The final bell rings as classrooms turn into a whirlwind of departure. Bags are packed with worksheets and math problems and crayons and juice boxes. Eager legs scurry to the playground, their parents’ arms, soccer practice. But for 15 students at Culverdale Elementary School, school ending means it’s time for rehearsal.
One by one, the young thespians — ranging from third to sixth grade — entered the Performing Arts Center in preparation for their performance of “Our Stories.” Directed by third-year MFA directing candidate Travis Kendrick, “Our Stories” is a half-hour production created entirely from scratch by Kendrick and the students. Kendrick began this project as part of an MFA assignment, in which he was prompted to “go out into the community and make theatre,” as Jane Page, Head of Directing at UCI, put it.
Rehearsal is a frenzy of developing personalities struggling to find the balance between self-expression and self-discipline. Some kids ask Kendrick — “Mr. Travis” — if he needs any help setting up. Some kids eat snacks and talk about their days while others scroll iPhones.
Away from the crowd, third graders Sophia Jones and Analecia Tetiva decide to share their stories with me, or, in Analecia’s words, to “do the thing where you ask me questions and I answer.”
Tiny and precocious, Sophia and Analecia love what typical third graders love: Taylor Swift, basketball, art and music, Cupcake Wars. The youngest in “Our Stories,” these two have the most to prove.
“I signed up because I’m a fan of singing and acting. I like to see people happy when they see me dance and act and sing,” Sophia says while waiting for everyone else to arrive, seeing as she’s the first one to make it to the auditorium.
For Analecia, “Our Stories” is her chance “to be noticed and share my music, sing and perform.”
The actual “Our Stories” performance consists of a series of theatrical vignettes, all written collaboratively between the cast and Kendrick, each with their own message involving self-discovery and acceptance. On the walls of Studio 5 in Claire Trevor hang several bodies traced on brown butcher paper, each filled in to represent one of the actors. Mats provide squishy seating for jittery little kids while parents proudly sit in chairs that provide perfect photo ops throughout the show.
First, the actors take turns introducing themselves, explaining what “Our Stories” means to them; next is a superhero sketch, showing how enemies can become friends; a sketch about four sisters teaches the audience that “who you are is what you are and that is very special.” We learn what they wanted to be when they grew up — a doctor, a Broadway actress, a marine biologist — and the sometimes-heartbreaking but always personal definitions of home. Towards the end of the show, Sophia takes the stage for an uplifting solo acapella performance of the song “Opportunity,” featuring the rest of the cast doing a synchronized flashlight routine.
But the mood in “Our Stories” isn’t always happy and optimistic, because, hey, even kids know life can be rough sometimes. “The Gossip Train” sketch shows the harm words can have on others — even though Landon Jones reassures us, “I know you’re all adults and wouldn’t do that,” causing resounding laughter from the audience and a flush of pride on Landon’s cheeks. “What Adults Say” takes puppetry to a rather upsetting level, as the actors each go up and use sock puppets to represent the unfair things that adults say. In these kids’ eyes, adults serve as never-ending commanders of behavior: “Go clean your room.” “Get off your phone.” “Do your homework.” They are left with no agency, only able to use the stage as a place for solace and self-determination.
Yes, people spend their whole lives trying to figure out who they are and what they like and basically what to do with their lives. When you’re ten, everything feels heavier and lighter; there is still so much that you don’t know, but you understand that you have years and years to figure it all out. For us, however, that “figuring it out” period is almost at an end, and our twenties become the decade of making huge mistakes in an attempt to be responsible, put-together adults.
“Our Stories” offers a special demographic of young people a voice and the chance to document their self-fulfillment. It’s the ideas they share during this production that will eventually help shape who they grow up to be, and they now have the power to tell people what those ideas are.
For Sophia, that power is bleeding off stage too; after sitting through many questions about her cupcake recipes, she is fed up and ready to return to her friends.
Boldly, she asks, “Are we done with the questions now?”