Friday September 14, 2012

PITTSFIELD -- The performing troupe Story Pirates hinges on one basic idea: encouraging kids to write stories and then putting those stories up on the stage in the hands of professional actors.

But the Story Pirates transform their source material into sketches utilizing the skills of improv comedy and filter it through a sensibility that's been likened to that of Monty Python.

"The final product is a collaboration between the kids' initial idea and the Story Pirates' adaptation of it, but we do not significantly change the intention of the author's stories. Even when we're adding our own jokes, the most important element to us is honoring the author's intent," explains Benjamin Salka, CEO of the group.

Story Pirates performs at the Colonial Theatre on Saturday afternoon at 2. The show will feature a mix of sketches and songs written by children from around the country, plus the debut of a new story written by a Berkshire youth. (As of press time, the identity of the young local author was still being confirmed.)

The performers will also craft an on-the-spot sketch, based on input from the audience.

Yes, that technique is borrowed directly from the world of improv comedy -- not necessarily a milieu often thought of as children's entertainment. The Pirates tend to come from the ranks of working actors in New York and Los Angeles, many of whom have come through the world of comedy.


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"I think you'd be surprised at how many people in our troupe who are pursuing careers in straight comedy -- improv comedy stand-up comedy -- end up falling in love with the mission of the Story Pirates. Because it's a rare thing, as an actor or a comedian, to put your talents to work in a way that does significant good in the world," says Salka, "which is not to say that entertainment is not a high value on its own, but it's different from using entertainment to actually change a kid's life."

The onstage result features colorful costumes and props, songs, and high energy.

Story Pirates was formed eight years ago, the brainchild of some Northwestern University alum who had started a similar group as undergrads and wanted to make a professional go at it. They began running in-school workshops in New York City, as well as holding a weekly performance of shifting material, all based on stories submitted ahead of time by creative children. A Los Angeles headquarters was added, with a similar mission.

Touring incarnations, like the one rolling into Pittsfield on Saturday, take the concept on the road. (Story Pirates have performed at both years of Mass MoCa's Solid Sound Festival.) There's even an evening show geared toward adults at the New York main stage, though the content is explained as the same that would be at any children's performance.

In order to run all of this expanding programming, Story Pirates currently has about 200 actors on-staff, full and part-time. During the group's typical springtime peak, Salka says, it may have as many as 20 programs in New York schools at one time, plus several more in Los Angeles and perhaps a couple touring companies.

The numbers definitely add up: all told, Salka says the Story Pirates create perhaps 2,000 different sketches and songs a year, based on submissions that come in online and through in-school programs. Many of the original stories, complete with the author's photo, are archived on Story Pirates' website.

He's very quick to cite statistics about the Pirates' various efforts or to laud the credentials and abilities of the actor-comedians, as well as education specialists who develop programming and sometimes work side-by-side with performers to lead in-school workshops. But the payoff, he says, is in the public performances.

"The most exciting thing to me is watching a kid see his story performed for the first time," he says.

Salka, himself a North western graduate, had been working his way through the world of film and theater production in his early 20s when he heard from some friends from school who described the idea for Story Pirates. They were simply looking for some advice on how they should proceed.

"I said 'I don't want to give you advice, I want to run this thing,' " Salka recalls, " 'and if you let me be the guy to run it, I promise one of two things will happen. Either we will become one of the most successful arts, education and media organizations in the world, or I'm going to die trying.' "