During the 2005-2006 school season, five elementary schools in the Tucson area were contacted by a mysterious phenomenon. For two weeks each, Homer Davis, Walter Douglas, Soleng Tom, Sam Hughes and Lineweaver elementary schools were visited by a very hungry entity. And it wanted to be fed.
School officials had a special assembly announcing the arrival of this special visitor. Arrangements were made to feed the hungry guest. But it didn't eat food--it ate stories.
This special visitor was the Magic Box, created by Sonia Teder-Moore, artistic director of SharMoore Children's Productions. The Magic Box is a talking steamer trunk.
"It appears at an assembly and says it's hungry for stories," explains Teder-Moore. "It lives at the school for two weeks. Kids stuff the box with stories. We get hundreds in the two weeks. Then the box is whisked away. We read all the stories and select 20 to 30. We create a multimedia performance show that we bring back to share with the students. They see their words come to life."
Teder-Moore says to her surprise, the box became very important. "We needed a way to tell kids about the project. Kids responded to it as a real character. ... They develop a relationship with the box."
Teder-Moore started the nonprofit SharMoore Children's Productions five years ago as a way to bring the arts into her daughter's school. After working with UA student actors, "Stories That Soar!" became a class and production project at the UA School of Theatre Arts. Sharon O'Brien joined Teder-Moore as administrative director, and the two women set out to bring the project to local schools. SharMoore Children's Productions and the Magic Box have visited five schools each year. More than 1,500 stories were collected during the last school year.
Teder-Moore says the nonprofit receives community support from foundations, businesses and individual donors, as well as the Arizona Commission on the Arts and Tucson Pima Arts Council. One individual donor is Mrs. Esther Capin, known as the "fairy godmother who helps us create this magic."
But perhaps the real magic comes from the children who write the stories. "They are really insightful and thought-provoking," says Teder-Moore. She recalls a story written by a disabled first-grade girl. The girl wrote about the night she watched a meteor shower with her parents.
"It was about watching this wonderful event," says Teder-Moore. "It allowed (other students) to look at her and say, 'She's just like me.' They get to connect and see they are a lot like each other. ... They saw the girl in the wheelchair differently from then on. And the following year, students wrote a story where she was the heroine."
Another special memory Teder-Moore recalls is of a parent expressing thanks. "The parent said their child was not a writer before, but (the project) transformed the way the child saw themselves. The parent was almost in tears."
Teder-Moore says the project gives the students a place to share their ideas. All stories are accepted, regardless of length, style, format and language. Stories have been written in Spanish, cat- and dog-speak, math and pictures by students of various ages. "We honor a kindergartener's words at the same artistic level and integrity as a sixth-grade story."
But regardless of the age of the student, one and all respect the Magic Box. Garbage has never been put in the box, only stories. "The talking box captures their imagination. I find it endearing that in this age of technology, the talking box captures their imagination," says Teder-Moore.
Imagination runs high among the 15-member ensemble of SharMoore performers. "Each person in the ensemble takes responsibility for finding stories that can be put into a live performance. They find a story that speaks to their art form."
Each show has seven performers, two musicians and at least one guest artist. Stories are performed in dance, song, movement, rap and other forms. Guest artists have included a slam poet and Brazilian capoeira dancers. "It's like a variety show. ... It extends our repertoire to be open to artists in the community. ... It's exciting to see what students have given us and what we have been able to create for them," says Teder-Moore.
And at the end of each performance, the student authors are invited on stage to take a bow. "When they see someone has honored their work, it empowers them as thinkers and creators," says Teder-Moore.
Students themselves have given positive feedback. A fourth-grade student at Sam Hughes Elementary commented that the project was "10 times better than Disneyland." And as student Maureen Ramirez wrote, "You really made a fun way to make our stories come to life. You boosted up our self-esteem." Not bad for a Magic Box.
The "Best of Stories That Soar!" showcases the best pieces selected from SharMoore Children's Productions 2005-2006 season on Thursday, May 25--that's a week from the day this issue officially hits the streets--at Stevie Eller Dance Theatre, 1713 E. University Blvd. Doors open at 5 p.m. with food, face painting, temporary tattoos, a silent auction and more. The live performance begins at 6 p.m. A post-show reception with refreshments starts at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $7 for adults and $5 for children, in advance and at the door. Call 975-9970 or e-mail email@example.com for tickets. Visit www.storiesthatsoar.org for more information.