Third graders from Krieger Schechter Day School, Ohr Chadash Academy and Beth El Congregation’s religious school can include “playwright” on their future resumes.
On Oct. 10, two members of the Brooklyn-based sketch comedy and media group Story Pirates came to each of the schools to hold collaborative story-writing workshops where the classes developed settings, characters and plots for their own comedy sketches. Story Pirates, who tour the country performing sketches developed by children from around the world, will act out each story when they return to Baltimore on Nov. 11 to perform at the Gordon Center for the Performing Arts on the Rosenbloom Owings Mills JCC campus.
The performance will be one of 13 events comprising the first annual Baltimore Festival of Jewish Literature, held between Nov. 8 and 18. When Gordon Center artistic director Alyson Bonavoglia was approached to take part in the festivities, she knew hosting Story Pirates would be a perfect fit.
“This is a very literary, very participatory experience for the children,” she said, adding that third graders are the perfect age for such an activity.
“They’ve been reading and writing for a few years at that point,” she said. “They’re beginning to understand the literary form. They know the story form, they’re reading chapter books and they’re enthusiastic.”
While Story Pirates doesn’t typically deal exclusively with Jewish schools and Jewish stories, the group agreed upon the request of the Gordon Center and its event partner, the Louise D. and Morton J. Macks Center for Jewish Education, to help the kids write stories that take place during Jewish holidays. Story Pirates even sent down two Jewish team members to run the workshop.
“This is a relatively typical program for us. Our bread and butter programming are performances that are a sketch comedy show with six or seven stories that are written by kids,” said Sam Reiff-Pasarew, a Story Pirates co-founder and cast member who helped the Baltimore schools write their stories.
In the group story workshops, Reiff-Pasarew said two Story Pirates performers with classroom management skills do comedy bits for the kids to illustrate what they will be asked to create. Once the kids have laughed and loosened up, the interactive brainstorming begins.
“We let them use their imagination. Our motto is ‘keep it weird,’ so we really encourage kids to be original,” said Reiff-Pasarew. “The only thing we kind of discourage is for kids to make stories about Superman and Spiderman, we want them to create brand new characters and heroes.”
Once the class creates a character together, they continue brainstorming to give that character a problem. The plot of the story comes when the class envisions how their character will solve the problem.
Once the story is set, Story Pirates, back in Brooklyn, read it out loud with cast members and the program’s director assigns parts. At each of their performances, Story Pirates bring along a piano player who scores all of the stories. Reiff-Pasarew said some of the stories will have small musical moments like a jingle, while others will be completely performed through song like a piece of musical theater. Besides the musical interpretations, Story Pirates don’t take many liberties when adapting the children’s stories.
“Our mission statement is ‘we celebrate the words and ideas of kids,’” Reiff-Pasarew said. “We try to make the characters and the story as faithful to the kids’ ideas as possible.”
Ellie Shulman, a third grade teacher at the Ohr Chadash Academy who had Story Pirates come to her classroom, found the experience to be constructive for students on a number of levels.
“They really encouraged the kids to be funny and to stand up and act out their creative ideas,” she said. “They were very proud of the jokes they were able to tell and they were able to communicate really well without embarrassment. It was really good for their self-esteem and creativity.”
Nine-year-old Elan Levi, one of Shulman’s students, called Story Pirates “friendly and great” and was thrilled to be able to act silly during the school day. His classmate Shuli Friedman, 8, said, “I got to act out a character named Baby Beach Monster.”
She said when she pretended to be a baby beach monster, her classmates laughed with her. When asked what she most looks forward to about the upcoming performance, it should come as no surprise that she responded, “Seeing Baby Beach Monster.”