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Once Upon a Time: The Geffen Playhouse Story Pirates Tell the Tales Kids Write

A story doesn’t necessarily need to be lengthy to be good. One of the Story Pirates’ greatest hits, in fact, has one single, solitary line:

“This is a story about cats flying.”

“It was submitted to us by a first grader from Brooklyn,” says Connor White, who leads the Geffen Playhouse Story Pirates program. “We turned it into a simple but memorable sketch involving a LOT of flying cats and one extremely well dressed first grader.”

Over the past three and a half years, White has heard — and acted out — his fair share of stories. As the Geffen’s Education Associate and Resident Teaching Artist, he participated in the program that began in a low-income Harlem school before spreading to over 100 schools across the country. At the Geffen, White performs, directs and produces six year-long programs in six Title 1 schools (where 75% or more of the students are from families living at or below poverty).

“[We go into] schools that have been stripped of most arts education,” he explains. “And we try to blow their minds.”

Just how the Story Pirates accomplish that sounds like every kid’s dream — “Loud, crazy and in-your-face” figure largely into the equation. The kids, who are primarily third graders, write three stories a year for the Pirates to perform. The Pirates focus first on the basics of narrative storytelling, then on informative storytelling and finally, on hero stories with creative, non-violent solutions. Then, the Pirates perform sans makeup and costume, focusing instead on the element of, “make-believe,” a language in which most kids are fluent.

“If a kid suggests a shark and we have a shark head, we won’t use it,” White says. “We’ll use a gray sheet and our hand.”

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One of the coolest aspects of the program is Story Love. The Pirates receive thousands of stories every year, and not all of them are one-liners. White recalls an “epic” one that was thirteen pages single-spaced.

Yet they celebrate every child’s work by writing comments on each story and returning them to the student. On a piece of paper, they write what they loved about their stories referencing at least one specific part of the tale and ask a question designed to prompt the student to add to the story or write another one.

There is a big no-no: moralizing or dumbing down for the kids. “We really try and be funny for a six-year-old and a 60-year-old,” White says. Many of the performers continue on to act on shows like SNL or to write for sitcoms.

For the February 14 Flagship Show, the Story Pirates will perform a story that a class of 30 kids from KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) Scholar Academy have written together — and White and his team have no idea what it will be about. Considering what the Story Pirates did with a single line, they should be just fine.

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