This story is part of a series of articles previewing Thespian troupes and the shows they’ve been invited to present on the 2019 International Thespian Festival main stage.

TROUPE 750 from Oregon’s South Eugene High School will make its International Thespian Festival main stage debut with Be More Chill. The troupe presented a Chapter Select Showcase of The Long Goodbye in 2017.

STORY

Nathan Ward as The Squip in South Eugene High School's Be More Chill.

Nathan Ward as The Squip in South Eugene High School’s Be More Chill. Photo by Margaret Bull.

Junior Jeremy Heere expects little more than to survive high school. Though he’s resigned himself to never being the cool guy, he aspires to just enough visibility to avoid daily bullying and to capture the attention of Christine Canigula, an actress in the school play and the girl of his dreams.

Then Jeremy discovers the Super Quantum Unit Intel Processor, also known as a Squip. A microcomputer ingested in pill form, the Squip implants in Jeremy’s brain, providing near-constant instruction on the “right” thing to wear, do, and say in every imaginable situation.

With the Squip’s coaching, Jeremy achieves an instant status upgrade, but his newfound swagger comes at a price that’s hard to swallow. Ultimately, Jeremy must decide if popularity is worth the loss of his best friend, the subversion of his own identity, and the destruction of human civilization as we know it.

BACKGROUND

Be More Chill originated as a critically acclaimed 2004 book by Ned Vizzini. Composer-lyricist Joe Iconis was introduced to the story by his agent in 2011 and instantly saw its musical potential, teaming with Joe Tracz to write the libretto.

In 2015, their adaptation of Be More Chill premiered at New Jersey’s Two River Theater. A hit with audiences, the show was met with unenthusiastic reviews and failed to attract a commercial producer. However, an original cast album achieved unexpected popularity as teens gradually discovered it through streaming services, and the recording hit Billboard’s Cast Album Chart nearly two years after its release. Teens then made the show an online phenomenon, creating animated videos, fan fiction, and visual art inspired by its characters.

Producers found it impossible to ignore the growing interest and mounted a sold-out Off-Broadway production of Be More Chill at New York’s Pershing Square Signature Center in 2018. That incarnation transferred to Broadway’s Lyceum Theatre in February 2019. A feature film adaptation is also in development.

Quinn Hansen and Townes Genoves in South Eugene High School's production of Be More Chill.
Quinn Hansen as Jeremy and Townes Genoves as Michael in South Eugene High School's production of Be More Chill. Photo by Margaret Bull.

TROUPE 750’S PRODUCTION

South Eugene High School has a rich theatre tradition, having chartered its International Thespian Society troupe in 1946. The school also possesses an appetite for challenging contemporary works, with Spring Awakening, Urinetown, Dogfight, and The Laramie Project among recent productions. So, it’s no surprise that director Pat Avery was immediately taken with Be More Chill for “the way the music gave us a look into an angsty teenage mind. As a high school teacher, I recognized the characters right away.”

Avery was confident students also would embrace the material. “Theatre is really important here. We do seven or eight full-length productions every year, and four or five are student-directed. I like choosing material that has something to say, and so do the students. This is a very progressive community, and it’s great that they appreciate the fact we’re tackling mature work.

“Kids today really care, and the more opportunities they get to talk about important issues the better,” Avery continued. “Be More Chill is an incredibly fun show to do, but there are important social issues at the heart of it. Teen stress, peer pressure, and the way technology is playing an ever-more important role in our lives are all issues dealt with in a very engaging way.”

The show’s relatability excites Thespian junior Quinn Hansen, who portrays Jeremy. “It’s genuinely fun to go onstage every day and tell teenagers and adults what you’re actually feeling, in this crazy, sci-fi way. The connection of playing someone your own age is one of the best parts about being Jeremy.

“The show is a saturated, blown-out-of-proportion version of what every high school is like from the perspective of an outsider,” Hansen continued. “And that’s something I relate to. Every single character in the show, you can find at every single high school. The generalizations are accurate. At the same time, the characters are hyperbolic. Each of them has their own Breakfast Club aesthetic. That’s something you have to keep in mind. If you’re not looking at the characters on a deeper level, then you’re not going to enjoy the show to its fullest extent.”

Thespian Townes Genoves, a junior who plays Jeremy’s best friend Michael, agrees. “What resonates most with me is identity — finding out who you are and who you want to be in comparison to what other people perceive you to be or want you to be. Michael is confident in who he is, regardless of his peers’ perceptions. I think the show’s over-the-top depiction of high school stereotypes puts a spotlight on typical behaviors in your average high school environment. The show both pokes fun at and finds a legitimate motivation behind these stereotypes. It shows there are real people behind the facades we present to others in our everyday lives.”

The show’s candor also appeals to Caitie Connelly, the senior Thespian playing Christine. “I really admire the way Jeremy has trouble interacting with his peers and people in his life. In some arguments with his father and Michael, Jeremy often lacks basic listening and communication skills, which I find truthful as skills still developing in high schoolers. I appreciate that honesty and the growth of friendships throughout the play.”

The unusual journey of Be More Chill from internet sensation to Broadway hit meant that South Eugene’s production took place as the show was preparing to make its Broadway debut. According to Oregon NPR station KLCC, South Eugene’s was one of only two high school productions on the West Coast in 2018. “At first we were really anxious. We didn’t know if the producers were going to let us offer the show once the Broadway production was announced,” Avery said. “We were ecstatic and honored when they said yes. The thought of playing for a really big audience of just theatre kids [at the International Thespian Festival] has all of the students pumped, because we know that theatre kids are the best audiences ever. And this show is theatre kid heaven.”

POST-SHOW DISCUSSION

  1. Be More Chill has been described as Dear Evan Hansen meets Little Shop of Horrors. What parallels with those shows do you see in Be More Chill’s story? How do the creators weave elements of science fiction with a more traditional coming-of-age narrative?
  2. Writers Joe Iconis and Joe Tracz have said, “This isn’t a musical for the popular kids; this is a musical for the other kids.” What message does Be More Chill have for young people who may feel like outsiders in their schools? In what ways do Jeremy, Christine, and Michael respond differently to familiar teenage anxiety?
  3. Be More Chill also explores the role technology can play in exacerbating issues of bullying, gossip, and peer pressure. Is social media good, bad, or both? Explain your answer.
  4. Aside from its sci-fi twist, how realistic do you think Be More Chill is in its depiction of life in high school? Which of the show’s characters do you relate to most?
  5. Be More Chill offers a cautionary tale, as Jeremy’s popularity comes with a price. Do you think the experience was worth it for Jeremy to learn this lesson? Why or why not?

Activities

  1. Most of Be More Chill’s story is told from Jeremy’s point of view. Choose one of the show’s other characters, and tell the story’s events from their perspective.
  2. Would you take a Squip in order to be cool? Write a persuasive speech to share with your best friend to convince them to take — or not take — the Squip.
  3. Fan art helped propel Be More Chill to Broadway. Choose a favorite scene or character and create your own drawing, collage, video, song, or other artwork inspired by Be More Chill.

RESOURCES

Read
Be More Chill novel by Ned Vizzini
Be More Chill official Broadway website

Listen
Be More Chill original cast recording
Little Known Facts podcast Be More Chill episode

Watch
Be More Chill Broadway YouTube channel

Learn more about the 2019 International Thespian Festival online.

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