As schools are being forced to slash arts budgets left and right, Sharon O'Brien swears she will never stop trying to empower children through theater.
After all, O'Brien's Stories That Soar! might be some of the only arts exposure that many kids get.
O'Brien says children's eyes light up when they see the Magic Box, which makes its way to local elementary schools, "gobbling up" kids' stories. Later, O'Brien and Stories That Soar! directors and performers gather the stories together and choose some to adapt for the stage.
"It's about empowering children to believe in themselves," O'Brien said. "Most theater is written by adults for children. This is written by children for everybody."
Stories That Soar! started in 2002 as a graduate-student project at the University of Arizona. The impact of the project was immediately noticeable, and O'Brien and two colleagues received a grant to continue, leading to the creation of the nonprofit education company SharMoore Children's Productions in 2005.
From there, Stories That Soar! continued to grow. The group is constantly performing and held 14 shows, featuring 265 stories, over the year.
The apex of the organization's season is the upcoming Best of Stories That Soar! at the UA Stevie Eller Dance Theatre. The event will feature two shows, each made up of 15 pieces submitted by local elementary school students. Sandwiched between the shows will be a red-carpet reception with face-painting, acrobats and musicians, O'Brien said.
The Magic Box received 6,814 story submissions from 5,566 area students this year. The difficult part was re-reading all of the stories and deciding which 30 to incorporate into the Best of Stories That Soar!, O'Brien said.
Prior to a show, the cast and directors typically narrow the selection down to the top 100 stories, and then decide which 20 to 25 stories to script into a piece. Seeing how well the stories adapt to the stage, they then decide which 15 to 20 stories to green-light for the show.
The power of Stories That Soar! comes from the shows' ability to impact the kids—making them want to share their stories and experiences by writing, said Anel Schmidt, a Stories That Soar! performer for the past two years.
"It's beautiful to bring all the kids' stories to life," she said. "It makes me happy, because we're doing something good."
O'Brien stressed that although the show is geared toward children, not everything is comedy all the time. The stories submitted by kids often have a variety of emotions attached.
"We work hard to represent variety," she said. "People literally laugh out loud, and they also cry."
The people behind Stories That Soar! are strong advocates of motivating children to share their imaginations, but kids' abilities may be hindered by their shyness. The Magic Box allows children to share their ideas in a nonthreatening and fun way, Schmidt said.
"Sometimes, kids don't feel like talking to parents or their teachers," she said. "Instead, they can talk to the Magic Box and feed the Magic Box."
Adds O'Brien, "The Magic Box eliminates the authority figure and engages the imagination."
Best of Stories That Soar! is not just for kids. O'Brien said the stories are often just as engaging for parents and participating adults as they are for kids, because the stories offer a glimpse into the children's minds.
"It's a great way to celebrate imagination," she said.
It is not simply enough, though, to have adults act out children's stories onstage. The actors must be actual, trained performers and music artists who bring their A-game to every performance, O'Brien said.
Stories That Soar! holds auditions each year to create a pool of a few dozen artists, usually made up of community and university actors, she said.
Being a performer for Stories That Soar! is rewarding on two fronts for Schmidt.
"I'm a mom and an actress, so sometimes, I take my own kids to the show. Afterward, they always want to tell stories," she said. "This is a great project. It's just amazing."