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South Eugene Theater Ends 'Be More Chill' Run In Nebraska

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John Nollendorfs
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International Thespian Festival

Among eleven main stage performances highlighted at the International Thespian Festival (ITF) in Lincoln, Nebraska last week was a sleeper musical hit performed by South Eugene High School actors.

Thespian Troupe 750 performed BE MORE CHILL twice last Friday, each time before roughly 2,200 peers at the Lied Center on the University of Nebraska-Lincoln campus.

It’s the first time South Eugene has been showcased at the event after being adjudicated by ITF judges several months back.

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Credit John Nollendorfs / International Thespian Festival
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International Thespian Festival
Jeremy (Quinn Hansen) is carried away by both the allure of the SQUIP and the ensemble.

“We got scored, evaluated on every aspect from costumes to acting to band to direction, scenic elements, all of that,” SEHS director Pat Avery tells KLCC.

“We had good scores.  We didn’t know if they’d be good enough or not.  But once we were chosen, nobody talked about scores.  It was just ‘You’re in, and we’re excited to see your shows.’”

The story focuses on Jeremy, a nerdy loner who acquires – then ingests - a Super Quantum Intel Processor (SQUIP).  The microcomputer embeds itself inside the host and through an interactive avatar, instructs them how to be cool and popular, i.e “more chill”.  But Jeremy soon realizes that the SQUIP has an agenda of its own.

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Credit John Nollendorfs / International Thespian Festival
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International Thespian Festival
Jeremy (center, left) and the SQUIP (Nathan Ward, center right) are surrounded by the ensemble at the ITF performance in Lincoln, Nebraska.

For SEHS senior Quinn Hansen, making Jeremy come alive on stage wasn’t difficult.

“Because I think all teens feel that way…everyone has times where they feel down, and you see Jeremy turn into this thing everyone idolizes.”

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Credit John Nollendorfs / International Thespian Festival
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International Thespian Festival
Popular kid and bully Rich (Jared Menegat, center) regales nerdy Jeremy (Quinn Hansen, standing) with the power and magic of the SQUIP.

The musical is based on a 2004 novel by Ned Vizzini. After a brief and low-key run in New Jersey, the show became a viral sensation two years later when fans began sharing the music online. In time, a Broadway version was announced (preceded by SEHS’ run, a rarity in show biz).

Senior Nathan Ward played the SQUIP in the SEHS production. He drew on comedic and improvisational theater influences to portray the erratic, zany, and manipulative being, which included comedians Robin Williams, John Mulaney, and Bo Burnham.

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Credit Brian Bull / KLCC
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KLCC
The cast and crew of South Eugene Theater's BE MORE CHILL production line up outside the Lied Center on the University of Nebraska-Lincoln campus.

“As a child I was always really bouncy, always been energetic,” says Ward. “Being able to manifest that into kinetic movement feels natural to me.”

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Credit Margaret Bull
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Nathan Ward plays the pivotal SQUIP, a microcomputer that instructs its host on how to become popular.

One key difference to performing at the Lied Center versus the South Eugene High School auditorium was the scale and responsiveness of the audience. 

The school venue topped out near 850 theatergoers and was an assortment of classmates, relatives, residents, and local theater boosters.

The Lied performances saw several thousand fellow teenage Thespians from across the continent, which prompted stronger and more frequent outbursts from the crowd.

“The energy should come from you, right?” says Ward, reflecting on the difference.  “But when you’re telling a joke, and a huge laugh comes, you get the feeling, ‘Oh! I’m doing it right!’

“This is really good, a support, like a pat on the back.  The (Lied Center) audience was amazing.  They were roaring, screaming, getting out of their seats…it made it all so much more fun.’”

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Credit Brian Bull / KLCC
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KLCC
South Eugene Theater actors and tech crew ready microphones before a performance at the Lied Center.

The first performance of BE MORE CHILL at ITF faced some technical hurdles, mostly with audio. But these were ironed out by the second –and final- show, which saw a deafening standing ovation and comparisons to the Broadway production.

Educator Kara Freeman says she was actually disappointed by the Broadway version, and was "dragged" to see Troupe 750's show.  The assistant director at Brenham High School in Brenham, Texas tells KLCC the Broadway production lacked the love for the characters demonstrated by the SEHS actors.

“I loved it, was incredible,” says Freeman. “I really enjoyed the energy, and the fact that they could authentically play these kids and their struggles.  They made the audience care about the characters.  That’s impressive.”

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Credit Brian Bull / KLCC
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KLCC
BE MORE CHILL cast, crew, musicians, and supporters (including Eli Panero, Maddy McCarthy, and Quinn Hansen, L to R front) advance towards the Lied Center stage door to prepare for June 28, 2019 performances. The event was the culmination of roughly 11 months' work, planning, and rehearsal.

It’s a rewarding response for the 52 actors, crew members, and chaperones who traveled more than 1,600 miles to be part of the ITF.  That includes many newly-graduated seniors who essentially ended their SEHS experience by being part of the BE MORE CHILL production.

“To end my senior year as a lead in a really fun show and a really fun role is great,” says Caitie Connelly, who played female lead (and Jeremy’s love interest) Christine Canigula. “It’s definitely the highlight of the year in my acting.”

Connelly is currently debating between two colleges on either the West or East coasts.  And while she doesn’t plan on being part of any academic theater program, she hopes to keep active on the extracurricular or community level.

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Credit Margaret Bull
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From L to R: Cool kids Jake (Oshen Parris-Austin), Rich (Jared Menegat), Chloe (Adriana Ripley), Jenna (Ashley Schmittle), and Brooke (Jane Brinkley) hang out.

As to what defines the appeal of BE MORE CHILL? Connelly says it’s the uncovering of “human honesty.”

“I just like the general message of the show, to be yourself and trust yourself," she says. 

"Listen to your inner voice and not get caught up in what others are saying or thinking.  Remember who you are.”

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Credit Margaret Bull
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Gamer-buds Jeremy (Quinn Hansen, left) and Michael (Townes Genoves, right) quickly have their friendship tested by the SQUIP.

For actor Quinn Hansen, it’s rewarding to be part of a historic performance that represents SEHS, Eugene-Springfield, and an eleven-state region in the Western U.S.

“It feels amazing, for a long time I lived in my brother’s shadow,” says Hansen. “He got leads, and he worked hard.

"But being able to say I went to nationals, was a lead, and that everyone was able to do this as a group…it’s something I’ll actually remember when I’m back in my old school and can look at the walls and say, ‘Wow! I did that.’”

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Credit Margaret Bull
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South Eugene Theater director and SEHS drama teacher Pat Avery on the main stage of the Lied Center, with the BE MORE CHILL set.

Sunday night found Troupe 750 back in the parking lot of South Eugene High. Feeling fatigued yet accomplished, the students had the sets and costumes unloaded off two moving trucks and back inside the school within an hour.

“It feels pretty good, the kids killed it actually,” says SEHS theater director Avery.  “It was one of the highlights of the festival, just amazing.

“A great week, from beginning to end.”

Note: KLCC reporter Brian Bull has two students involved in the production and was a chaperone during the ITF event.

Brian Bull joined the KLCC News Team in June 2016. In his 25+ years as a public media journalist, he's worked at NPR, Twin Cities Public Television, South Dakota Public Broadcasting, Wisconsin Public Radio, and ideastream in Cleveland. His reporting has netted dozens of accolades, including four national Edward R. Murrow Awards (19 regional), the Ohio Associated Press' Best Reporter Award, Best Radio Reporter from the Native American Journalists Association, and the PRNDI/NEFE Award for Excellence in Consumer Finance Reporting.
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