Word Treasures

Stories That Soar! offers an evening of the year's best stage works written by kids

Writers sweat over every precious word, but once their work is picked up for production, that original sweat gets wrung out of the adaptation. Have you ever heard of a writer who was completely happy with the way his or her work was adapted to stage or screen?

"It turned out a lot better than I thought it would," allows Tucsonan Cade Cothrom of a stage version of a story he co-wrote with Edgar Herrera. From a writer, that's an enthusiastic endorsement. And certainly it acknowledges the difficulties of adapting this particular story. Says Edgar, "It's about an evil tomato that wants to rule the world. In the end, someone makes him into ketchup."

Edgar is a 9-year-old student at Corbett Elementary; Cade is 10. Their tale of pure--or is that puréed?--evil is one of the highlights of the Stories That Soar! show May 18 at the UA's Stevie Eller Dance Theatre. Edgar and Cade are two of the 200 Tucson students whose work has been adapted this year by Stories That Soar!, and Friday's event is a family-oriented showcase of the best recent efforts.

The doors will open at 5:30 p.m. with free food, face painting, temporary tattooing, a silent auction, a display of books produced by UA art students inspired by Stories That Soar! material, and still photos from the company's collaborations this year with kids from seven area schools. The show itself starts at 6:30, offering multimedia adaptations by an adult troupe of about 25 original stories.

"Because they're written by kids from ages 5 to 11, it's really appropriate for a wide range of viewers," says Stories That Soar! artistic director Sharon O'Brien. "Even adults enjoy it, because it's not typical kids' theater, which is written by adults imposing on children what they think they'd like. Our content comes directly from kids, and we use innovative artistic mediums to bring it to life." The performances involve acting, dancing, music, puppetry--you name it.

Typically, a Stories That Soar! troupe will arrive at a school with a Magic Box. "The Magic Box is hungry, and it talks," says O'Brien. How does it talk? "It's magic! Anyway, there's usually some interaction between it and the actors, like the actors play pirates who want to steal the Magic Box because they heard there was treasure in it, but when they get it, they find out it's only full of pencils and stories. It's the stories that are the treasure.

"So this is a box that's hungry for more stories, and it tells the kids they can write anything they want, in any language and any form. If their ideas are bigger than their ability to put it on paper, they can get help, as long as it's their own ideas. The box stays at school for two weeks, eating stories."

O'Brien and her colleagues then fetch the Magic Box and sort through the submissions--this year, there were 450 from Homer Davis Elementary alone. O'Brien reads every story, then passes those with the most potential to her troupe--teams of seven actors and two musicians per show. "They each get a stack of stories," she says, "and they figure out which ones touch them personally or inspire them artistically." Collaboratively, they transform the stories into stage pieces.

The troupe then returns to the school, with the Magic Box now as a set piece from which props and other surprises may emerge. "Stories go into the box, and magic comes out," says O'Brien. "It eliminates any adult authority figure saying, 'OK, kids, you need to do this and that.' The box opens up the invitation to be as creative as they can be. It's kind of a way to jump off together into this world of imagination."

Not surprisingly, O'Brien gets a lot of stories about the Magic Box itself. But there's much more. "The stories include nonfiction reflective pieces about personal experiences the kids have had--there's one about a child whose mother taught her how to swim, and how she now dreams of being a competitive swimmer someday--and then there are all-out crazy pieces, like Edgar's evil tomato that wants to take over the world. We have a time traveler. We have a very crazy tooth on the loose; it gets away and can't be found. We have some pirates having a party, and it turns into storytime. There's a great adventure with a bubblegum alien, Lord Bazooka, coming down and being battled by kids. We do some as songs, some as dance numbers, or comedy, or more serious drama. We have a video piece, and a giant human puppet. There's a huge range."

As heavy as the emphasis may be on monsters and superheroes, the kids also write about real life, for better and worse. This year, a lot of them submitted stories about last January's snowfall. Many others write about dogs, or their best friends.

Then there was one with a too true-to-life account of domestic violence. It was called "My Hurt Mom." O'Brien and company talked to school officials about the story, then went ahead and produced it without naming names. "It's a monologue," O'Brien explains, "in which a girl says, 'Something bad happened to my mom, and I was really scared, and then I called for help.' It wasn't about her being a victim; it was about her being empowered to do something about it, and showing that to others. We used this as a model for what kids can do in these situations."

As for Edgar and Cade's story about the evil tomato, the Stories That Soar! troupe turned it into a puppet piece. "We loved their illustrations so much, that's the way we decided we could retain the look of the story," O'Brien says.

Edgar has seen the Stories That Soar! adaptation twice now, and he's satisfied.

"It's pretty much the same as I would do it," he says. According to Edgar, he and Cade have produced six stories together so far. Cade says most of them are part of a series called "Crazy Comics." Right now, the boys are working on a sequel to the tomato story, with a new villain.

"Instead of a tomato," Cade confides, "it's an orange."

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