Lamar bounds into the classroom, throwing his arms wide open and grinning ear to ear.

“How ya’ll BEEN!!!”

Lamar’s excitement  mirrors our own as Storycatchers’ Temporary Lockdown Ensemble at the Cook County Juvenile Detention Center begins a new season.

A big, loveable guy with a gap-toothed grin, bright eyes, and the ability to make the whole group laugh with his quirky vocal sound effects, Lamar has not missed a single program session since he joined the TLD Ensemble last February. During our seven months together, he transformed from a shy kid who sat with his eyes on the floor to a performer who made the most of several small roles in our spring production. At the end of the first performance, he told the audience how proud he was that he had overcome his stage fright. Lamar now leads the very theatre games he was too shy to participate in when he first joined us. He takes care of newcomers to the ensemble, welcoming them and making sure they know that Storycatchers is a safe place to tell their real-life stories.

Lamar joins eight returning ensemble members and four newcomers to create this year’s script based on significant experiences in their lives surrounding the theme of “Identity.” The show will be performed in two staged readings at the Detention Center on December 16 and 17.

The process begins with an in-depth discussion about how the ensemble members see themselves, and how they believe others see them. Returning ensemble member Al, a naturally gifted writer who contributed to last year’s show, sits at a table by himself after the discussion, focused on a new story. “I’m writing about a person with multiple identities. A mysterious person whose identity adapts to the people around him. Someone who adapts so much he’s almost forgot who he is himself. He is me….”

At another table, Randy, a fragile-looking kid with a pencil moustache writes, “I don’t like showing people the real me because I’ve lost a lot of people in my life.” Seated next to him, Jason, a lanky, 6’3” newcomer writes, “As youth, we don’t know who we are. We let clothes, cars, money and females validate us. We hide behind all that because we’re scared to be ourselves.”

This season the TLD ensemble welcomes a new Teaching Artist: Tony Santiago, the Associate Artistic Director of Oracle Theatre. Tony will join Program Manager Cheryl Coons, Music Director Diana Lawrence and Program Intern Elvis Garcia, a student at Northeastern University.   Caseworkers and youth development specialists at the Detention Center are enthusiastic participants in the program along with the youth, joining in the games and sharing their insights in group discussions. “It helps me know these kids in a different way,” one of them recently shared.

Q., a returning member of the ensemble, is hard at work on a story for this year. “This girl didn’t want to be my friend because she said I’m goofy. Then she had a conversation with me and found out that I only acted that way to keep from being sad. My brother got locked up and it really affected me. So I acted out to keep from thinking of it.” At the end of one of our sessions last year, Q. said, “I feel like I got a piece of myself back today.”

There is more exciting news for TLD in 2017: members of the ensemble will work with teaching artists and actors from Steppenwolf Theatre when the company brings its Steppenwolf for Young Adults production of Monster into the Detention Center in March. Monster is based on the young adult novel by Walter Dean Myers, about a young man in jail awaiting trial on murder charges. TLD ensemble members will read and discuss the novel, preparing to host the Steppenwolf artists as an additional dimension to TLD program activities this year.

This past June, TLD ensemble members created an original musical, “The Revolving Door,” which they performed to great acclaim for audiences of facility residents, families, and the larger Chicago community. The title “The Revolving Door” was inspired by both the physical revolving door through which many enter and exit the Detention Center, and the metaphorical revolving door that represents the cycle of re-arrest and recidivism so prevalent in too many young peoples’ lives. The show deeply moved audience members who responded with a standing ovation at the conclusion. One audience member said, “Thanks to all the talented and inspiring young people who allowed us into their lives this evening! This was an experience which will be with us forever.” Another shared, “Thank you, thank you so much for the opportunity to witness the incredible performance. It was a splendid opportunity to hear and see first-hand the real, positive potentials of these passionate, intelligent, creative young men and women.”

Designer Tony Gibson created a short film which reflects the content of “The Revolving Door.”

Storycatchers is deeply grateful to two new funders: Stephen Henderson and James LaForce; and the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center Foundation. Last year, TLD’s primary dedicated funder changed priorities, which made the program ineligible for continued support. Mr. Henderson, Mr. LaForce, and the CCJTDC Foundation stepped in and together have made up 50% of the lost funding. If you are interested in learning how to support Storycatchers’ work with court-involved youth, please contact Rachel Hauben Combs at or at 312-280-4772.