Anyone showing up to a theater with a ticket is coming to hear a story be told. Anyone attending “Box of Stories” at The Growing Stage is going to see a play about storytelling. Yes, it’s kind of meta. But this new children’s show, making its world premiere in Netcong through February 19, is all about the importance of the art of storytelling, the practice that defines theater and the impact it has on society.
Written by J. S. Puller – aka Jessica Puller, 32, who hails from Highland Park, Illinois – “Box of Stories” weaves together mythology from across the globe. Trickster gods Coyote, Loki and Anansi (figures originating from Native American, Norse and African culture, respectively) hijack the art of storytelling from the human race and lock them away in a magical box. The story’s heroine is a young girl who releases the tales back into the world, learning their lessons and morals that shape humanity.
“Playwrights really love to tackle mythology,” Puller says. “This story really combines all of it. I have stories from Vietnam, India, the Middle East, Greece – of course, Africa and Native American cultures. I bring it all together to create this universal experience.”
Puller’s penchant for the art and history behind storytelling stems from her masters studies in elementary education at Northwestern University. “I did a research project focusing on the impact that storytelling has on students’ ability to listen. The students in my group paid more attention and were more engaged and interested when I sat down and told them a story, rather than if I drilled vocab words.”
Her experience inspired her to pursue the subject in a greater way. “I knew I wanted to revisit storytelling because it was so important to me. I decided I wanted to do a play about storytelling. It evolved into me researching mythology, finding stories and putting them together like a jigsaw puzzle.”
Young audiences that see “Box of Stories” will be introduced to a wealth of the world’s mythological history in one sitting. Puller sees that exposure as essential.
“Empathy is the first word that comes to mind when I think of the importance of this play,” she says. “The show conveys this understanding that children in all cultures enjoy the same things.”
“Box of Stories” is presented as a story within a story. Two sisters, Jenna, who is college aged, and Imra, a middle school student, are reconnecting when the older sibling tells the story of the three gods stealing the world’s tales. Puller originally wrote the characters as Scheherazade (from the Middle Eastern and South Asian story collection, “One Thousand and One Nights”) and her sister. When it was decided that the story would be more relatable as told through modern-day girls, Puller made a poignant decision.
“It was really important to me to make them Muslim girls,” says Puller. “I didn’t write Muslim characters; I wrote sisters. These are human beings that interact the same way that any other people will. But it also pays homage to Scheherazade and the origins of storytelling.”
Cara Ganski, who plays the older sister, Jenna, is a fan of Puller’s creative direction. “It’s great; especially in our political environment today,” she says. It’s a race that isn’t really represented a lot in American theater. I think it’s beautiful that she decided to go in that direction.”
Ganski believes the characters will not only be an inspiration because of their diversity, but also because of their gender.
“There are so many strong female characters in this play,” says Ganski. “There are a lot of lines about the heroine, who is a young girl, just being a girl, like that’s a bad thing. As if that is somewhat smaller or a diminishing quality.”
Referring to the main character’s ultimate triumph, she says, “It really gives strength to not only women, but small women.”
Ganski, who also teaches theater, playwriting and dance to students from kindergarten through high school, knows firsthand why “Box of Stories” is a valuable experience for kids.
“When I see these kids on their cell phones – they have no verbal communication skills,” she says. “I really enjoy this facet of the show. Instead of being totally detached from other people by being in your own world on these tablets, the play is about getting back to our roots as human beings and telling our stories, having that human interaction. That’s something I feel we’re losing today.”
The goal of “Box of Stories” is not only to emphasize the importance of storytelling to young audiences, but to highlight our similarities.
“There was a wonderful notion I read during my research that said storytelling is our native language,” says Puller. “Every single culture I’ve ever studied has some form of storytelling that is central to life. The idea that we are all the same is a really important and powerful message, especially during this time.”
The world premiere of J.S. Puller’s “The Box of Stories” runs now through February 19 at The Growing Stage – The Children’s Theatre of New Jersey in Netcong. For tickets, directions and more information, visit www.growingstage.com.