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.
“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.
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.”
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.
“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.”
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.’”
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.”
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.
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.”
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.’”
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.