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From Page, to Stage, to the Classroom - SYT's Storybook Live!

March 11, 2021 | Features

Written by Adam Sanders, Director of Spartanburg Youth Theatre

What does a theater do when it cannot produce live theatre? That question plagued me for 6 months as I slowly came to terms with the pandemic and its implications on live performance venues. I would love to say that I “rose to the occasion,” “faced the odds,” or “came out stronger than before!” But if we’re being honest…the first 6 months of adjusting to theatre in a “COVID world” was hard. We could not produce live theatre in the way we were used to, and I found myself feeling stuck in paralysis. How do we reinvent theatre virtually? The very nature of theatre is that it is meant to be enjoyed LIVE! So how could I even start to think about making theatre virtually?

The answer happened to be right under my nose the whole time. During a non-COVID year, the Spartanburg Youth Theatre produces four productions each season, and each production has six school time performances we offer to Spartanburg, Union & Cherokee counties. Schools bring their students on field trips to the Chapman Cultural Center, and in one season over 9,000 students get to see a live theatre performance through a school field trip, some for the very first time!

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As I started to think about how SYT could stay relevant, I went to the schools first. How could we provide theatrical experiences and virtual field trips when they could not come to us? A theatrical production helps children ignite the imagination, and most of the shows we produce are based on books, helping children see how stories on a page can come to life with just a little imagination!

Reading storybooks in school is often one of the first avenues children are exposed to that ignites their imagination and helps them explore what the world on-page could look like in real life. My wheels started spinning…how can I take the page, transfer it to the stage, and bring it into the classroom? After much thought, the idea finally came to me…from page, to stage, to your classroom, acclaimed children’s books come to life with SYT’s STORYBOOK LIVE!

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With Storybook Live!, literature and theatre unite in a virtual series designed to support teacher’s and student’s curricular needs. Thanks to the generous sponsorship of Dr. David Blake, Bill English Insurance Agency, Harrison’s Workwear, Stibal & Company, Chick-fil-A Asheville Hwy/Boiling Springs, and the SYT Council, Storybook Live! is offered completely free to all Spartanburg, Union, and Cherokee county schools.

The series features theatrical interpretations of acclaimed children’s books Stephanie’s Ponytail by Robert Munsch, The Dot by Peter H. Reynolds, The Girl Who Never Made Mistakes by Mark Pett & Gary Rubinstein, and The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs by Jon Scieszka. Youth actors from SYT perform a staged, narrated accompaniment including illustrations directly from the books and subtitles throughout. The thoughtfully created, ready-to-use online curriculum companions connect the shows to South Carolina’s College- and Career-Ready Standards. Educators of all grade levels can find meaningful ways to implement these materials. Since December, over 8,500 students, 200+ teachers, and over 50 schools have enjoyed our Storybook Live! virtual series.

The casts of our storybooks are made up of our Junior Advisory Board (JAB) members. JAB is a group of 9th-12th graders with a passion for the performing arts and for serving SYT. The cast of each storybook had significant input on the interpretation of each book. No words, plot or action in any of the books were altered. Our goal was to take the books and bring them to life, sticking as closely to the original source material as possible.

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I had an inkling that producing art again for this project, while not the same as producing a live production, would still be incredibly fulfilling. And it was. However, I was not expecting the overwhelming response from students and teachers. As it turns out, I was not the only one who was missing live theatre in our community!

One teacher told me, “The students are already asking for the next "in-class field trip!" Thank you so much for giving them this experience. I really appreciate you coming up with a very creative way to show our students a theatrical production since we didn't get to go see one this year.” Another teacher exclaimed, “My students ask me every day after I tell them that a performance is coming up, ‘Is today the day we watch the play?’ This is such a great program for our students to be able to attend a performance without leaving school! Thank you for offering this for our kids!”

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“COVID times” have definitely forced me to pivot creatively as an artist and figure out how we keep producing art. I am incredibly proud of our Storybook Live! virtual series, and grateful that we still get to produce art right now, even if it looks different than before.

To watch the storybooks we have already produced, head to www.spartanburgyouththeatre.com/storybooklive. Be on the lookout for the final two books in our series: The Girl Who Never Made Mistakes by Mark Pett & Gary Rubinstein, premiering in late-March, and The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs by Jon Scieszka, premiering in late-April.

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