Back in the Before Times, when students went to school in person and live theater was a thing, five Albany students decided to take character backstories to a new level.
It was late 2018 and Grace Foultner, Lilly Johnson, Noel Mayer, Ella Winter and Anika Ylen were seventh-graders; friends who called themselves the Banana Band. All had roles in a Memorial Middle School student production of “Alice in Wonderland” — along with more than two dozen of their classmates.
With 33 people in the cast, the Banana Band had time to kill backstage. Ella remembers getting bored.
“We wanted to give some life to our characters, so we made stories about them,” she said. “Then we wanted to make our own characters, so we came up with descendants of the characters we were playing.”
“I drew a picture,” Noel remembered. “And then we had a slide show. And we just wrote from there.”
When the play’s run ended, none of the group wanted to give up the new characters they had become. So they just kept working together to refine the story they had built around them.
The idea might eventually have fizzled out — it’s hard to keep five busy teens together on one subject, especially when a new school year begins — but in the spring of their eighth-grade year, “Topsy Turvy: The Wonderlanders Story” got an unexpected boost when the worldwide pandemic shut down all activities and sent everybody home.
“We actually had the time and sat down and did it,” Noel said.
“It,” in this case was a collaborative story produced by all five friends, which became its own play, which is now becoming a novel. The hope is to finish the book by this summer and then look for a publisher, just before the five begin their sophomore year in high school.
In “Topsy Turvy: The Wonderlanders Story,” the Wonderland that Alice visited originally continues developing without her, with its own characters and plot lines and intrigue. The main movers and shakers are descendants of the characters the Banana Band played — the caterpillar, Tweedledee, the March Hare, the Dodo Bird — but they have their own motives and storylines to follow that have nothing to do with whether a little girl named Alice once visited them.
Alice does get back in the picture, however, through her own offspring, a girl named Alex. Though she’s not the main character, she’s the catalyst for some of the action and becomes the conduit for the reader between Wonderland and the mundane world.
The friends took turns writing chapters from the perspectives of their various characters, working mostly by using Google Docs and Zoom. When they had the story finished, they sent it to Julie Schuerger, who had directed “Alice” at Memorial.
Schuerger had hoped students would be back in the theater for fall 2020. When it became clear that wasn’t going to happen, she saw an opportunity to use "Topsy Turvy: The Wonderlanders Story" as a remote learning opportunity for her sixth-graders — specifically, a podcast.
The nine-episode podcast was first produced from October to December 2020 and is available through the website Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/show/6q9Se7pgZHYYE5oprMrMAI?si=GDahz5DHRtm9VlX0b7GN8A
Sixth-graders auditioned online and recorded their parts from week to week as each chapter was revised for its new medium. Because the Banana Band was rewriting on the fly, the students playing their characters learned about themselves and the story as the recording progressed.
“It was very genuine, their reactions to things,” Schuerger said.
It was interesting to hear, for the first time, someone else tell their story, the friends said. Not everyone liked the experience.
“For me, it was really disappointing. I was happy that other people were getting to use my work and enjoying it, because a lot of the people in the podcast told us how fun it was and how much they enjoyed it,” Grace said. “But it was too different.”
“Some of our characters were based off of us, and some of the people performing it were different than what we imagined,” Anika said. “But it was eye-opening to see what it could be; how they interpreted it. They made the story kind of in their own eyes. It showed there could be more to the characters than I was thinking before.”
The podcast cemented the idea among all five that they still had a story to tell, and that they wanted to do so with the kind of full description, plot development and character growth more suited to a novel than a play. Thus, the story is now in its third incarnation.
It’s been a learning experience. There’s plenty of disagreement, down to the occasional argument. Ideas have been tested, tried, discarded. Plotlines have changed. But the work continues.
Being unable to get together as a group has actually been helpful in some ways, because the only ways they were able to meet forced more effective communication and efficient use of time. Text messages and emails replaced some group discussions, for instance.
“It made me more to the point,” Lilly said. “I have to be more purposeful with stuff. It forced us to really plan stuff out.”
Completion of the podcast also inspired Memorial’s drama program, Schuerger said. Another full-scale student-written show is in the works, and some students are working on improv scenes.
“They have inspired the cast. I don’t even know — six? Maybe? — plays are being developed right now because they watched other girls their age writing,” she said. “They’ve really gone on to inspire a lot.”
The five acknowledge they each could have spent the yearlong shutdown doing something else — but they’re glad they didn’t.
“I think I continued because I loved this story. I wanted to be with the characters, and to continue to create them with (my friends),” Lilly said.
“I know I continued because the story itself made me happy,” Anika said. “Continuing to talk with my friends about it brought back memories of pre-COVID when I could be with everyone.”
“It was just too good to give away, and I think we were all addicted to our characters,” Ella said.
Added Grace: “Quite frankly, I think it’s some escapism all of us were grateful for.”