FAs a kid, my favorite way to play would be to run around with my friends and we’d all collaborate on a story. It was probably from something we saw on television, but we’d keep the characters and make up our own plot. It was a lot of “What happens if ______ instead of ________?” I now know it’s something I continue to do when discussing my favorite books, television, and theatrical experiences with my friends. It never occurred to me, in all of my imaginative play, to actually write the story down, and follow the arc of it to completion. These were ideas that generally ended when recess did, unresolved and frequently forgotten. Thanks to Laura Heywood’s appreciation for Story Pirates, an organization which takes children’s ideas from the page to the stage, I got to see what seeing an idea through to resolution would look like. I spoke with Jeremy Basescu, a Producing Director for Story Pirates about their different programs, accessibility to all students, and how this process instills a love of writing stories in the students it reaches.
S: How did you get into theatre?
J: I got two degrees in playwriting, and I got to be a working playwright in New York for a few years. From there I had gotten into directing. I’ve loved theatre since I was a kid. What excites me the most is theatre that jumps off the stage at you. There’s something about theatre coming to life that was really appealing, and I got to experience that in a couple theatre companies in New York. One day, I took an internship in grad school with Story Pirates at what we call an “After Dark” show, and ten years later, I’m still attending those shows. There’s something magical in the way that the stories come to life onstage, and the energy of the performance is so precise and exciting, you can’t help but be drawn in by these kids’ stories.
S: I agree. I love it when theatre makes you engage with the world. How did Story Pirates come about?
J: I came into it about 3 years in. There were several Northwestern graduates who happened to be around when this came together, that had all performed in a student group in college. They’d learned a technique of taking kids’ stories and turning them into sketches and songs, and wanted to do it professionally and across the country. The question came about ‘How do you come up with a name that if a child heard it, they’d be interested?’ If you told a kid “I work for Creative Writing Incorporated,” they may not be interested. If you told them you worked for “Striking Viking Story Pirates” they’re going to want to know what that is. So that’s still our name on a lot of documentation, but we’ve been officially been calling ourselves Story Pirates for a while now. We are taking the buried treasure that is kids’ ideas and words, stealing it, and turning their ideas into stories that keeps them invested in writing stories.
S: When did Story Pirates come about?
J: Story Pirates started in 2004. We had done some work with P.S. 154 before that, but officially began in 2004.
S: Is there an age limit to this program?
J: Initially, it was a K-5 assembly. Very early on, we started doing things like Pre-K classes, birthday parties, and were getting interest from schools that went into the upper grades. We taught improv classes with high school and college, professional development for teachers. Our programs have really grown; we still have the assembly we started with, but we also do year-long workshops with schools as the students write their stories.
S: Elementary school is my demographic!
J: We love working with that age, because we’ve found that the kids aren’t afraid to be silly and creative. We’ve also found that, if you can get the kids interested at a young age in writing, it can stick with them as they grow up and go through school, and we love to see that.
S: From what I’ve seen, you guys are primarily based in New York and Los Angeles, do you travel?
J: We work with about 300 schools each year, mostly in those areas or around those areas. We also go to performing arts centers across the country and visit 15-30 national venues a year. We also have a podcast and a couple books coming out, so we’re starting to be able to reach a lot more kids beyond where we can physically go.
S: So, how does the program work?
J: Every program is different, and there’s a big range. Sometimes, it’s as simple as an assembly or two, where we perform stories from kids across the country. Sometimes we spend a few months with a school, starting with an assembly, going into the classroom to run creative writing workshops, and ending with a big culminating show that features new stories by the kids in the school. We love to surprise the kids whose stories we’re performing, and get a huge cheer from all of their friends and teachers when we announce their names, just before we perform eh story for the very first time. But our favorite part, actually, is that we get to give each and every kid author a personal, handwritten note that says how much we loved the story. We make sure every kid gets one, whether we perform the story or not. It’s called Story Love, and it’s one of the most important things we do.
S: The fact that you recognize each student is amazing. I’m sure the kids love it.
J: We have amazing volunteers from all over who help us with this, from fraternities and sororities and big companies to daily volunteers who just want to help us do this.
S: What does this look like in terms of accessibility for students who don’t get the story-writing process?
J: Those are the challenges we really find motivating. Sometimes we only have an assembly, and that’s it. We want that to be as multi-sensory and appealing as possible. If we get to come back, we work with the teachers and make sure they have whatever they need to make the process clear and simple. When we’re in the classroom, we meet with the teachers ahead of time and ask about the needs in the room, and we work our curriculum around those needs. For example, if we were working with students with Autism Spectrum Disorder, we consult with people who can help us with that, and we will fit our plan around them.
S: How do you work with special populations like students on the autism spectrum who can be very literal and have more difficulty with perspective taking?
J: We like to get the kids on their feet and make it as experiential as possible. We want them to create characters, and they might do it physically. How would that character walk? Talk? And we find that making it about acting makes it more natural for the students to understand. When choosing the stories we perform, our directors choose 5 out of the 150 submissions we get, and more often than not, the stories chosen aren’t necessarily from your general education population. And the directors don’t know which kids have which needs. We’re constantly asked, ‘How did you know to pick that student’s work?’ and we can honestly say we chose it because it was creative and it inspired us.
S: Collaboration isn’t always easy for kids. How do you get them to work collaboratively within your programming?
J: In the room, that’s about making it a part of the process. We explain you may have great ideas and tons of them, and you can totally write that story, but we’re writing as a group and we’re going to make sure all ideas get equal weight and will somehow get contributed into what we’re doing. Most of the time, we’re not performing a story verbatim. Words become songs and dialogue. We ask the kids afterwards if that’s their story, and we’re frequently told it isn’t exactly but that we understood the student’s story. We want to honor the author’s intention always.
S: That has to be the most rewarding thing to hear.
J: It is. We tell them it’s their story, and we just turned it into a performance. To hear we understood them, there’s nothing like it.
S: I was speaking with our mutual friend Laura Heywood, who first introduced me to your program. She gave me a great idea for a question to ask you: How has becoming a parent changed your perspective on the programming?
J: I have two kids, a second grader and a three-year-old. In one sense, not at all, and that’s in the sense that the performances are still as clear and funny and important as they’ve always been to me. Where it’s changed is reading the kids’ stories and seeing the work the kids are doing with us, and how we’re affecting the kids. For my seven-year-old, I now see how she is developing her linguistic and thought processes, and sometimes I read something so similar to something she’d do or something drastically oppositional to something she’d write. I get to see what’s similar across ages and what’s different. I didn’t have that frame of reference before.
S: Every week I challenge my students to do something outside of their comfort zone. What would you challenge them to do?
J: I’d challenge them to write a story. Write an original story entirely from their own imaginations. That may be something that comes easy, that may be something that is a step by step process. Start with a character. Who are they? What do they want? And see where that story takes you.
I am very much looking forward to what my students create. Their curiosity and wonder never ceases to amaze me, and only creativity can come from this exercise. Let me know what you decided you write in comments—I can’t wait to see where your imagination took you!
Keep playing with words and see what your message creates!
–Stef the StageSLP