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How Story Pirates took over the world with a little help from kids. By Martin Wilson
“I’m lucky enough to come from a background where my creativity was supported, and that continued at Northwestern,” says Lee Overtree ’02. “My individuality was honored. That’s what I wanted when I was a kid. That’s what I want now.”
Overtree is co-founder and creative director of Story Pirates, which began as a stage show with actors performing sketches and songs adapted from stories submitted by kids. Since its founding in 2004, the show has grown into a full-fledged media company, featuring a hit podcast, albums, books and streaming video offerings.
Overtree was a theater kid in Houston before he came to Evanston looking for a high-quality theater program that wasn’t a conservatory. “[Northwestern] gave me the opportunity to have an intensive theater education,” he says. “But I could also explore other interests and become what I hope is a well-rounded individual.”
The idea for Story Pirates and its philosophy took root when Overtree discovered the Northwestern student group Griffin’s Tale, which performs stories written by kids in Chicagoland schools. He joined the group as a sophomore and became its director by his junior year.
“When I first saw these kids’ stories being brought to life onstage, what jumped out at me was that these were not ‘just kids.’ These were individuals with a really unique, filter-less way of looking at the world,” says Overtree. “I love being able to give back to kids and honor them and lift up their voices to show that we really do take them seriously as creators.”
Overtree’s co-founder, Story Pirates CEO Benjamin “Jamie” Salka ’00, was similarly captivated by Griffin’s Tale. “I probably saw 500 student productions at Northwestern — the theater department is so off the charts incredible,” says Salka. “And there’s so much good student-created theater to see. But the best show that I saw every single year was Griffin’s Tale.”
The Griffin’s Tale philosophy and process were tucked away in the backs of their minds as Overtree and Salka set out on their separate post-collegiate careers. Until Overtree found himself with an opportunity.
After his graduation in 2002, Overtree moved to New York City and landed a directing gig at the Vital Theatre Company on 42nd Street. “I called up everyone I knew from Northwestern and said come on over,” he says. “That was the first Story Pirates show.”
As those first shows found their footing, Overtree was introduced to Salka by their mutual Northwestern friend Eli Bolin ’00 (who became the Story Pirates’ founding music director). Salka had spent the last few years working for a number of high-profile film and theater producers. Overtree was looking for guidance.
“I wrote a four-page, single-spaced letter saying that I didn’t want to give advice,” recalls Salka. “I wanted to run the company, and if they let me, one of two things would happen: We would take over the world with this type of programming, or we would die trying. And that’s what we’ve been working on for about 15 years.”
Overtree and Salka launched the Story Pirates’ signature show in the tiny, 60-seat basement theater of the Drama Book Shop, a New York City landmark. Their first season was co-produced by a young theater company called Back House, run by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Tommy Kail, the writer/star and director of Hamilton, respectively, who at that time were totally unknown. “Lin was writing In The Heights on the same basement piano where we were performing Story Pirates,” says Salka. (In 2019 a slightly better-known Miranda reconnected with his old theater mates on the song “The Wizard Who Could Just Go Poof,” based on a submission from a 13-year-old in Utah. It is now the Story Pirates’ top track on Spotify.)
“We always talk about it as an ecosystem because kids inspire us with their stories, and we then inspire them with a performance, which inspires them to share something new with us,” Overtree says. “People talk a lot about interactivity, but I find mostly they mean fake interactivity. [With Story Pirates,] we’re going to take an idea that you might not think much of, and we’re going to give it all of our creativity and share it with the world, and that’s going to reinspire you. We find that to be a really powerful engine for engagement.”
While New York City remained its base of operations, in 2009 the Story Pirates expanded to Los Angeles and soon the cast members were doing creative writing workshops and performances in hundreds of schools and national tours, including gigs at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., as part of both inaugural celebrations for President Barack Obama ’06 H.
As the organization expanded, the need to bring more Story Pirates aboard grew. Fellow Griffin’s Tale alumna Joanna Simmons ’05 was one of the early additions to the ensemble as a performer.
In the days when Story Pirates toured New York City schools, Simmons says the group performed in all kinds of strange setups. One time Simmons and the cast arrived to find that a huge set of choral risers had been placed between the stage and the audience. Simmons encouraged her castmates to try to use the risers to their advantage.
