Play is the work of childhood. It is practice for our adult roles, exploration of ourselves, trying on identities, the excavation and examination of emotions. A child at play is a child who is learning.
Story Pirates has been honoring and elevating play since 2004 through pairing professional actors, writers and musicians with children as young as 3 years old to write and perform their stories. The results are incredible. Profound, humorous, odd, unlikely stories acted out with by adults with absolute respect for their source material. I recently spoke with Story Pirates Artistic Director, Lee Overtree. We discussed the creative power of children, the importance of valuing kids as true artistic collaborators and how he views his students as Shakespeare in miniature.
What was the genesis of the idea for Story Pirates?
I went to college at Northwestern University, there is a student group at there called Griffin’s Tale. We would travel to schools around the north shore of Chicago and perform sketch comedy/musical theater based on the stories that the kids wrote. I then moved to New York City in 2003 and I wanted to direct. I found a theater that allowed me to bring in a show of my choice. I called a bunch of friends from college to see if they wanted to do a riff on what we were doing at school. Enough people said “yes” and we put on our first show, a 7-week run at the Vital Theatre that was made of stories written by kids. It was a little different than what the show is today but from there we just kept going.
How did that performance turn into what Story Pirates is today?
I think a lot of us in the company, a lot of the founding members, we felt pretty lucky about the opportunities that we had as kids growing up to creatively express ourselves in every way. As we were entering the real world as recent college grads, it became clear that not all kids have those opportunities. We felt that expanding Story Pirates in a way where we are going into classrooms, especially Title I schools, and bringing the kind of programs to them that we were lucky enough to have as kids felt like the right thing to do. At that time, I was working at a school in Harlem, PS 154, doing drumming for dance classes and working as the office manager for an amazing organization called Change for Kids. I spoke with the people at Change for Kids and managed to get them to book us in 4 of the Title I schools that they served across New York. So those were our first 4 schools where we were able to go on and do creative writing workshops and take the stories that kids wrote and turn them into a show.
So the development of Story Pirates was really organic.
It did feel really organic, to the point that we were suddenly asking ourselves, “What is this thing that is happening?” It felt like it had an energy of its own. It was a lot of work but it didn’t feel like work to us because we were really young and we were all friends but also because the feedback loops that you get when you are working with kids in this capacity is really strong and feels really amazing. To be enthusiastic, energetic people in kids’ lives who are trumpeting their creativity is great fuel.
It must be so validating for the kids to have their thoughts and ideas to be taken so seriously by adults.
Yes, and in a really fun way. Not every kid is used to this experience of an adult, an artist who they admire, coming up to them and really putting their ideas at the center of an experience like that. There’s nothing like going out on stage, “This next story is written by a kid who is in the audience” and seeing an entire auditorium of 3rd graders go crazy cheering for their classmate.
Why is it important to Story Pirates to bring the program into Title I schools?
It really matters to us that these kinds of programs are for everybody. We have a lot of partnerships with other organizations that get us into these schools where kids need it the most. Kids are the same everywhere, I don’t really differentiate between programs we do in Title I schools and programs we do in other schools except for that we want to get in those Title I schools and it can be a little harder to get in there. Title I schools don’t always have the bandwidth to help us to manage their end of the program. Getting the resources and the help to be able to do that is an ongoing challenge for us. We want this to be a program that everyone has access to.
You have really integrated learning concepts and academic curriculum into the programs you bring into schools. What do you consider to be the link between story writing and learning?
It comes down to a phrase I heard somewhere, which is “Desire drives learning”. In order to learn, you have to want to learn. Putting the ball in the kids’ court the way that Story Pirates does gives them an incentive and an excitement that isn’t always present in schools. There is so much focus on standardized testing and kids spend so much of the year not exploring the depths of their own creativity and their own imagination. When you ignite the creativity in a kid, suddenly they realize that the loving of learning is key to the loving of life. That carries over in all sorts of ways for their education.
That is definitely resonating right now in the theater world with the success of Hamilton: An American Musical. It has turned so many people into history nerds.
I believe strongly that entertainment and education go hand in hand. I don’t think you’re really learning if you’re not being entertained. And I don’t think you’re really being entertained unless you’re learning something.
A significant component of Story Pirates is that the students write the stories and then professionals act out those stories. Why is having their stories performed a central part of Story Pirates?
