This children’s literacy group spreads cheer, and empowerment, by turning kids’ stories into plays. Story and photos by Gillian Drummond
They call it the ripple. The few moments when someone recognizes their story. Perhaps they whisper, or nudge, or point. Word gets around the classmates and spreads like a ripple through the assembled crowd.
Stories That Soar!, a children’s literacy initiative in which professional actors turn kids’ stories into performances, is not only spreading a love of writing and imagination. It’s also spreading self-esteem, confidence, understanding and happiness.
Sharon O’Brien, artistic director and founder of the project, loves that she sees the children’s reaction – and those ripples in the audience – every time her group performs. “You’re really seeing two shows,” she says, referring to the stage performance and the audience.
When Sharon, fellow University of Arizona student Sonia Teder-Moore and parent Meg Breshears came up with the concept twelve years ago, it was their aim to please both the kids and the adults. Coming up with new ideas for kids at school is all very well. But, they reasoned, teachers and parents have enough on their plates already. “So we decided we didn’t want parents or teachers taking part,” says Sharon, who was then studying for a Masters in theatre arts.
As for the kids, they would see their stories brought to life. “We wanted to empower kids through theatre. We wanted the quality of the product to be such that it would truly harness kids’ ideas.” Therefore, they would use only professionally trained actors (in the first instance, that meant students at the University of Arizona). And, crucially, they would consider all and every sort of story.
That last rule is still important today. Sharon makes it part of her job to read every single submission the children make, whether it’s a few words barely legible on a page or a full-blown character-developed story. Similarly, the mini plays that are then performed for the school might tell of a brave adventurer setting out to slay a double-headed dragon. Or they may tell of a kid asking his dad to help him pick an apple off a tree.
Such was the case at a recent Stories that Soar! performance in the historic courtyard of Sam Hughes Elementary School in midtown Tucson. A large prop was brought in to represent a tree, and one of the actors picked an imaginary apple from it. The narrator said barely two lines. But, says Sharon, it spoke volumes. “It’s the story of a child looking up to their father as someone who can help. As big as that tree was, the dad could help,” she says.
Not every story makes the cut. STS! brings a large ‘magic’ box to the participating elementary school, and students are encouraged to ‘feed’ the hungry box with stories over a period of weeks. On average they receive 500 to 600 story submissions per school. Sharon and production manager Dallas Thomas read every one and the pile is whittled down to 70 to 100. The actors go home with about 10 to 15 each, then script out about two or three each, which are pitched at their first rehearsal. More are eliminated, with the hour-long show ending up as a performance of 16 to 20 stories.
Sharon says they knew they had hit on something the kids really liked after their very first performance, which was at Sam Hughes Elementary. Bobbi McKean, associate director and associate professor for the School of Theatre, Film and Television at the University of Arizona, presented the idea to a private donor to the university, the late Esther Capin, who donated a $30,000 grant.
That first year they did five shows, and Sharon and Sonia got a thesis out of it. Seeing its potential, they applied to an entrepreneurship program at the UA’s Eller College of Management, then formed a non-profit in 2005. That same year Sonia moved to San Diego, leaving Sharon at the helm.
Today, STS! gets more applications from schools than it can handle: this academic school year alone, 15 productions in ten different public school districts in Tucson and Southern Arizona. The cast has grown too, from seven white females at that first performance to a range of women, men and ethnicities – all of them paid for their time. The mix was important, says Sharon. “We knew that the cast needed to reflect the population we were serving. Kids trust us with their stories and we’re in a sense representing them. We do reach out to people of different body types, ethnic backgrounds, ages, life experiences.”
Sharon literally lives and breathes her project. She and husband Kipp Metzger had a workshop built in the back yard of their Tucson home that serves as a rehearsal space. Here, boxes of false noses, wigs and props vie for space with with Kipp’s cycling gear (although STS! seems to be winning). Sharon oversees the lengthy rehearsal process (an hour-long performance requires 30 hours of prep) and pushes the actors to keep innovating. ‘We’ve been at this now for 12 years. We can’t keep doing the same thing over and over. I’m constantly bugging actors to try new ways of bringing stories to life,” she says.
Sharon caught the acting bug early. Her mother, Barbara O’Brien, says she was developing characters at the age of two. “She would do skits for us. One was Ha-Ha the Clown, whose theme was to laugh, spin around and fall down. Another was when she pretended to be Kathy the Hair Cutter and run a beauty salon.” She also managed to snag lead roles in grade school and high school plays, “which did not surprise us one little bit”, says Barbara.
But although Sharon is always a presence at the STS! performances, she chooses not to act. “I feel like I’m raising the [grant] money to put on the performances. Effectively the grants would be paying for me to be on stage. That doesn’t seem right,” she says.
STS!, now part of the literacy non-profit Literacy Connects, has branched into other areas too, including a high school drama program and Stories That Soar! Books, which teaches high schoolers bookmaking and publishing. STS! charges $5000 for each elementary school performance. The host school is required to put up at least half of that money – from PTA or other funds – and grants awarded to Literacy Connects pay for the rest. At a time when funding for education and the arts are scarce and public schools are struggling to pay their bills, that $5k price tag isn’t stopping STS!. “It’s working,” says Sharon of the growing demand for her service, “and I’m so grateful.”
One of the added perks for teachers is the silence that comes along with it. With a combination of music, jokes, drama and hope – that a young writer’s work might make it to the stage – the STS! actors seem to put the kids in a trance. “Kids are sitting the whole time, yet we never have any discipline problems,” says Sharon of their shows. In fact the only discipline problem at that same performance at Sam Hughes Elementary wasn’t really a problem. As soon as the show ended, kindergartners sitting on blankets on the grass sprang to their feet. They didn’t say anything and they didn’t clap, they just stood in unison – a collective standing ovation without the ovation, a silent protest without the protest. Their teacher whispered “Sit down!” and all at once they did.
Later, second grader Camryn Cady was basking in the glory of being one of the chosen ones, her story having been turned into a play. She had written a rhyme about puppies. “Mine was a bit boring in the picture that I drew but the actors did an awesome job bringing it to life. They had more details than me. They made it into a song, which was cool,” she said.
Dallas Thomas had her doubts about a children’s theatre project – severe ones. So when one of the ensemble actors from STS! approached her to get involved, she declined. The actress, who has worked for most of Tucson’s theatre companies and has a particular passion for Shakespeare, had not been impressed by children’s theatre up until then. “I felt that a lot of it was condescending towards kids and boring for the actors,” she says. The friend kept bugging her, and after her first performance, Dallas was hooked.
“I had acted and directed but I was always handed these finely polished scripts.” Stories That Soar! was the opposite, leaving the actors to do the work. “I didn’t really know that was possible in theatre,” says Dallas, now STS! production manager, as well as one of the actors. Dallas calls STS! “the most powerful theatre I’ve ever experienced. It is art, and great entertainment, but it’s also giving voice to children. It is rewarding in a myriad of ways.”
* Find out more about Stories That Soar! at the Literacy Connects website.