Two hours before rehearsal, cast and crew members of UW-Stout’s performance of “Be More Chill” gathered in the historic Harvey Hall Theatre to hang out, sing, listen to music and work on the set, costumes, sound and lighting.
Among them, donning a knee-length work apron as he mopped the stage, was their Director Audric Buhr. Involved in every aspect of the production, Buhr explained, “The stage treats you how you treat it.”
Like Buhr, students are involved in every aspect and use their hands-on, polytechnic skills to bring the show to life. They represent diverse degree programs from both the College of Arts and Human Sciences; and the College of Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics and Management, such as computer science; engineering technology; entertainment design; graphic design and interactive media; hotel, restaurant and tourism management; human development and family studies; interior design; psychology and more.
“Be More Chill,” a sci-fi musical about high school, friendships and bullies, popularity and social outcasts, “is about fitting in and being yourself,” Buhr said. “We all experience the struggle of wanting to be accepted for who we are. We want to make connections.”
The production opens Thursday, April 13, the night before UW-Stout’s Destination Weekend kicks off, and runs through Sunday, April 16.
Tickets are available online at University Ticketing:
- Evening performances: 7:30 p.m., April 13-15
- Matinees: 2 p.m., April 15-16
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Interdisciplinary connections make theater different at Stout
Buhr joined UW-Stout as director of University Theatre this academic year. He has been in education for 27 years and for 17 years was the director of theater studies and vocal music at Menomonie High School.
“Theater has always been a part of what I did,” he said. And when he interviewed for his position, he was asked how he would reimagine theater at UW-Stout.
“I want to give students the opportunity to not only act and sing, but to design and construct sets, costumes and props – to make connections across areas of the university. These connections are what make theater different at Stout,” Buhr said.
Crew members, like Grace Schultz, fashion and retail, Siren; and Lilly Caines, industrial design, Hanover Park, Ill., are using the skills they’ve learned in their classes and labs to construct costumes, props and the set, following Buhr’s vision.
The cast, their characters, degrees and hometowns are:
- Brayden Thomas: Jeremy Heere. Video production, Osceola
- Reece Halda: Christine Canigula. Game design and development-art, Lakeville, Minn.
- Quincy Aaron: Michael Mell. Game design and development-art, Farmington, Minn.
- Brady Schmieg: Jake Dillinger. Video production, Waconia, Minn.
- Ben Phipps: Rich Goranski. Animation and digital media, Inver Grove Heights, Minn.
- Elle Szymborski: Chloe Valentine. Professional communication and emerging media, Eden Prairie, Minn.
- Nina Kitts: Brooke Lohst. Video production, Farmington, Minn.
- Elizabeth Geoffrey: Jenna Rolan. Game design and development-art, Kaukauna
- Nick Michaelson: Jeremy’s dad. Computer and electrical engineering, Manitowoc
- Trevor Zeyen: Mr. Reyes / the Scary Stockboy. Packaging, Hastings, Minn.
- Kyran Luikens: SQUIP. Technology education, Savage, Minn.
They are joined by a large ensemble, with 40 students total to grace the stage. There were 65 students who auditioned, and who were already familiar with the music – even harmonizing during the first read-through.
“I was so surprised by this, but they really identify with the characters,” Buhr said.
It’s the students’ energy that inspires Buhr, and he tries to encourage that commitment by giving them opportunities to “try things they didn’t even know they could do. I want to give the opportunity to succeed, but also to learn from their failures."
“I like to see them make bold choices – to see what works and what doesn’t,” he said. “It’s those ‘ah-ha moments’ that are so important. That’s what drives them, and their energy drives me.”
Cast and crew member Dayton Feldt, of Beloit, and Natalie Watters, of St. Paul, are co-directing a documentary about “Be More Chill.” The video production students will be submitting their film to the Unspooled Film and Animation Festival. Unspooled, hosted by UW-Stout, will be held Friday, May 12, to Sunday, May 14. Ticket sales are open for the festival.
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Switching the spotlight back on
The last production in Harvey Hall Theatre – “The Elephant Man” – was in November 2019. The spring 2020 production of “Godspell” was canceled and the theater went dark for three years during the pandemic.
When Director Paul Calenberg, who taught at UW-Stout for more than 20 years, retired in spring of 2020, and with other faculty taking positions elsewhere, theater classes were not offered between fall 2020 and spring 2022. Except for a few meetings held there, the theater was not used during the 2020-21 academic year.
Then, at the beginning of the 2021-22 academic year, Kevin Drzakowski, associate dean of the College of Arts and Human Sciences, met student and theater technician Jon Harlfinger.
“We got to talking, and I realized that this was a young man who knew his stuff,” Drzakowski said. “I asked if he might be up for working a few hours a week in the theater, so we could get it into a state where we could again host larger events. Jon has been invaluable.”
Harlfinger, a computer networking and information technology student from Waukesha, worked with Drzakowski as a Dean’s Office student employee, setting up a series of lighting plots for general events, making improvements to the sound setup and organizing theater inventory.
“Jon has been extremely proactive. He exceeded all my expectations, and he basically took the lead in taking care of the space while we were without a director of theater,” Drzakowski said.
“Jon has been here the longest of all of us now,” Buhr added. “He worked as a technician for ‘Elephant Man’ as a first-year student. Now, as a senior, he’s working on ‘Be More Chill,’ and was the only theater staff keeping the lights on during three dark years.”
Harlfinger knew theater at UW-Stout would come back eventually, he said. “Theater is too important to the world. I was persistent. I needed to keep things going for the next person – to give them a kickstart when Harvey Hall Theatre reopened.”
Harlfinger will graduate in fall 2023.
Calenberg passed away in February 2022. “Paul was a constant source of joy at Stout,” Drzakowski said. “He had a biting sense of humor, he made a lifelong impact on his students, and he made art that was beautiful and at times deeply affecting. He taught so many people, students and audiences alike, to love theater and to make it an important part of their lives.”
Drzakowski has seen over the past couple of years, “a building, increasingly pent-up desire on the part of Stout students to bring theater back to campus life. Now that we have a wonderful director – Audric – who can guide that energy, we're going to see an explosion of creativity. This may well be the most excited I've ever been to see a show.”
“Theater is back with a vengeance,” Buhr added. “Our audiences can see what three years of pent-up theater-kids’ energy can do.”