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Story Pirates share their secrets of success with students in module event

Hailed by Jon Stewart as a “crazy entertaining” group of improv artists and educators who are “making a real difference,” the bicoastal non-profit made up of actors and educators known as the Story Pirates swashbuckled onto campus October 19 to share their experience of making theatre for young people. Later that night, they entertained a boisterous crowd in the Wallis Theatre with the Northwestern student troupe Griffin’s Tale and the Chicago-based ensemble Barrel of Monkeys.

Founded in 2003 by thirteen Northwestern alumni, the Story Pirates visit elementary schools across the country. They workshop stories written by kids and then perform them. “Our goal is to get kids excited about writing, so they don’t see it as a task,” said associate artistic director Duke Doyle. “Desire drives learning. That’s our motto.”

Actor Jessica McKenna (C09) said the great thing about a child’s sense of humor is “there are no boundaries. Everything has urgency. Everything matters.”

This intensity sometimes brings things to a fever pitch, Doyle joked, “with kids in the audience trying to tear off their own limbs,” or penning stories about “potties and toilets and bathrooms.

“We try to find the line and walk right up to it,” he said. “We never want to cross the line, because there are serious ramifications, but excitement is the goal.”

The group spoke to students over a lunch panel hosted by the School of Communication Office of External Programs, Internships, and Career Services (EPICS) and two School of Communication “modules.”

A School of Communication module combines focused, in-depth classroom experience with relevant co-curricular campus activities and off-campus, skill-building activities—culminating in a capstone project that demonstrates student mastery of the topic. Currently the school has thirteen modules, with plans for more. For more information, visit https://commons.soc.northwestern.edu/.

Advisor Lynn Kelso, who coordinates the Theatre for Young Audiences module, moderated the Story Pirates discussion. She was joined by Amy Booth, associate professor of communication sciences and disorders and the coordinator for the Children and Communication module.

Students in the modules heard how their interests in young people and communication skills are valued in the real world.

“We’re getting contacted every day by schools,” said producer Gabe Jewell (C08), who went on to describe the Story Pirates’ growing partnership with the Geffen Theatre, in Los Angeles, and an expansion of programming that includes work with toddlers, special-needs kids, and even a senior center.

While the ideas that children bring to the table tend to be fresh, the Pirates do sometimes see the same things that plague adult writing workshops: clichés, overly familiar material. “We get a lot of stories about Justin Bieber,” McKenna said—or characters from video games like the Fruit Ninjas. “We’ll say, ‘That’s cool, but somebody else came up with Sponge Bob. What can you come up with?'”

Actor Leslie Korein recalled the answer a very young girl gave to this question at a recent workshop: “She raised her hand and said, ‘What about a giant Band-Aid covered in hair?’ And we were, like, yes! That’s it. That’s exactly what we’re looking for!”