When COVID-19 responses started closing facilities in mid-March, Storycatchers Theatre staff made the decision to shift all programming to virtual meetings and performances. This pivot came on the heels of preparation for the final performance of the musical I Am Not Your Homie. Now, the team is creating a digital soundtrack of I Am Not Your Homie, including recordings of both the youth participants and staff members.
Being both creatives and teachers, staff had to adapt and be flexible while maintaining relationships with our youth. We were asked to create new ways to follow through with our mission of social and emotional development through storytelling, and did so by holding virtual meetings twice a week. During these meetings staff and youth work on story plot, character development, and theater terms (all created by Teaching Artists Kateri Halbleib, Medina Perine, and Abby Thompson), and continue to record and produce our final soundtrack.
Teaching Artist Abby Thompson sat down virtually with Music Director, Denton Arnell – both part of Storycatchers’ Firewriters Program in conjunction with IYC Chicago – to discuss changes to the I Am Not Your Homie performance cycle. Here’s what they had to say:
Ms. Abby: What was the decision-making process when you got word you could not go into the facilities? How did you come up with the digital soundtrack plan?
Mr. Denton: The process began while we were already working to produce instrumental versions of each track for the kids to practice without us or when I couldn’t be at rehearsals. Since I was already working on those tracks, the kids still had something they could put their voices on to remember this experience.
The next step was figuring out how to record the youth voices if we couldn’t meet them in person. We had to find a way that would make the recordings clear and high quality. We decided to use regular headphones and a cellphone to record voices. Those voices are sent to me via email and then I work on the production of each track.
Ms. Abby: What’s your favorite thing about going into the facilities that has changed now?
Mr. Denton: I looked forward to being around the youth, and cracking jokes or uplifting their spirits while trying to finalize the show. Watching their faces light up and seeing the youth change right before your eyes – often changing into a positive mood – has been very motivating.
With no access to the physical facilities, it’s sometimes hard to engage the youth through video chat, especially with vocal coaching. On the positive side, the fact that our participants are still willing to get on the video calls is incredible. You can tell that even though some don’t want to participate at first, the youth still kind of want to do it. It’s motivating watching them on the video call putting in their best effort and being willing to clean up potential mistakes for the recording.
Ms. Abby: What was your initial reaction to the idea of creating a soundtrack in replace of a full production?
Mr. Denton: My first reaction was shocked, like how are we going to do this? But I was also curious about the challenge of it.
Ms. Abby: Did you have any reservations about creating this kind of project so abruptly?
Mr. Denton: Yes, and I still have some reservation questions. Is it going to sound clean? Are the youth going to be able to sing with the tracks? How will we instruct them through the video call with a huge delay? From a production end, I’m used to being there right in front of someone while recording and correcting a line in real time. Not being able to direct them in person remains an exciting challenge.
Ms. Abby: What kind of technical equipment was needed to make this project happen? Was it difficult or simple to come up with this?
Mr. Denton: I use a MacBook Pro Laptop, M Audio, a mini keyboard, and Logic Pro. To record the youth in the facility, I thought about making voice notes on smart phones because when I’m writing a song and don’t want to forget, I use a voice note. It’s still clear quality and phones nowadays are extremely precise. So, we put the phone in the middle of the room to capture the sounds precisely; it wasn’t too loud and I can change the volume or edit on my end.
Ms. Abby: From your observations, how have the youth reacted to the project’s changes?
Mr. Denton: It has definitely been an adjustment for them because they really want us there and miss us. It’s great to have these video calls because they see the effort we are making and it shows them that we care.
Ms. Abby: What was Mr. Byrd’s (the Assistant Superintendent of Programs) reaction to this change in project?
Mr. Denton: I think Mr. Byrd is definitely impressed as this is all new to him. I think he enjoys this and it gives him a sense of being a producer. Before this, when we were in the facility, he wasn’t as hands–on, and now he is extremely engaged. It’s a good balance to have someone the youth see on a regular basis involved, while partnering with us for this process. It’s gotten to the point where he’s giving pointers to the youth about their vocal range – and it’s great!
Storycatchers staff continues to meet virtually biweekly with the youth working towards their final project, the soundtrack for I Am Not Your Homie. Stay tuned for more updates regarding the project!