to do something amazing and powerful and good — give them that chance and they can accomplish anything.”

Cellist Allie Chambers wished the musicians had had more time to get to know the incarcerated teens as individuals. Toward the end of the production, the adolescents’ personalities “really started to shine,” she recalled. “They are all unique and beautiful individuals.” As a way to bond and open a dialogue with the teens, Chambers allowed her castmates to experiment with her cello. This example demonstrated how the collective effort between Negaunee Music Institute and Storycatchers allowed the music to serve as an entry to the performers’ lives. In such an environment music was not a commodity; rather, it was an access to a shared understanding.

Justin Callis, Storycatchers’ music director, composer and conductor, gained the trust of the young men and women while persuading them to be vulnerable on stage. The “key is to be a consistent force and presence in the kids’ lives, since it is often something they have lacked. Building an honest connection is paramount. [The actor who played Bryany] knows me. I know her. There is an understanding between us when she is on stage.”

This actor has worked with Fabulous Females for a few years, and her shared history and personal growth with staff gave her more confidence. She learned not to “let the down-talkers” get her upset because “everyone is beautiful and you don’t need to change — the world can catch up to us.”

The attention to detail in the production was high as well. Even when out of the spotlight, the actors were engaged, and the musical time signatures and timbres were diverse. The plot lines weaved together nicely and allowed the audience to consider several different perspectives throughout the show. The staging used peripheral choirs to create a Surround-Sound-like effect.

But was the performances by Firewriters and Fabulous Females that captivated the audience. Before returning to lockup status, one of the Firewriters, when asked what he hoped audiences would take away from the performances, replied without hesitation: “We’re not animals. We let our guard down so you can let your guard down.”

By Benjamin C. Wise, programs assistant for the Negaunee Music Institute.

Note: The Negaunee Music Institute will work with Storycatchers Theatre’s Changing Voices program in late April and early May at the Illinois Youth Center-Chicago.

TOP: Teens at the Illinois Youth Center-Warrenville rehearse with members of Storycatchers Theatre in 2015. | Todd Rosenberg Photography