There is something special about a collaboration between adult artists and creative kids, that is to say all kids. Collaborations are always special when you partner with someone who you respect and you see what happens when you put your heads together. Part of the magic of Story Pirates has always been that collaboration. It’s an interesting lesson about working together and collaborating and trust. It feels like a magic trick to see your story performed before your eyes. But these kids also know how hard they worked on their stories before they went to our actors and directors and musicians. Once they start to piece together all of the work that went into this finished product for their story, they feel respected, they feel lifted up, and they feel empowered. Kids knowing that they have the power to make something out of nothing is an incredibly powerful lesson. The collaboration in seeing their story on stage helps illuminate that.
What role do you think play takes in learning?
Play is really important to us in our workshops. Something that our Education Director, Quinton Johnson, says all of the time in the classrooms that is really inspiring to me, is: Permission to get weird. As kids are writing, if they have that permission, then their brain and their ideas and their creativity expands in a more playful way. What we are saying to them is saying is that you are allowed to try things. Failure is okay. You never know when you are going to hit on something you never expected to write.
There is so much time in school when children don’t have permission to be weird. They have to stay in line and follow the rules and be in that kind of structure. But kids live in a weird space. Their minds are so much more expansive than ours are as adults by mere fact of neural pruning. It must be so thrilling for them to be given that permission and seeing that you really mean it.
It can be so difficult to say what the academic benefits of a program like Story Pirate are because we can’t say that test scores go up. We know that attendance rates go up when Story Pirates is in the building. But it’s harder to quantify in terms of test scores. The academic and education worlds are starting to wrap their heads around ideas like neural pruning, that the way you use your brain is important. Training your brain to be open and creative is one of the most powerful educational tools we have.
Children are just ripe to be good at creativity.
They’re the experts! As artists, it’s so satisfying to work with kids because we truly believe they are the best writers. We truly believe they are the funniest writers. We truly believe they are the most meaningful writers. We respect their work the way we respect Shakespeare or Chekhov. It’s just as high status for us what they are doing. There is a lot to learn from them when you set their creativity loose.
Do you find that kids are unafraid to explore topics that we as adults consider to be taboo?
Absolutely. We just recorded the pilot for the re-launch of our podcast and it’s all about death. In a funny and entertaining way, kids are willing and interested in talking about the things that we as adults tend to steer them away from.
How do the children react when they see their stories brought to life?
They are stunned, they are ecstatic. So much of it is about the support of their peers. Something people would not know if they haven’t been in one of our schools is what happens to the rest of the school when a kid’s story is performed. The other students go nuts. The teachers tell us later that the story writers become more confident. They have a feather in their cap for the rest of the school year, they are school celebrities in a way. So often the kids who respond most to Story Pirates programs are the ones who have trouble in a traditional school environment. We have so many teachers tell us that the kid whose story we performed was exactly the kid who needed it.
Has anything a child has written for Story Pirates surprised you?
I’m constantly being surprised by what kids write. Like I said before, it is the funniest stuff, it’s the saddest stuff, it’s the most shocking stuff. Kids are willing to talk about things that adults are not. We truly could not ask for more inspiring source material as a theater artist. One of the most essential ingredients in comedy and drama is surprise and kids have that in spades.
At the Story Pirates performances, there is an emphasis on referring to the kids whose stories are being performed as the playwrights. Why is particular attention paid to using the term “playwright” for the kids?
It’s funny to me to think of it as a choice. We see them as creative peers and that’s how you treat a creative peer. If you have a writer in the house, you honor them. Writing is sacred. And it’s so hard. As artists, we know how hard it is. When you have a fellow artist who is generous enough to collaborate with you in the house, it’s just second nature. We are blown away and honored that they would even consider letting us do something with their work. We have managed to put together a group of people here who all feel the same way about the stuff the kids make. That’s just the philosophy, we treat them the same way we would treat any of our peers.
What is in the future for Story Pirates?
The podcast is a big thing for us right now because it’s so exciting to translate what we do onstage to audio content. And it translates so well. It’s so fun to make. I get to talk to kids from around the country about their stories. I get to interview them and find out what their process is like. I love talking to kids about their creative process; how they write, what their inspiration is, what they do when they are out of ideas. We have a big re-launch coming up with a major distributor, I can’t say who quite yet. But we are able to go into the studio and make multi-layered productions of the stories that we have not been able to do before and really bring these ideas to life in a bigger and bolder way.
Story Pirates can be found performing in New York City out of their flagship location in the Drama Book Shop. If you are interested in learning more about Story Pirates, finding out if there is a performance near you, or how to request the program for your local school, visit their website at http://www.storypirates.org/. To listen or subscribe to their excellent podcast for children (and for adults), go to their page on ITunes.