By Stephanie Schaefer
The creative arts provide fulfillment and foster imagination in kids young and old, however, unfortunately, the arts are typically the first classes to get cut by strict budgets in the public school system. If last week’s Reading Rainbow Kickstarter news was any indication, millions of Americans agree that literature opens the doors to a world of knowledge.
The Young Storytellers Foundation (YSF) aims to promote childhood literacy though the art of storytelling. This California-based organization uses tactics such as group exercises and one-on-one mentors to provide children in public schools the opportunity to write stories and see them brought to life through performances by well-known actors.
I recently had the privilege to talk to Pilar Alvarez, education director of YSF, about the powerful impact creativity can have on a child’s life.
Stephanie Schaefer: First of all, can you tell me about the mission of the Young Story Tellers Foundation?
Pilar Alvarez: Our mission is to inspire children to discover the power of their own voice. We do that through our main two educational programs, Script to Stage and Young Movie Makers. Both programs use group exercises and mentoring to provide under-served children in the public school system an opportunity to create stories and see them brought to life through performance.
SS: When was the organization founded and how has it expanded since then?
PA: YSF was founded in 1997 by a group of young film students who, in response to cuts to creative arts educational programing, decided to create a free and volunteer based program that they could bring into public schools. The organization began with our founders working with students at one public elementary school. This year our Script to Stage Program is currently implemented at thirty-two elementary schools. A few years ago we added another program, Young Movie Makers, which we have brought into four junior high schools.
SS: Do you think the push for STEM in public schools has taken focus off of writing and the creative arts?
PA: Not necessarily. Right now public schools are working hard to prepare their students to be career and college ready by applying their knowledge in an engaging and hands on way. The arts are a fantastic vehicle for achieving that. My background as a teacher is in theatre, which provides many opportunities for students to physicalize the concepts they are learning in other subjects. One of my favorite teaching moments was acting out the process of photosynthesis with a group of second graders.
SS: Can you describe the initiatives, such as the Young Movie Makers and Script-to-Stage program?
PA: Script to Stage is a nine to 10 week program where we pair fifth graders with mentors (mostly from the entertainment industry) who guide them through the process of creating their own screenplay. Each program has a head mentor who leads the sessions and group exercises that help facilitate the creative process. At the end of the program we bring in professional actors, that the students cast, who bring the screenplays to life at our Big Show.
Young Movie Makers is a program where junior high school students work in small groups to write, direct, shoot, and edit their own movies. Students have an opportunity to work creatively in groups and build their collaborative and communication skills. Each group is paired with a high school mentor who helps the group with their movie making process. It’s also a wonderful leadership opportunity for the participating high school students.
SS: I’ve read the YSF scripts often attract celebrity actors and actresses. Who are some of the well-name stars who have performed at the “Big Show?”
PA: Too many to name but a few of them include: Jennifer Aniston, Max Greenfield, Rashida Jones, Mindy Kaling, Ed Helms, Ben McKenzie, Adam Brody, Dustin Hoffman, Jonah Hill, Leighton Mester, and Casey Wilson. That’s just some of the talented actors who have worked with us. It’s a long list, my apologies to anyone left out. We’ve been really lucky to have many celebrities who see the value of our programming and help bring attention to our work by performing in our shows. We also do a Big Show once a year with members of the crazy-talented cast of "Glee."
SS: How can other, non-famous creative artists contribute to the cause?
PA: The heart of YSF is the amazing volunteers who work with our young writers as mentors by guiding them through the process of creating their own screenplays and actors who bring their stories to life. Our volunteer community is an amazing collection of generous and talented creative people. If anyone reading this is interested in mentoring they can go to www.youngstorytellers.com/mentor/. If you want to perform go to www.youngstorytellers.com/perform/. The application process is very simple, you can do it all on our website.
SS: What has been your most memorable moment working with the organization?
PA: I love watching our young writers at the Big Shows. The Big Shows are an amazing celebration of our talented writers and an opportunity for them to see their work brought to life. It’s difficult for me to pick just one moment because each student responds to that experience differently. It’s an amazing moment where all of their work comes to culmination. The students see their words brought to life and the impact that their script has on the audience. I hope that experience helps them understand that what they have to say and contribute can affect others around them.
SS: We ask all contributors to name one random fact about themselves. Do you care to share an interesting anecdote about yourself?
PA: The arts really saved me as a young adult. When I was in junior high school I had a really low sense of self. My self-worth was mainly dependent on peer approval; it was not based on my own skills and intelligence as a person. I couldn’t see past that moment in my life and so I wasn’t motivated to try in school. The drama program at my High School really pulled me out of that when I started acting in shows and had the opportunity to take on leadership positions. I felt successful and valued for what I had to contribute and as result started doing better in school and received a scholarship to a liberal arts college.