Collaborators on Connecticut-born musicals hope to put an end to bullying
By Carol Latter
Anyone can be the victim of bullying: young or old … rich or poor … people of any race or ethnicity … those with disabilities or without.
But for those in the LGBTQ+ community, bullying is almost a given. A huge number of LGBTQ adults report being bullied – either online or in person – as they were growing up, and many face continued discrimination today.
The picture continues to be dire for American teens. Bullying is rampant in schools, despite efforts to reduce it, and studies show that LGBTQ youth are more likely to be bullied and report suicidal thoughts as a result than their straight peers.
But the Connecticut-based co-creators of an anti-bullying play have been working to change all of that. They have written and produced an evocative musical – one that they hope will one day appear on Broadway and eventually be seen across the country. Emmy-nominated singer, songwriter and producer Jill Nesi and Spotlight Stage Company founder and director Christopher Zullo hope that the play, “Stand UP: The Musical” will change the culture of bullying that has persisted for decades – and give peace and resolution not only to young victims and their parents, but to bullies as well.
The pair first developed a condensed “showcase” version, suitable for younger audiences. The production, featuring young people from across the state who responded to local casting calls, toured middle schools across the state to rave reviews.
Nesi and Zullo planned to present the first public performance of the full-length musical, intended for adult and teenage audiences, on May 16 in North Haven. When COVID made that impossible, the play’s world premiere was moved to October.
But with COVID-related restrictions persisting, the state’s Commission on Women, Children, Seniors, Equity & Opportunity (CWCSEO) – a non-partisan arm of the Connecticut General Assembly and a supporter of this endeavor – approached Nesi and Zullo with a Plan B. The showcase version of the production would be videotaped, using the same cadre of young actors, and made available for free online.
The premiere of that video is now just weeks away. In early October, anyone – not just children and teenagers – will be able to “Zoom” their way to a front row seat to the showcase by visiting wp.cga.ct.gov/cwcseo.
Steven Hernández, Esq., executive director for the commission, says an updated practice guide developed in collaboration with Nesi’s “Stand Up and Speak Out” organization, Central Connecticut State University’s Center of Excellence in Social and Emotional Learning, and Social Eyes will also be available on the CWCSEO site in early October. He describes the guide – “Building Kindness and Empathy Online Activity Guide: A Virtual Enrichment Experience for Middle and High School Students” – as an important resource for teachers and home-schooling parents who want to discuss bullying with their students and children.
Hernández says teaching young people to build their social and emotional skills, and to treat one another kindly, is part of the commission’s ongoing efforts. “We’re expanding all the ways we can promote empathy and understanding,” he says. He and members of the commission have long been staunch supporters of Nesi and Zullo’s live productions, and they welcome the chance to continue that alliance.
Standing Up for What’s Right
In the play, a high school sophomore who is bullied by her classmates at school and on social media is visited by the ghost of a gay, African-American teen, in scenes reminiscent of Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.”
The ghost, who committed suicide after being bullied himself, urges her not to give up hope. He encourages her to stand up and speak out on behalf of herself and others, and to surround herself with allies who can help put an end to the bullying. In the process, she is also able to show compassion and kindness to the perpetrator, a young girl who has been bullied and mistreated by her own mother.
Both the showcase and the full-length musical are part of an anti-bullying initiative called Stand Up and Speak Out. The mission is to raise awareness about today’s global bullying epidemic “by building connection and empathy through the arts.”
The whole effort got its start a few years ago, after Nesi’s seventh-grade daughter revealed she was being bullied in school. Nesi – who had been writing and performing inspirational music for nonprofits and created a healthy lifestyle program for kids called the VITA 4 – not only intervened in that situation but wrote a song about it. She shared that song in a meeting with State Rep. Noreen Kokoruda (R-Madison), a panel of school superintendents, and Steven Hernández. “And from that song came 14 other songs,” she says.
Nesi got help on several of them from Guilford musician Nick Fradiani, Sr. The result was a musical called “Her Song,” which debuted at the Ivoryton Playhouse in May 2017, and was funded entirely by Nesi. “We had seven shows there. Four were school shows – there were probably over 1,000 kids – and then three public shows, which all sold out,” she recalls.
More than two years and several rewrites later, the production has morphed into the showcase that has been touring schools as well as the full-blown stage version – thanks in large part to Zullo, who was brought in last year as the musical’s director and ended up rewriting much of the show, with plenty of input from Nesi.
“It’s been an amazing collaboration,” says Zullo. “I never considered myself a writer.” The subject matter speaks to him. He is gay and was bullied in school as well.
He says the response to the shorter school-oriented showcase has been amazing – with everyone from students to parents to politicians loving every minute of it. He notes that audiences have been moved by the messages of compassion, empowerment, and hope in the productions, and the student actors – whether they’ve been bullied themselves or not – have gotten a fresh outlook on the topic.
Nesi couldn’t agree more. “For the people who have viewed this, or been part of this, I see a change. And that alone is just amazing,” she says.
“There’s one girl who tried out for the play and she was painfully shy – she could not even talk – so we gave her a main part in one of the songs where she is a dancer. Now when she comes to rehearsal, she’s a different kid. I’ve never seen anything like it. She used to wear her hair back and her shoulders were hunched, and she would just hide in the corner. Now, she’s dancing and hair is down. She’s flying around. It’s worth it, just to see that. Her mom came up to me after one of the public shows that we did and she said, ‘Thank you for doing this. It’s changed her life.’ And a lot of people have said that.”
Spreading the Message
Nesi says the central message of the play is clear, even to younger audience members. Rather than hide from bullies, fight back, or withdraw, “we want kids to stand up and speak out for themselves, and stand up and speak out for one another, as well. Because kids experience, and witness, bullying all the time, and they don’t say anything because they’re afraid.”
She says because the school showcase involves high schoolers performing for younger students, “the younger kids see ‘themselves’ on the stage, and they’re learning through music and the arts about kindness and compassion and empathy without even realizing it.”
Zullo says they also want to illuminate this potentially devastating issue for parents and teachers. “For some reason, bullied kids often don’t think that they can tell anyone what’s going on,” he explains. “We want to hold up a mirror and say, ‘This could be happening right under your nose.’”
Since the anti-bullying plays began, Nesi and her group have performed songs from the shows at the state Capitol – and even for the United Nations, last March. “It’s really been an amazing experience for the kids and for me,” she says. Now comes the challenge to find funding to keep the effort going, and to expand it geographically. Nesi, Zullo, and the rest of their team are seeking partners, sponsors, grants and fund-raising opportunities to keep the dream alive.
The ultimate goal, post-COVID, is to license the musicals to school dramatic directors and PTAs as well as community theaters, so that the productions can be performed using local talent. “That’s impactful because it’s life-changing for the kids in the play, as well as for the kids who see it,” Nesi says.
When kids are bullied, she explains, “they feel belittled by other kids and it affects their self-esteem for the rest of their lives.”
For some, the impact is even more severe. “Bullying is causing some kids to end their lives,” Nesi says. “They need to see that if you stand up for yourself and other people stand up for you, and you open up to adults and we speak about it – you can see what your life can become rather than, ‘Oh my God, this is the worst thing that’s ever happened to me. I don’t want to be here anymore.’ And that’s what the play tagline that Chris Zullo created is about: No one is too broken to be fixed.”
As convener of a statewide collaborative on social and emotional learning (SEL) and school culture, Hernandez advises folks to keep a lookout for more resources on the topic of social and emotional skills building from the commission. “It’s a critical topic,” he says. “Especially now.”