Six short plays were strong enough to lure Seth Rogen, Jordan Peele and Tony Hale to join the cast of a one-night production in downtown L.A. — not bad for playwrights who haven't turned 13.
For "The Biggest Show" on Thursday at L.A. Live, the scripts have been written by fifth-graders, and the performers include Thomas Middleditch, Nasim Pedrad, Charlie Day, John Cho, Max Greenfield and Busy Phillips. The fundraiser was organized by Young Storytellers, a nonprofit that partners with the Los Angeles Unified School District to provide mentorship in creative storytelling.
"Truthfully," Rogen said in explaining why he's taking part, "I thought if I was one of these kids — which I kind of was in some ways — then it would just have been one of the most exciting opportunities that I could have."
Early in his career, Rogen said, older stand-up comics and people he met when he first started in television at age 16 provided the motivation he needed to stay in the business.
"One of the main things that made me want to do it was to encourage these kids to continue to do this stuff," Rogen said of "The Biggest Show." "I was not the type of person that would persevere through discouragement at that age."
Hale, an Emmy winner for his role in "Veep," credited the Young Actors Theatre in Tallahassee, Fla., where he spent his adolescence, for giving him license to express himself artistically in what he called a sports-fueled culture.
"Even if I didn't make a career out of it, I needed that creative environment to learn," Hale said, "and to find out my personality and have the space to act crazy and not be judged for it."
Young Storytellers began in 1997 when Mikkel Bondesen, an American Film Institute student, read about budget cuts to LAUSD arts programs. Bondesen, now a TV producer ("The Killing") and talent agent, had been through a life-changing mentoring program as a child in Denmark, and he rallied AFI peers to mentor schoolkids in the one subject they felt qualified: storytelling.
What began as an informal program in one elementary school in Culver City grew to several schools. Since incorporating as a nonprofit, the organization now serves 1,200 kids in 60 schools every year. It has a full-time staff of seven and a volunteer pool of 2,500 mentors.
"It's a high-quality experience for the volunteers," said executive director Bill Thompson, who dabbled as a mentor when he worked for Bondesen's production company. He loved it so much that he quit his job in 2006 to work for Young Storytellers. He became director in 2009.
"I think that we definitely get as much out of it as the kids do," he said. "We appreciate what we've lost as adults, and being able to get back to that very pure, unbridled creativity and imagination, it's a very valuable thing when you're in your 20s and 30s and 40s, and you work in this business, which tends to be a little more commerce than art."
The organization has expanded into middle and high schools, as well as college chapters. At its heart, though, is the Script to Stage program, where twice a year, 10 fifth-graders at participating LAUSD schools receive one-on-one mentorship aimed at unleashing their imagination and voice through story. At the end of the 10-week program, professional actors perform the students' scripts for their classmates. The playwrights get VIP treatment, complete with red carpet and seats of honor.
"We're working with a population that is traditionally underserved, usually an invisible, voiceless population," Thompson said. "The teachers are hand-selecting kids who are struggling to learn English, or are struggling to get up to grade level in reading and writing, or they're painfully shy — and then giving them this experience that takes them from the back of the classroom and literally makes them the star of their class."
For "The Biggest Show," the annual fundraiser launched in 2007, six scripts were selected from 900. Xiomara Diaz, 11, who was mentored at Melrose Avenue Elementary School last year, got one of the green lights.
"It was about this princess named Jane who wanted to cross the gates to go and see what ordinary was like, because she got tired of being treated royal all the time," Xiomara said. "She makes friends on the way, but there's this evil unicorn that tries to stop them from getting to their destination. And in the end, they become friends. It's just about, pretty much, friendship and teamwork."
Xiomara said she was picked on in first grade, and since then hadn't felt safe expressing herself.
"And then Young Storytellers came over, and they let me write how I felt," she said. "And it made me realize that I had a voice to speak of my own, and that I shouldn't be afraid, and that I could just express myself in any way that I want to."
'The Biggest Show'
Where: The Novo by Microsoft at L.A. Live, 800 W. Olympic Blvd., Los Angeles
When: 8 p.m. Thursday
Tickets: $25 (standing room only)
Info: (323) 962-4500 or www.youngstorytellers.com/biggestshow16
Follow The Times' arts team @culturemonster.