When Literature Comes to Life

March 30, 2015

By Maria Inés Taracena

Hand-made props and loads of excitement make the stories come alive. Photograph by Sharon O'Brien.

Hand-made props and loads of excitement make the stories come alive. Photograph by Sharon O’Brien.

It began with a story about a girl and her father. It’s the middle of the night, and a much anticipated meteor shower is nearby. After two failed attempts at waking up her brother, the girl ends up watching the shower alone with her dad. It’s a simple setting, but it became a beautifully written piece of one of the girl’s most beloved memories.

The story made its way onto the hands of an organization that turned it into a play. The girl’s father sits in the audience. Tears drip from his eyes as he realizes that, out of all the events in her life, his daughter chose to write about that moment. Even more emotional, however, to see the actress, portraying his daughter, as she stands onstage. In real life, his little girl is paraplegic.

Sharon O’Brien, artistic director of Stories that Soar!, remembers this evening, too, with tears in her eyes. When she chose this story as one to be adapted into a short play, the last thing she thought was that the little girl had a disability. “It was so touching to see the girl’s father watch her daughter be recognized for her writing and creativity, instead of being ‘the girl in the wheelchair,’” O’Brien says holding back the tears as she talks. “It was a moment that showed me the power of what we do.”

For more than ten years, the minds at Literacy Connects, an organization that promotes literacy and the arts among children, have chosen to use a box to ignite freedom of creativity. This “Magic Box” has made its way into various elementary schools around Tucson for years. It appears as a green light for children to unleash their imagination. And, overtime, it feels up with literary treasures written by some of the city’s smallest authors. There are no prompts involved, and the little ones are not graded on grammar, spelling or punctuation. So, the result is a pure compilation of a child’s honest feelings and thoughts.

Stories that Soar! is an adjunction of Literacy Connects. Back in 2005, O’Brien, and other team mates, turned it into a non-profit organization that would use some of the stories in the Magic Box to shape them into live theatre.  The story about the girl and her father was among the first group of stories the troupe ever performed. They have been traveling around elementary schools since. “When we became a non-profit, we did about five shows a year,” O’Brien says. “This year, we had 15 shows, and had about 6,000 children participating with the writing.”

Actors help adapt stories into imaginative theatrical skits. Photograph by Sharon O'Brien.

Actors help adapt stories into imaginative theatrical skits. Photograph by Sharon O’Brien.

On May 17, the crew of Stories that Soar! is hosting Best of Stories that Soar! For the eighth year, they have, once again, selected a group of this season’s most favorite stories. The Best of… is an opportunity for all audiences to experience the organization’s work, and get a taste of the creativity that brews inside the children’s miniature brains. All other performances throughout the year only take place inside the elementary schools. “It’s tricky to call it ‘The Best of’ because selecting the stories is almost like cutting off a limb,” says Dallas Thomas, production manager of Stories that Soar! “There are so many pieces that we all love but that don’t get to make it in this show.”

After the Magic Box makes its rounds at the schools, O’Brien (sometimes with the help of Thomas and others) sits at her kitchen table and reads every single story to decide which ones will be adapted into theatrical skits. To the Stories that Soar! team, all stories are valuable, and the decision, really, comes down to what themes will work best onstage. O’Brien says they don’t change the kids’ words, the intent of the story, or any of the events. “We develop these stories into performance pieces using drama, comedy, acrobatics, dance, or songs,” she says. “We are inspired by the words of the child and it brings tremendous satisfaction to bring them to life.”

O’Brien has been doing this for more than a decade, but she’s not retiring any time soon. She speaks of her work with loads of pride and satisfaction, as she should. Oftentimes, children are not taken seriously by the adult community. And, organizations such as Stories that Soar! place the core of their existence inside the imagination of kids.

Throughout the years, she has witnessed parents react to the work of their children. O’Brien has seen and heard the happiness that comes from realizing that such strong emotions exist inside these tiny beings. Many of them thank her for fighting for the empowerment of children through the arts. O’Brien knows that, oftentimes, kids are not listened to. And, she and the rest of Stories that Soar! put a lot of time and effort into presenting these stories so that people of all ages will stop and listen.

After the performance, children run onstage, happy to have seen their creations come alive. Photograph by  Brendan Murphy

After the performance, children run onstage, happy to have seen their creations come alive. Photograph by Brendan Murphy.

In many schools, creative expression doesn’t have a spot on the curriculum. Oftentimes, the only writing time they get comes in the form of an essay. After visits from Stories that Soar!, Thomas says that children begin to demand more creative writing. “We all have the need to express ourselves,” Thomas says. “And for these kids to be exposed to that at such a young age is vital.”

Best of Stories that Soar! is a celebration of another successful season of the program. That evening, there will be two shows, both, presenting two completely different groups of stories. “These shows are a fun evening for everybody,” O’Brien says. “We’re doing something valuable in our community, and we need everyone to keep in mind that we need their support to keep the program alive.”

Best of Stories that Soar! will take place on Sunday, May 19 at the Temple of Music and Art on 330 S. Scott Ave. The shows are at 4:00 and 6:30, with the Red Carpet Reception at 5:30 in the Temple of Music and Art Courtyard. Tickets are $10 for adults and $5 for children 12 and under. For more information call 882-8006 or visit the website.

Note: This article was originally published in 2013 and has been updated to reflect the 2015 schedule.