When COVID-19 responses started closing facilities in mid-MarchStorycatchers 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 at the Illinois Youth Center – Chicago. 

On July 17th, we will launch the soundtrack for this show on IG Live and Facebook Live, with incarcerated youth in attendance.

Teaching Artist Abby Thompson sat down virtually with Music Director, Denton Arnell – both part of Storycatchers’ program at IYC Chicago – to discuss working with the youth to move the performance online… 

Denton Arnell Conducting

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, 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. 

From July 6th through July 16th, we’ll be on Steppenwolf Theatre’s social media accounts talking about the power of song and promoting our July 17th Live Album launch. Follow us on social for more information about this exciting online event.