Be More Chill
Drama is a popular subject choice, both academically and as co-curricular at d’Overbroeck’s. More than just learning lines and performing, it encourages students to express their creativity by exposing them to many different styles and genres of Drama, both scripted and improvised, from mask work to puppetry. Students are given considerable ownership of their creative pieces, and support them in taking creative and intellectual risks.
Each year, d’Overbroeck’s puts on a whole-school drama production that students from across all of our school sites can get involved with. This year, the musical Be More Chill was the whole-school production, a zany tale about about A.I. and adolescence based on the Young Adult novel by Ned Vizzini.
Most people, young or not, are reaching for ways to flee anxiousness – and sadly, many think that the way of getting to peace and happiness is for other people to like and affirm them. Especially during the awkward years of growing up, when one’s own identity is being built up apace, many young people feel an acute desire for belonging. In the story of Be More Chill, students in an American high school manage to get their hands on a Japanese super computer chip that can implant itself in the brain and give advice to the individual on how to be cool – in the voice of Keanu Reeves, no less! The main character of the story is considered a loser by his peers, and so is eager to try it.
The implant pill, available for purchase from another young person in the back room of a shoe shop, glows neon green at first, suggesting its toxicity. But, any indication of nefariousness from the new technology is glossed over by the naïve and geeky teenagers, swept up in the promise of social approval. The implant pill instructs the individual who has taken it in what to wear, what to say, and how to behave, to get the reaction they are seeking from other people they perceive to be cooler than them.
The implant pill (SQUIP 💊) is a metaphor, or at least a hint at, the various unhealthy things young people can turn to in hopes of rising up the social ladder for popularity and power, such as drugs or social media. But inevitably, using the SQUIP to escape persecution or as a power-grab doesn’t exactly go to plan. It is an age-old tale of the impossibility of pleasing everyone, trying to alter almost everything that one possibly can about oneself to impress those who are only human themselves, only to have all those efforts fall completely flat. Also in the mix are modern implications of the harmful potentials of A.I, and the limitations of technology when it comes to social situations.
Set against a pop-rock soundtrack with electronic elements, this weird, sci-fi musical that has become an online sensation among young people is replete with high-intensity performances with a dark and slightly frenzied undertone.
The musical at d’Overbroeck’s had 52 cast members, 16 student backstage crew, 14 members of staff and approximately 160 hours of rehearsal. d’Overbroeck’s drama put on 4 performances of the show, with over 500 audience members in total. It was a huge success and the feedback from audience members was incredibly positive.
We talked with our Head of Drama, Joe Swarbrick, to tell us more about this year’s performance.
Do you get to choose the whole-school production every year or is this a bigger group decision/are students involved in the choice?
For a musical, it’s always a conversation between the Drama and Music departments, though not always a straightforward one! We’re always interested in students’ suggestions but more often than not, we’re looking at our cohort going into Y13 and thinking what may suit them in particular.
Considering this is very popular with the younger generation, but otherwise not that well-known, why did you choose Be More Chill for the production this year?
For that reason really – I wanted to do something that I knew was popular with our students and that wasn’t one of the musicals traditionally done by schools.
What were the other potential choices in the running for the whole-school production this year, and what made those lose out to BMC?
Well, we had BMC planned for 2021 but had to postpone due to Covid. But others in the mix from memory were Carousel and Into the Woods – both potentially great at another time. Our main reasoning for choosing this was that it’s just so fun and we felt we all needed that after a difficult couple of years!
Do you like/agree with the purpose and message of BMC for young people? Why/why not?
I think it has a great message. There are countless musicals set in high schools and in many ways this follows familiar tropes – struggling to fit in, finding yourself, navigating the choppy waters of romance. But where a musical like Grease is marred by some pretty shaky gender politics by today’s standards, Be More Chill feels explicitly critical of the expectations of gender. I worry especially about the way boys are conditioned to view relationships by the more nefarious corners of social media and was pleased to find a show which tackles this head on, with a final message that cuts through the noise of how boys are expected to act and focuses instead on friendship, individuality and mutual respect.
Had you seen the musical before? What was your first impression vs finishing working on it for a long stretch of time?
I saw it in the West End in 2021 and enjoyed it a lot, though instinctively felt we’d be able to hold our own with our production by being able to have such large choruses and the enthusiasm of a sixth form cast plausibly playing their age. I was particularly happy to cast girls in the lead male roles of Jeremy and Michael – there’s something exceptionally funny about seeing teenage girls do impressions of teenage boys and I think Vita and Eloise both found that dimension in their performances wonderfully.
As this is the biggest production of the year, there must have been a lot to organise. What was the process of putting this show together?
It’s extremely challenging – the first thing we do is make a giant spreadsheet breaking the play down into acts, scenes and sub-scenes, marking entrances and exits of every character and chorus. Once that’s in place, we’re able to start scheduling. We had around 8 hours of rehearsal running each week, so I then had to slot in rehearsals into those slots in a way that made logical sense. There are some big ensemble moments in the show and these were rehearsed from the very beginning, with smaller scenes being worked on around them.
As we go, we’re developing and interpreting characters and Kaitlyn, our Stage Manager and Costume Designer, was on hand in most rehearsals to watch and discuss how the characters should appear on stage and, with me, help shape some symbolism in costume. For example, Jeremy’s costume starts in grey and black until he discovers the SQUIP, the supercomputer that teaches him how to be cool. We strongly associate the SQUIP with neon green colours in lighting so by Act 2, Jeremy is wearing a bright green leather jacket. Some costumes remained fairly close to the original production but one which differed greatly was Chloe’s. In the original, the character appears as a sort of gothy cheerleader but in our production, Em played her very differently as a preppy, high status rich girl. The obvious reference point here was somewhere between Clueless and Heathers, so we dressed Chloe in a fitted tartan blazer instead. Things like this hopefully add a rich texture to the performance and mean that we’re doing more than just copying a previous version – this is a collaboration between the creative team and the actors.
As this progressed started work on the projection design. For this show, to emphasise the techie nature of the piece, we used a large screen as a backdrop onto which we projected pixel art backdrops and animations to help shift locations and tell the story with clarity. I was really pleased with how this turned out. Directing and designing a show is a very difficult thing to do concurrently but I think it facilitated an holistic approach which meant it all came together very coherently.
What was the most challenging aspect of putting this performance together?
Covid! We lost a key cast member five days before the first performance. We were incredibly lucky to have a fantastic understudy in Jessie who knew the show well and was off-script within 48 hours, allowing the performance to go ahead as planned. It was a stunningly confident and accomplished performance which brought the house down every night! We were also thrilled to have our original cast member back for the final show. So in the end I think the most challenging aspect of the performance was also the most impressive and, ultimately, uplifting.
What was your favourite line, song, or exchange in BMC? Why?
There’s so many good lines in it but I think the one that’s stayed with me most is from the very end: “There are voices in my head…and they can yell, it’ll hurt like hell, but I know I’ll be fine, ‘cause of the voices in my head the loudest one is mine”. I think that’s a beautifully succinct way of describing the journey from overly caring about other people’s perceptions of you to becoming self confident, aware of life’s challenges, but ready to face them.
What’s coming up next?
We’re going to wait until next year to announce it, but to give everyone a clue of what it might be I will say it won’t be a musical and may heavily involve pizzas.