Shawn Forster, Writer, Director, and Composer of Weird! The Musical, On Tackling Bullying Through Musical Theater And Writing For An Audience Of All Ages
By: Christie Donato
Based on the children’s book series of the same name, Weird! The Musical has its first public performance this weekend - January 19th and 20th - at the Oncenter Carrier Theater after touring to local schools this Fall. Weird! is a wholly Syracuse-based production, from the book series, which was written and illustrated by two Syracuse University alumni, to the new musical produced by Peaceful Schools. The musical tackles bullying in schools with an eye for showing children the emotional and social tools they need to stand up for one another in what can often be a tough situation. The show is set to continue touring this Spring, performing at schools all throughout the Central New York region.
According to the Stop Bullying Now Foundation’s website, New York is one of the worst states for children in grades K-12 for bullying in schools. Nationwide, 77% of students experience bullying on the playground, with instances of cyber bullying quickly reaching the same numbers. The effects of bullying on kids can result in withdrawal, anxiety, depression, and - in severe cases - suicide. To say this is an important theme is an understatement. Especially considering today’s climate of social and political unrest, when even those in our government resort to name-calling and bullying, themes of empathy and empowerment are sure to feel just as relevant to the adults in the audience, as well as the children. Perhaps now, more than ever, we need stories like Weird! to show us that there’s a better way forward. One that emphasizes compassion and fellowship over cold calculation and opposition.
I sat down with Shawn Forster, director, writer and composer of Weird! The Musical, to discuss the process of turning a series of children’s books into a musical, his take on writing music for kids, and theatre’s ability to teach social-emotional wellness through stories that engage and inform.
I’m wondering what the process was like adapting a series of books into a musical format. It seems hard.
With Peaceful Schools we find some really great books that deal with social-emotional learning, and so we came across this “Weird!” series of books - three books - that deal with bullying, and what’s really cool about the books is that they’re three books with three strong female characters. Weird! Is about Luisa who is being bullied. Tough! is about Sam who is doing the bullying behavior and Dare! is about Jayla who was bullied by Sam last year, and now she’s kind of Sam’s right-hand girl, and she’s being dared to make fun of her friend Luisa, which I think a lot of kids find themselves in the middle. Knowing how it feels to be bullied, but also being afraid, so trying to go along with what the person who is doing the bullying behavior is doing. So what’s cool is that with the book series, if you follow along page-by-page it follows the same timeline, it’s just through the different perspectives, so what was awesome was being able to take the three separate books, put them into the same timeline. I think it has enhanced the series to a whole new level, to be able to see it all in the same timeline.
You have co-writers. What was your process like co-writing?
Yes. The musical was written by myself, Dani Ryan, and Dave Reckess. What we did was try to take all the things we love about all three books...Well, there’s actually four books in the series. When we got the rights to the series they threw in a fourth book that hadn’t been published yet. They were like, ‘Do you want the rights to this book too?’ and we were like, ‘Sure….’ They said why don’t we send you a perusal copy. It hasn’t been printed yet. I got that book, which is called Nobody and I flipped to the second page of the book, and I saw that on the character’s nightstand was drawn an SU hat, and I was like, “What is this all about?” I dug a little deeper into the author and the illustrator’s bios and found out that they are grads from SU.
So you didn’t know that before?
No! I know! We just fell in love with the books. I emailed the author and said, “Hey, can we turn your books into a musical?” She was like, “Well, I was a theater student. I’ve always dreamed about seeing my characters on stage. Go for it.” Gave us the publisher, so the process first started with just drafting up a contract between Free Spirit [Publishing] and Peaceful Schools. But then once I saw the SU hat and got to know the authors more, they became best friends at SU and had the idea for the series…
So it’s all come full circle?
All so full circle. So our process - to answer your question, as I went on a little tangent - was interesting because our timeline was we had three years in our contract. So we had three years, and in that three years we had to workshop and be ready to publish in 2019. Well the writers are also the Vice Presidents of this company and so we weren’t just writing a musical, we were running a company. We have 80 employees. Making sure that all of our other programming is happening and supported and is of quality. Whenever we could we’d have a Friday here and there to work on Weird! What we would do is we started with storyboarding. Taking the things we loved from the book and trying to figure out the chronological order of how we want everything to go. And when we had those times just starting to flesh out the script. The script and all the lyrics were done first, and then I detached from the team, sat at the keyboard and started to write most of the music. So that’s kind of how our writing process went.
Was it that you would take a scene and then someone else would take a scene or was it more collaborative?
No we were very collaborative. We really took a lot of time talking through the story, but also putting a lot of our company into the show. We’ve been teaching in the classrooms for over 20 years. We also wanted to take some of our Peaceful Schools goodness and infuse it into the show. It really was collaborative until it was time to write the music. That was where I detached and started to come up with melodies and music.
So you’re also the director, right?
Yes, I’m the director of the show… I’m also in the show.
So you’re doing the whole thing?
Is there anything that was challenging about turning it into a musical, or do you think it was a perfect fit?
I think it was a perfect fit for Peaceful Schools. Like I said, just already the knowledge that we had regarding bullying. We’ve been teaching it in the classroom for 20 years. The books are so well-written and the characters are so well-developed and the story is so relatable to kids that most of the goodness of the musical was right there. I found it much easier to already have a road map, so I think adapting a musical was a lot easier than trying to just come up with a musical from the ground floor up.
You talked a bit about this, but the process began when you read the books. How did you come across them?