One story they performed that day was “I Lost My Lipstick,” in which a kid in a movie theater drops their lipstick and falls over while looking for it. “So when I went to look for the lipstick, I fell in slow motion all the way down the risers and then back up the risers and then back down,” says Simmons. “The kids thought it was the best thing they had ever seen, and I was having the most fun because it was such a stupid thing to do. It brought together what’s fun about performing for kids and how to make the best of an unexpected setting.
Chanse McCrary ’16 is a newer Story Pirate. When he and his cast showed up for a recent show, they found one child who needed some extra joy.
“We got a story with a note from the teacher that said the author got a lot of heat for it,” says McCrary. “The other kids said it was stupid. It was a big ordeal, and she went home crying. So we were like, ‘Well, we’re absolutely doing this story.’”
The Story Pirates have a game of slowly revealing which student in the school wrote the next story. As soon as the Story Pirates finally identified the author, her status with her classmates instantly inverted. “Everyone’s pointing at her, and she’s freaking out,” says McCrary. “This changed her world. It was this amazing justice.”
For the Story Pirates performers, keeping themselves entertained is key to entertaining an audience. “We’re making each other laugh,” says Simmons. “And if we’re not making each other laugh, then I don’t think we have any business being in front of children because they can see right through you.”
Once the Story Pirates had established themselves in Los Angeles, new opportunities appeared. In 2010 a friend helped them land a guest appearance on a SiriusXM radio show called Kids Place Live. That appearance went well enough that they began returning monthly, then weekly. By 2013 they had their own show on SiriusXM. “We weren't getting paid,” says Salka, “but we asked them for the ability to take the audio and put it out on iTunes as a podcast.”
The SiriusXM show and the attendant proto-podcast helped them build a national audience. Over the course of a month or two in 2016, according to Salka, their downloads skyrocketed.
Several parties approached them about partnering at the same time. “We had a little bit of a bidding war,” Salka says. They eventually signed with the podcast company Gimlet, now owned by Spotify, and got a real budget to produce their podcast professionally. The show now always hovers near the top of the kids and family podcast charts and has been downloaded more than 35 million times.
Like every performing arts organization, the COVID-19 pandemic created an existential crisis for Story Pirates. “Ninety-ish percent of our revenue was from school visits and in-person workshops and shows,” says Overtree. “That went away overnight.”
But the Story Pirates have weathered the storm thus far. “It’s been a roller coaster,” Salka continues. “I was positive that we were going to go under. But we really hurled ourselves into creating a whole array of virtual programming. And we found out we were really good at it.”
One of their new projects is the Story Pirates Creator Club, which features virtual programming, including live shows, classes and camps. “It’s been really interesting to take live experiential things and see how they work digitally and virtually,” says Overtree. “In March of 2020 we didn’t know what Creator Club was. Now it’s going to be part of the Story Pirates ecosystem forever and even drive where we go in the future.”
The co-founders also know that many kids are being left out of the fun. Story Pirates is working with the PBS affiliate KLCS in Los Angeles to produce SPTV, a weekly TV show that teaches creativity and creative writing to kids who are quarantining at home but may not have Wi-Fi or connected devices. “We’re catering to kids who are affected by the digital divide,” says Salka, “and working to bring really high-quality education programs to them.”
Finding a way to provide joy and share creativity with kids has provided Overtree a special kind of perspective.
“My job is pretty unique in that I get to call all the kids whose stories we perform on the podcasts,” Overtree says. “I get to call kids in Japan or India or Dubai or Australia or Iowa and ask them about their story and hear about their lives and what’s interesting to them. It drives home the lesson that kids are really the same everywhere, and that storytelling and self-generated storytelling is a powerful learning tool.”
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I don’t know to make an accurate enough response to describe just how amazing everyone and everything involved in the Story Pirates endeavor is! The kids and their great imaginations, the teachers who encourage them, the interpretation skills of the actors, the vision of Overtree and Salka — it’s all quite indescribable! Keep up the great work!
—Kathy Mathiasen Richmond, Minn., via Northwestern Magazine