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The Story Pirates bring John Grisham’s Theodore Boone legal thrillers to life

Kids can learn about the American justice system in an interactive theater performance.

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The Story Pirates were founded in 2003 by a group of Northwestern University students who wanted to increase literacy and excitement for stories among school-aged children.

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The Story Pirates were founded in 2003 by a group of Northwestern University students who wanted to increase literacy and excitement for stories among school-aged children.

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The Story Pirates were founded in 2003 by a group of Northwestern University students who wanted to increase literacy and excitement for stories among school-aged children.

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The Story Pirates were founded in 2003 by a group of Northwestern University students who wanted to increase literacy and excitement for stories among school-aged children.

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The Story Pirates were founded in 2003 by a group of Northwestern University students who wanted to increase literacy and excitement for stories among school-aged children.

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The Story Pirates were founded in 2003 by a group of Northwestern University students who wanted to increase literacy and excitement for stories among school-aged children.

Children’s theater group the Story Pirates, whose biggest—or at least most famous—fan is comedian Jon Stewart, kicked off a national tour earlier this month. Based on John Grisham’s best-selling children’s novels, Theodore Boone and the Thrill of Rights is an interactive show that teaches kids about the American justice system. Story Pirates artistic director Lee Overtree and CEO Benjamin Salka took time away from their busy tour—which hits town this week—to talk about the group, its beginnings and what it’s like to have Jon Stewart on its side.

Where did the idea for starting the Story Pirates come from?
Lee Overtree
We were inspired by a group some of us were a part of at Northwestern University, Griffin’s Tale, that takes stories written by schoolkids and turns them into sketch comedy and musical theater. We knew that kids’ words and ideas were funnier and more interesting than most theater being produced for family audiences, and our vision was of a world where kids could create what they were seeing onstage, onscreen and in the classroom.

How has the group changed since it was founded in 2003?
LO
We’ve grown a lot and now have branches in NYC and Los Angeles. We’re touring nationally more than ever and taking on a wide variety of theatrical, educational and media projects that incorporate the words and ideas of kids. Our dream has evolved and is now about using stories to spark within kids a deep desire and passion for learning, [which] really just means a healthy curiosity for the world around you, and stories are the best way to tap into that love.

You have a New York show, where you perform stories written by kids. Where do the stories come from?
LO
Kids submit stories to us in a bunch of different ways. Some come through our website, some through a monthly radio show we do on SiriusXM satellite radio, and some from our in-school and after-school programs acrossthe country.

What was your reaction when Jon Stewart mentioned the Story Pirates on Larry King?
LO
We were totally surprised and blown away! Our website crashed almost immediately. We didn’t know him at the time, but Jon has become a huge supporter over the years, and the credibility that his endorsement lends us has been a game changer for Story Pirates.

How did you get involved with John Grisham’s work?
Benjamin Salka
Penguin Books approached us about turning Grisham’s new series, Theodore Boone, Kid Lawyer, into an interactive courtroom comedy. We were so excited, because we couldn’t think of a more engrossing way to learn about the legal process—and fall in love with a book series—than for young readers to jump intothe action.

What is the show like on the Theodore Boone tour?
LO
We take the audience through the process of a trial, focusing on the concepts of reasonable doubt and jury trials and presumption of innocence. We had the idea to turn the kids in the audience into the witnesses to a crime that we stage at the beginning of the show. The kids then testify in court as to what they saw, and other kids from the audience are called upon to be on the jury. Story Pirates play the lawyers, bailiff and judge, who are really amazing at incorporating the kids into the action. At the end of the show, the jury deliberates and comes up with their own verdict. Even we never know what is going to happen.

What are the biggest rewards and biggest challenges in working with the Story Pirates?
LO
The best thing about being a Story Pirate is you have this endless source of material to perform—kids are always writing and it’s consistently great stuff. When you’re able to come out onstage and say “this next story was written by you!” and you point to a kid in the audience, the look on their face is priceless. The biggest challenges are adapting material and incorporating kids into shows in a way that values their contribution fully and helps them feel like a success.
BS
For me, the most rewarding aspect of Story Pirates is the feeling that we’re having a tangible impact on the next generation. In our shows and workshops, I love watching the exhilaration on kids’ faces as they make the leap, sometimes for the first time, that learning and playing can be the exact same experience. When education is presented in the most exciting way possible, and in a manner that honors kids’ own voices, sometimes a light switches on that never burns out. The challenge for us is always finding novel ways to increase the impact of Story Pirates, and to show more and more kids that their words and ideas matter. The opportunity to adapt an interactive show by a celebrated writer like John Grisham gives us an awesome way to reach kids around the country in a compelling new way.

The Story Pirates visit Anderson’s Bookshop in Naperville on Saturday 24 and Vernon District Library in Lincolnshire on Tuesday 27.

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