Young Storytellers Is the Ryan Murphy-Backed Organization Helping Kids Create Screenplays

The other day I shared how Beauty and the Beast reconnected me to my all-time favorite volunteer experience, Young Storytellers.

After revisiting the time in my life when I spent an hour a week for 2.5 months helping a young child bring her very own screenplay to life, I decided to take things a step further and reach out to the organization to get some inside scoop on just how everything at this life-changing place came to be.
cute student writes in her notebook

(via Shutterstock)

I was in for a surprise when I learned that two of TV's biggest innovators are behind this program.

Keep reading for everything you need to know about YST, straight from Jaylene Chung, the Development Manager of the organization. And as an added bonus, scroll to the very bottom to see clips put together by YST students based on Beauty and the Beast!

Sweety High: I know the program has been around for quite some time, but how did it initially come to be?

Jaylene Chung: We're mostly L.A.-based because a while back, some students at the American Film Institute (Glee co-creator Brad Falchuk, along with Mikkel Bondensen and Andrew Barrett) noticed that art funding all over the nation was going down, so they wanted to help supplement arts education in public schools—not to replace programs, but to supplement what was already happening, and also to use the skills that they were learning and what their friends were learning and pair that with students who would benefit from that. Those people started in just one school and they're still involved with Young Storytellers.

They started in one school just doing one program a year and now it branched out and it grew and now we're in 60 schools, mostly in L.A., but we do have a school in San Francisco and three in New York now … Ryan Murphy later got involved through Brad.


SH: How are the kids selected in these schools? 

JC: We work closely with the teachers of the classrooms wherever we work, so they're the ones who select students because they know the kids best and they know which ones will benefit the most from a one-on-one mentorship.

The way the program is set up, it's just so easy and fun and I loved getting to know my writer when I was a mentor, and she really had all the ideas and it was so amazing to see over the course of just ten weeks how much she could develop her ideas and it just came out so effortlessly. And of course I was biased, I was like, "My writer had a better story." But yeah, it was great to see the whole class develop over the course of the semester and I was so impressed. Every time I go to a big show I'm just so impressed with their creativity—it's awesome.

Student body government taking a vote

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SH: What do you think it is about the program in general that's been such a big success?

JC: I think it really is because of our amazing volunteers. That sounds super cheesy, but they're what makes our program unique and what makes it run. The attention they're able to give each kid is super important and it humanizes everyone. And I think the volunteers understand that, too, and it kind of creates a sense of family.

I've worked with other non-profits before, but especially among Young Storytellers volunteers, when you see volunteers meet each other, even if they've never met each other before, they're like, 'Wow this is so cool!' We've gone through the same process, we understand the magic that happens and it's kind of like this bonding experience.

Couple of volunteers

(via Shutterstock)


SH: And you guys have had some pretty reputable names do the acting in a lot of circumstances. Can you name some of the people? 

JC: So that would be for our biggest show, which is our main fundraiser when we select some of our best scripts from the year and then we invite bigger actors to come and act them out. So last year we had Seth Rogen, Jordan Peele from Key & Peele, John Cho has done it a couple times, Max Greenfield from New Girl has done it I think more than a few times now, and then Jack Black, Nasim Pedrad from SNL, Thomas Middleditch from Silicon Valley—oh, and then last year we were really happy to have Yvonne Orji and Natasha Rothwell, who were on Insecure.


SH: So, with Beauty and the Beast, how did that huge production come together? Before I actually attended, I didn't realize Disney was directly involved so that's pretty huge. Tell me about that.

JC: One of our board members has a connection with Tongal, the production company, and they kind of had this idea that they would produce short films based on our kid's scripts and our board member is well-aware of our relationship with Disney—they're one of our biggest sponsors—and one of our other board members is also an executive at Disney and so they kind of got us connected with the right team and they pitched this idea to them and they loved it. It's great, it's touching, and it's great press for them, too, and it just evolved organically.


SH: So how do you think it went?

JC: I loved it. I hadn't seen the films before and I was so impressed. I actually helped mentor one of the kids.

Her mentor who she'd had in 5th grade had to leave and so I stepped in and subbed a little bit. So that was really crazy, so it was like, wow, we wrote this story in less than two hours. And I actually had to cut her story down because it was like nine pages long. It was so cool and these kids, I say it all the time, but they're so creative, so impressive, and I think the Disney team was super impressed, they loved it. I think it's possible we do more in the future, I'm not sure yet.


SH: How did the kids get selected for that?

JC: We picked kids who we knew had done at least a couple things with us. So in addition to our Script to Stage program, we did a summer camp and maybe their script had been selected for the biggest show. Usually that means they have a really good grasp on story structure. Because we knew it was going to be such a time crunch, we wanted kids who we knew could handle the stress of that.

I know that Acacia, the one who wrote—I think it was the kitchen one where Mrs. Potts wants to go play with Chip and they like leave the castle and do some spells. She did this really great movie last summer and she was really creative. She had this talking frog and made it kind of like a puppet interacting with her main character. It was really cool. And we wanted kids who would be kind of comfortable, a little more comfortable, talking on stage and to press. I mean some of them are still obviously pretty shy, but you know that's kind of like the kids who are in our program.


SH: Is there anything else you want to add, either about that or the program in general?

JC: I think one thing that I would like everyone to know is that it does go beyond 5th grade. So we have our Script to Stage program and that's the one that everyone usually knows. But then we have a Movie Makers program for middle school and a POV Program for high school, and so they take the basics of storytelling but they learn how to make films. So in middle school they're using an iPad but they learn basics with editing and they cut a trailer and then in high school they start using DSLRs.

What's cool about those programs is that we have something called the Big Pitch. They pitch their ideas to executives, we bring people in from like Disney or HBO and they pitch their idea to those people and then they field questions from them, which is like, wow, I don't even know if I could do that when I was in college.


If you're itching to volunteer after reading this post, click HERE to read about positive experiences our editorial team has had lending their time for a good cause!