By Lars Trodson
---- — The fact that the new musical “The UPSIDE of Being DOWN” even exists means that the show’s creator believes in the truth of its title. Everybody has flaws and difficult experiences. It’s what one does with them that makes people unique.
Miles Burns, a 26-year-old Southern New Hampshire resident and former University of New Hampshire student, wrote the music, lyrics and book to “The UPSIDE of Being DOWN,” a show for all ages that will be staged at The Player’s Ring, a unique theater in the heart of historic downtown Portsmouth, N.H.
The show grew out of the playwright’s own life, from its premise to its creation and journey to the stage.
Burns was a counselor at Seacoast Repertory Theater’s PAPA Camp — a youth summer program in Portsmouth, when he witnessed and was awed by young peoples’ resilience. They can be pushed down and get right back up, he says.
He looked around and understood that very much like himself, everyone has a story that includes rough times and, quite often, the feeling of being an outcast. For young thespians, the latter can be especially true, he knew.
“Theater camp is a place where the kids can go every year and where they feel okay about being themselves,” Burns says. “That’s what’s beautiful about it. People can grow and learn how to communicate with each other.”
He recalls a time when a camper sat at the piano in front of others. “She messed up,” he says. She was embarrassed but came back the next day and played the piece perfectly.
“I was thinking of that,” he explains of his inspiration. “Little moments of discovery.” So he wrote a single tune, “The Friendship Song.” Then more songs began coming, each based on something he witnessed at camp.
At first they were just little ditties, but then he began to understand their relatedness and that they could coalesce into something larger.
“I didn’t realize at first that it could be a show,” says Burns, whose burly stature and head of red hair speak right along with him. “I never write for something specifically, because I think it sounds forced.”
And yet, “Birds of a Feather Flock Together,” “I’ll Keep You Company,” and more and more songs begged to tell a story.
“I’ve been writing catchy little pop tunes since I was a teenager,” Burns says.
This was different.
“I had never written the book to anything before,” Burns explains, referring to the portion of the play that is spoken, not sung. “So my friend Kimberly Burke took the songs and kind of made a rough sketch for how they could go together.”
When the play was finished, Seacoast Repertory Theatre scheduled a run. That’s where “The UPSIDE of being DOWN” premiered in its original form last spring. At first, hearing people perform his words and songs was unnerving. “This was my life story,” he says. “For someone to read what you’ve written was the hardest thing.” Now he laughs at what he also was so concerned about. “I didn’t want to hear anything bad,” he says.
His anxiety was for naught. The show received critical acclaim from local press during its initial run. And yet, he it needed some work. “The characters needed more of an arc,” he says. And the dialogue among the campers wasn’t as realistic as he wanted. So he added new songs and rewrote some dialogue and the show was picked up at the Player’s Ring. Through the show, audiences will be introduced to the adventures of 11 campers and two counselors during a single day at theater camp. Burns plays one of the counselors. Youth leads are Morgan Blanchard as Benji, a character who struggles with Asperger’s syndrome, and his friend, Ellie, a diabetic played by Zoe Sprankle.
Burns’ songs are a lens into the vulnerabilities of the characters; a means to reveal what they are thinking and experiencing.
Each of the kids has his or her own idiosyncrasy. And these idiosyncrasies are what makes them unique. Benji is based on a real person. He hides during the day and becomes overly excited around a lot of noise.
“He would go hide under a table,” Burns recalls. “He’s always hiding, but he’s finding that he doesn’t have to do that any more.”
Campers look on curiously as Ellie, also based on a real person, gives herself insulin during the day. She, too, feels like an outsider. Benji and Ellie form a friendship. She learns that he wants to be an astronaut, and he that she aspires to be an actress.
“I don’t want to be in outer space without my star,” Benji tells Ellie.
“You’ll be in good company,” Ellie reassures him.
“The point of the show is that everyone is different. It’s about what people forget when they grow up,” Burns says. “I learn more from a kid at camp than I do from adults.”