Every once in a while we try to refresh our library with new material, so we’ll go through Amazon and search some of our social themes. I’m not exactly sure how the company found these books, but we started using them in the classroom. Then after touring Have You Filled A Bucket Today? The Play, for six years we knew that we needed a new project and we knew that we wanted to write a project ourselves. We collected some of our favorite books and Weird! Series was in the top five. When we reached out to the authors [Erin Frankel and Paula Heaphy] and they seemed willing to work with us on it, because you know you’re getting a Facebook message like, “Hey can we own your books now and turn them into a theater production?” and they were just so wonderful about that. They were the first ones to jump in and say, “Yeah, let’s do this.” Like you said before it was just the perfect fusion of companies.
It seems like it. Like your mission statement is super parallel to what the book is talking about.
Exactly. Free Spirit Publishing, who owns the publishing of the books, they only release books with social-emotional learning attached. So really Peaceful Schools and Free Spirit could be one company. It’s awesome.
What’s different about writing for this audience, specifically for kids? I assume you go into it with a really different mindset than writing for a typical audience.
That is an awesome question. I’m so glad you asked that because I have a different philosophy. I have directed a lot of children’s shows. So part of my career working in children’s theatre I would direct shows that I didn’t choose, and I couldn’t stand the music, and the kids didn’t really love the music either. As a kid, I’ve been interested in musical theater since, I’d say, [I was] 6- or 7-years-old, and my mom would always buy me cast recordings, so I was never talked down to as a kid when it came to music. When we started writing this show we made a conscious effort to have our music not talk down to kids. So to really write some good musical theater tunes. I felt like if we really told the story and really developed these characters in a powerful way - and music is already empathy - we could teach bullying through empathy, through really feeling through these characters. So we didn’t dumb down music. We didn’t think about it as we’re writing for children, we just concentrated on the story and tried to write from the characters’ hearts, and what came out is music that appeals to kids - we’re seeing that, they’re loving it - but also is appealing to the teachers, and so I hope that we didn’t just write a children’s musical that we wrote a musical that will appeal to all age groups.
I think adults still deal with this kind of stuff anyways…
This theme seems really fitting for today. Is this one of the reasons you chose it, and how do you hope that it affects the whole audience?
As we know, bullying is a huge issue in schools. We’ve been seeing what that does to a school community, and what that does to students. We’ve been in the classroom teaching, but there’s something about theatre, and there’s something about seeing characters going through what you’re going through that can teach in a whole different, powerful medium. Some people are mentioning even politically-
Yeah, I was thinking about that too…
We wanted to ask the authors is they wrote it that way, as well, or is it just the landscape of where we’re at right now that it’s resonating a little bit…
With the adult audience….
Right, there’s a song called “Enough is Enough” that is resonating with people, and they’re saying, “This is like a political anthem!” It wasn’t written that way, but I think because of where we are with bullying, with social media… You know, the older generation can have this idea of bullying that it builds character, but that old, traditional idea of bullying on the playground is different than what bullying looks like today. With social media and how messaging can be so instantaneous. For example, if you and I wanted to exclude one of our classmates, back when I was in school in the 80’s, we’d have to do a lot of leg work. We’d have to make a lot of phone calls. We’d have to tell people, “You know, when Kelsie comes in tomorrow don’t talk to her.” Now, I can send a text message to a group and in 30 seconds everyone has the message and is excluding somebody. So bullying has evolved. It’s so different. We talk a little about that in the show. We have a character “Coach” who has some of the ideas of the old school bullying, like “it builds character”, “man-up”, you know? What we’re trying to show is that bullying looks and feels a lot different for kids today. So anything we can do to empower them to be upstanders, to stand up for each other, is definitely what our mission is with the musical.
They’re all female characters, was that a conscious decision?
The leads are female and that comes from the books. They wrote three strong female characters, so we didn’t want to change that. We’re really proud of that. To have a musical with three female leads is awesome. There are boys in the show. All the characters in the show have a really strong story arch where they change through this experience.
So who is Weird! for? It’s for schools, but also for this public performance who are you hoping shows up?
I think Weird! is for anyone who has ever felt different. Anyone who has ever had somebody try to take away their power. We call it their “S.T.A.R. Power”. Anyone who has felt different, but has lost what makes them sparkle because other people have put them down because of the thing that makes them different. I think that everyone can see themselves in one of the characters in Weird! Whether you’re someone, as a kid, who tried bullying behavior for a little while, you’ll relate to a character in the show. If you’ve ever been in the middle, you’ll relate, and if you’re someone who has been made fun of you’ll also see yourself in the musical. And it’s fun! The thing is when you hear “bullying” it can be a heavy issue, but what I think is great about the musical is that it’s still upbeat, and it has colorful costumes and sets, and there’s rapping and flossing. They’re kids in school today, so there’s a fun element to it as well, so that we can explore a pretty heavy theme.
There’s a performance this weekend, but schools can contact you for performances. How can people get in touch with you?
We’re still booking for the show, so if schools are interested in bringing Weird! To their school for performances they can contact me at email@example.com.
The Weird! Series was written by Erin Frankel, illustrated by Paula Heaphy and published by Free Spirit Publishing. The series was adapted into a musical by Peaceful Schools Productions. The script and lyrics were written by Shawn Forster, David Reckess and Dani Ryan, with music by Shawn Forster and Dani Ryan, as well as orchestrations and vocal arrangements by Roy George.