This story is part of a series of articles spotlighting Thespian troupes and the shows that earned them 2020 International Thespian Festival main stage recognition.

TROUPE 161 from Urbana High School in Urbana, Illinois, will make its International Thespian Festival main stage debut with The Theory of Relativity.

Story

A group of students contemplates far more than science when faced with common physics questions. As they dive into Einstein’s theory, each considers how their lives and struggles, which feel isolating, instead connect them to their peers.

The group begins to share first-person accounts of the joys, losses, and wonders of human relationships, spotlighting romances in bloom, childhood friendships lost, and complicated parental bonds. Each tale sheds light on individuals struggling to understand each other and themselves. As they disclose their individual stories, the students realize they have more in common than they knew.

Background

With music and lyrics by Neil Bartram and a book by Brian Hill, The Theory of Relativity originated after the pair were invited to develop a production with musical theatre students at Sheridan College near Toronto. After numerous conversations and interviews with the students, the creators decided to write a relatable song cycle for college-aged performers rather than further develop an existing work.

Commissioned in 2012, the show premiered as part of the Canadian Music Theatre Project at Sheridan College, which also birthed the Broadway smash Come From Away. Two years later, The Theory of Relativity was included in the Festival of New Musicals at Goodspeed Musicals in Connecticut. In spring 2015, Goodspeed presented a full production, followed by a London premiere at Drayton Arms Theatre.

Troupe 161’s production

Tim Broeker was looking for a small-cast musical when he discovered The Theory of Relativity. He fell in love with the music and concept of the show. “It just felt timely,” he said. “It’s truly a feel-good show that brings out so much emotion. Most importantly, everyone can relate to it.”

Broeker, the director of theatre and an English teacher at Urbana High School, was confident his students also would embrace the material. “Content-wise, it’s written for college-aged students,” he said, “so while it isn’t something that high schoolers can directly relate to, it is sort of a vision of what comes next for them.”

According to Broeker, the show helps students see beyond themselves. “It really helped them start to see their lives in a broader sense and to find a connection to those around them,” he said. “I think it helped them look beyond high school and be reflective of the choices they’re making now, as well as those they will be faced with in the next several months.”

It was important to Broeker that students capture the show’s theme of connectivity. “They were incredibly thoughtful when examining these people and what they’ve been through,” Broeker said. “They worked to find their own targets for the emotions and feelings. While they haven’t dealt with these exact instances, they have life experiences that connect to the same emotions. They also connected in ways that were magical onstage, and they viewed that connectedness as their own, not that of the characters they were portraying.”

Since the original production calls for the entire ensemble to remain onstage for the duration of the performance, logistical connectedness was equally important.

“It was important to me from the start that the actors never leave the stage, which does pose new and interesting challenges,” Broeker said. “The show is shorter than your usual musical but just as vocally demanding. Without leaving the stage, [the actors] didn’t get a break to take a drink or to look over their lines or music. They were constantly ‘on.’ Even in the shadows, the audience could see them, so they had to maintain focus and character-appropriate reactions to the other performers. While this could be challenging, I think it also made their authenticity more raw and their connectedness to one another more real.”

Thespian senior Ella Burrus agrees. “We all got to watch and participate in every moment,” Burrus said.

Elise Johnson, a Thespian junior, welcomed the opportunity to play a more serious character than the comedic roles in which she is usually cast. “Because there wasn’t a huge set or a lot of props, we had more time to get to know our characters and really connect with ourselves and each other rather than iron out kinks on the technical side,” Johnson said.

Both students are happy to be part of such a timely production about the human condition. “I always try to be involved in every production in some way, but this show especially seemed different and interesting to me, and I connected with the characters immediately,” Johnson said.

“I wanted to be a part of the production since I saw the show at the 2019 Illinois High School Theatre Festival,” said Burrus. “The show is an inspiration in how it articulates the complex interactions and connections between humans. Each character has a different background and life story but depends on one another to survive.”

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