The premise is simple but profound: Every kid has a story to tell.
That’s the guiding principle of the Young Storytellers Foundation, the Los Angeles-based nonprofit that runs a screenwriting program for elementary- middle- and high-school students in selected L.A. public schools. (Full disclosure: I’ve served as a volunteer writing-mentor for the program, working with kids at the elementary school around the corner from Variety’s office. To say that it is a rewarding experience would be a serious understatement.)
The assignment is to sit one-on-one with kids and encourage them to use their imagination to craft a five-page screenplay. It can be harder than it sounds at first, but when the wheels start to turn, it’s exciting to see the student discover the power of words on paper.
The eight-week program consists of 90-minute meetings once a week with a group of 10 kids. The sessions start with some instruction on the basics of screenwriting (What is a setting? What makes an interesting character?), reinforced with fun improv games that help the kids and the adults with them loosen up.
Much of the mentoring consists of asking your student the million-dollar question, “And then what happens?” There’s a strict organizational rule: Mentors coach, coax and make very general suggestions, but they don’t write. That’s the students’ job, and they give up most of their lunch period for the sessions, which reinforces that they’re making a special commitment.
Young Storytellers was founded in 1997 by a group of screenwriters (including Brad Falchuk, long before “Glee” hit) who wanted to do something to promote literacy and also to encourage kids in Hollywood’s backyard that they could pursue careers as film and TV writers, if they were so inclined.
The students in Young Storytellers are selected by teachers who look for kids who could most benefit from the experience. That doesn’t mean the brightest or most articulate or boisterous. In every group, there are some who are painfully shy, some who have a hard time focusing or listening. Sometimes it takes three weeks before the student comes up with the initial idea for their story — but it always comes.
At the end of the course, Young Storytellers recruits a group of actors to stage each student’s screenplay, acting-class style with minimal preparation, at an evening event in the school’s auditorium presented for parents, grandparents, friends and fellow students as if it were a Hollywood premiere (with potluck desserts).
I have covered many a red carpet over the years, but never have I been more dazzled than by watching Young Storytellers kids take their much-deserved bows.
The Big Show
WHAT: YSF’s 10th anniversary
WHO: Celeb performers include Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Max Greenfield, Ed Helms, Rashida Jones and Mindy Kaling
WHEN: Oct. 12, 6 p.m.
WHERE: Moss Theater at New Roads School in Santa Monica
(Pictured: Comedian Jason Sklar, left, intros Young Storyteller student Alek Arechiga and his mentor, Jeff Carter, at the After Dark: Part Deux event earlier this year.)