Everybody loves this teacher's plays

Since 2010, some of the freshest local theater has taken place at Highland Community School, a Montessori charter for elementary and middle school students near Marquette University’s campus. The works are the brainchild of the school’s performing arts director, Barry Weber. Blending parody and social commentary, the productions have even caught the attention of storytelling luminaries David Lynch and Jack White, who have both sent acknowledgments to Weber after learning his plays riff on their works. “When people come to see our plays, no one is on their phone,” Weber says. “People are involved, and we are a community again.”

Weber, 35, is lanky, with a youthful countenance, and his biography could easily be plundered as exposition for a Broadway show. The son of a local police chief, he studied radio and performing arts at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh in the early 2000s. But a career in radio held little appeal, so he drifted around the country, eventually landing at a music fest in rural New York. It was there he met folk icon Pete Seeger. “They introduced me to him as Barry from Milwaukee. [Seeger] said, ‘Oh, from Milwaukee. So you know about such-and-such labor strike in 1941. I went and played a rally there.” Seeger suggested teaching would help Weber find his purpose. “He said, ‘That’s what I did after [Senator Joseph] McCarthy blacklisted me. Go to the summer camps. Go to schools and sing those fun songs like “Jimmy Crack Corn,” but then slip in “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” and teach them about the history of America and struggle, and people working together to accomplish great things.'”

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Weber landed at Highland Community School in 2007. Taking Seeger’s advice, he wrote stories that combine art forms he finds engaging with issues relevant to his students. The earliest plays were born out of necessity; there was no money to pay royalties on copyrighted works. His latest, The Bully, The Liar & The Thief, examined how labels applied by others can lead to self-fulfilling prophecies. The play led to a citation of commendation from State Rep. Evan Goyke (D-Milwaukee).

“I get invited to a lot of stuff as an elected official and you never know what you’re getting into,” Goyke says. “I left examining my own use of language… and reflecting on how I have been labeled.” The children, too, seem to appreciate Weber’s efforts. He makes sure that there’s room for everyone who’s interested, and in recent years, the size of the cast and crew has swelled to around 50 students per production. He also takes pains to write scenes for as many actors as possible, so no child is forced into the background.

“Everyone gets acknowledgment,” says Natalie Reinhold, whose son, Hamilton, acted in one play and ran stage crew for two others. “The kids all see the support and encouragement from Mr. Barry. Everyone in the school gets excited.” ◆

Greatest Hits

The Bully, The Liar & The Thief. Photo by Little Giant Photography

Penguin Attack (2010)
Staged during the zombie craze, the post-apocalyptic horror hit drew inspiration from shock-rock legends GWAR.

ZERO (2014)
An Orwellian take of repressive politics and oppressive societies done in cyberpunk motifs, this story is set in a dystopian world ruled by a math-hating president. 

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Judy Plays With Fire (2015)
A surreal detective drama that pays homage to one of America’s most enigmatic directors, David Lynch. Weber’s kids gleefully reveled in recreating the trippy antics of “Twin Peaks.”

The Bully, The Liar & The Thief (2016)
Equal parts country and Camus, this introspective New Age/Old Western examines the nature of the individual and the meaning of identity. Its allusions to old blues musicians are a history lesson for most adults, let alone children.

Go See It

Quest for the Sacred Orb (Feb. 28-March 2)
At press time, all Weber says is that he’s bowling to students’ demands for swords, a magic fantasy story, and “a heavy dose of audience participation.”

‘School Drama King’ appears in the February 2017 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

Find it on newsstands beginning January 30, or buy a copy at milwaukeemag.com/shop.

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