An interview with Kari Betton, Music Director and Composer, Storycatchers Theatre

Conducted by Tory Davidson, Community Engagement Manager, Storycatchers Theatre

In March, Steppenwolf Theatre’s young adult production of The Burn toured to the juvenile justice facilities in which Storycatchers works. In addition to watching the performances, youth were involved in workshops with Steppenwolf and Storycatchers teaching artists. This created opportunities for youth living in all three facilities to participate in discussions about the themes and ideas in the play. I sat down with Kari Betton, a music director and composer for Storycatchers and a teaching artist for Steppenwolf, to learn more.

Tory Davidson: First of all, here’s my biggest question: Why is this tour important? Why bring a professional theatre production to youth locked up in juvenile justice facilities?

Kari Betton: Simply put, bringing The Burn inside the facilities shows these youth that they’re valued. I know some of the youth we work with will go out and see plays while they’re locked up; Storycatchers will take youth in our programs at IYC-Chicago and IYC-Warrenville on a field trip to the Goodman, for example, to see a play. But there’s something really special about professional actors coming inside a facility, where the actors and youth audience can see each other face-to-face, where real connections can be made during post-show discussions. They don’t expect a professional actor to come inside and see them. I had a kid at IYC-Warrenville raise his hand and tell the Steppenwolf actors, “You all should be doing this for real.” (laughs). They don’t expect talented, trained artists to come put on a show for them. By doing that, we show these kids that they are valued in a way they aren’t used to.

TD: Storycatchers and Steppenwolf added hours of workshops so that every youth inside each facility could participate in a workshop before seeing the production. Why was it so important to you all that every youth be involved in the tour?

KB: Most of the time, kids have to be on a waiting list to join Storycatchers programming inside their facility. Storycatchers is such a sought-after activity among the kids—when we give out Storycatchers shirts, they treat them like lettermen jackets in high school. The fact that with this tour we can bring Storycatchers to everyone helps each youth in the facility feel valued and a part of what we’re doing.

TD: Let’s talk about the themes of the show. The Burn deals with school bullying in the age of social media, where the question of identity online versus identity in real life is repeatedly asked. With a history of trauma at home and constant bullying in the classroom and on the Internet, the play’s main character, Mercedes, decides to seek revenge with anonymous online threats to her classmates. She is ultimately arrested. How did these youth relate to this story?

KB: They really related to it. They loved the teenage characters they saw onstage. I kept hearing them say, “I know someone like that,” and, “I have a friend who is like that.” When we were unpacking the play at IYC-Warrenville, the kids said that this was a much more authentic portrayal of bullying than what they’d seen before. In their own lives, they are used to bullying happening in hidden and underhanded ways via text messages and social media. Teachers and other adults aren’t privy to this type of bullying. When a teacher in the play told Mercedes that he would protect her from the school bullies, our kids knew that he had no way of actually keeping that promise.

TD: And your workshops asked questions about ‘identity.’ What did those discussions look like?

Word Warriors on The Burn stage singing. 

KB: The idea of hiding parts of their identity came up a lot, like the importance of not showing any signs of weakness in their communities because they could potentially be targeted by an opposing gang.  Our youth hide an aspect of their identities when it could compromise two things: their safety and their survival. Our kids, just like Mercedes, would love to be their true selves at all times, but that’s not what’s going to keep them safe.

In that way, their identities are forced upon them, either in order to protect themselves or by the nature of their circumstances. For example, I was leading a workshop at the Cook County Juvenile Detention Center, the JDC, and we had just wrapped up a brief sharing on the question of ‘what does identity mean to you?’ And one of the young men in our workshop blurts out, “Do you think we’re bad?”

I said something like, “You’ve been offering great answers to all of our questions so far, so you don’t seem bad to me.”

But I think this question shows how kids in detention centers don’t have the privilege to hide a part of themselves. Even though we as teaching artists don’t know exactly what they did to get here, everyone knows that they had to do something. This involuntary exposure and judgement puts these youth in a position of disconnection with people like us, adults ‘on the outs’ who are coming in to try to help them. How they’re perceived by others, how other adults and peers are actively identifying them, is always on their minds.

TD: And this idea of exposing versus hiding parts of a person’s identity resonated with a young woman at IYC-Warrenville, and she wrote lyrics to a song inspired by The Burn, which you composed with her. What was that like?

Word Warriors hang out backstage at Steppenwolf Theatre.

KB: Yes, I did. After this young person read the script of The Burn during Storycatchers programming, she wrote lyrics with [Artistic Director] Meade to the song she titled “The Scar Within.” When she brought these lyrics to me, I was really impressed. The song is about the fact that everyone has scars, but often people don’t want to open up about their painful memories. She told me that she doesn’t always want to tell people about her own scars because she doesn’t want to feel like a burden. So we unpacked those ideas and we ended-up stressing the lines, “I want to see the scar. I want to touch the burn. I want to understand. I want to make this turn.” She really wanted to communicate this cycle of empathy and ask the questions: What if we all do this for each other? Wouldn’t we all be in a better place?

TD: And how does this song tie into The Burn’s theme of perceived identity?

KB: At the beginning, the character singing this song is hiding her identity. The song starts with, “Behind closed eyes, I am trapped inside. I’m invisible.” It’s only when this character hears other people asking to see her scars that she feels safe enough to reveal her true self and let those people in. It’s about creating trust and creating safety.

It’s just like Mercedes in the play. Mercedes not feeling valued was the reason she decided to retaliate against her bullies. It was a cry for help and a cry to be seen. Which is why I think it’s so important to show these young people that are locked up that they are valued.

It makes me think about the boy at the JDC who asked if I thought he was a bad kid. I hope that he will remember these words from The Burn:  “Lots of kids make bad choices; it doesn’t mean that they’re bad kids.”