In 2020, Denver School of the Arts moved its theatre programming online. It was a blow for students like Grayson Allenswroth, Maya Eisbart and Ian Johnson who, as middle schoolers at a grade 6-12 school, often struggled to land theatre roles, which often went to older actors. Now, on top of that, any roles they did get would be performed over Zoom.
“Nobody really wanted to do theater the way that we had to do it,” Johnson said.
Zoom performances eliminated many of the key aspects of theatre that drew the students to it in the first place: the connection it creates between performers and audience members, the immersive elements that allow participants to escape their realities.
“Theater has always always been somewhere that I can go when I’m not that good, and I’m not feeling very nice,” Allensworth said. “To get into a character, to step into their shoes, to feel what they’re feeling, to get away from the world that I’m in has always been something really powerful to me.
“One of my favorite things in theater is when I do a really funny line. And then people start smiling and laughing,” he continued. “It’s an unbeatable experience to stand onstage and feel the pure euphoria of some random woman in her 60s laughing at your jokes. I don’t know who she is, but she loves it. Like, that’s the best feeling in the world.”
That feeling is lost on an online platform.
“You don’t have the energy of a live audience. They don’t give that energy back to you. You don’t get to see reactions of people, you don’t get to engage with the audience only because some of them are just on their phones,” Allensworth said.
In November of 2020, Allensworth was “a little over the whole not doing theater thing.” He called up some friends, and together they put on their own production from start to finish, a musical parody called The Trail to Oregon! When the show wrapped in 2021, they started to discuss the possibility of continuing that work, creating their own production company to provide performance opportunities to young artists throughout the Denver area, during the pandemic and beyond.
“Having that audience there, and realizing all this work that we did and the pay off for that, I was like, we can also make some money off of this. Like, we could do this,” Allensworth said. “We could do what we like, we could give the community what they want. And they give us what we want. And I think it came into my head right after that show — It was like yeah, I wanna keep doing this.”
Now, about a year later, Allensworth, Johnson and Eisbart — now eighth graders at DSA — have just wrapped their latest production, Be More Chill, and have several more projects in the works.
“Being able to really connect to people, especially after COVID with connection kind of being blocked … It’s great to be back,” Eisbart said.
While the team had some support from adults in their lives, who advised them on how to get started, New Generation Productions is otherwise entirely run by students at every level of production.
For Be More Chill, the founding team held creative leadership roles in addition to acting in the production. Allensworth played the character Michael and directed the show. Eisbart played Chloe and choreographed the show. Johnson played the SQUIP (more on that later) and was part of the show’s marketing team. Funding permitting, he will also be director of the company’s screen department when New Generation Productions begins to branch into film production.
The founders have had to learn every aspect of the business of producing a show: securing the rights to a play, fundraising, marketing, booking the performance space, hiring staff members like lighting designers, printing playbills. They booked rehearsal spaces at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, where they were able to rehearse for four months in the center’s professional acting studios.
“And hopefully, one day, we’ll be able to perform on that stage,” Eisbart said.
Allensworth’s dad advised them on how to apply for an LLC.
“My dad is, like, the most supportive person in the world. He loves everything I do,” Allensworth said. In late April of 2022, their application was approved.
“One day, I don’t know, the Secretary of State said we were a company,” Allensworth jokes.
To market the show, the team hired Johnson’s mom, who works in marketing and strategy, as a consultant. They signed a contract with her that essentially said she’d market Be More Chill if they saved her a front row seat at whatever awards shows they get invited to in the future.
“It was great. She helped a lot,” Johnson said. “We all as a group came up with flyers strategies and VIP packages — all sorts of creative ways to make money.”
The play wasn’t the founders’ first choice. They’d gone through several possible shows and went so far as to apply for the rights to The Prom before learning it wouldn’t be available for a few years.
Then, Allensworth came across Be More Chill while scrolling through Concord Theatricals in 2021.
“I had a Be More Chill phase in 2015. I listened to it so much. I was obsessed with it. Loved it,” Allensworth said. “And I just got this bash of nostalgia against my face, like someone took a sledgehammer full of nostalgia and bashed it into my head.”
Be More Chill is a teen science fiction musical. It follows the story of Jeremy Heere, a high school outcast who, fed up with being a “loser,” takes a mysterious pill that implants a “Super Quantum Unit Intel Processor,” or “SQUIP,” inside his brain. The computer guides him through high school, telling him what to do and say in order to make him more “chill.” Jeremy quickly climbs the social ladder, leaving his best friend and fellow outcast behind, but soon learns that there’s something sinister about the SQUIP. It’s a show about embracing who you are, and even more about embracing the people in your life, connecting with people rather than manipulating them or writing them off for the sake of social status.
“The whole show, all these characters feel incredibly alone, and they are performing in any variety of ways. Like the SQUIP, he’s pretending to know more and be more confident than he really is. Jeremy’s doing the same thing,” Johnson said.
Be More Chill has particular resonance as we come out of the worst of the pandemic, a period of intense isolation.
“It was important to all of us that the story get told, that we tell it when we tell it,” Allensworth said. “And that it would be told in a very meaningful way to all of us, and the way that we wanted it to be told. And I’m happy with the result.”
But there were some aspects of the script that didn’t sit right with New Generation Productions.
“We talked a while about how it was lacking some like emotional depth that it needed, especially for the female characters, because they’re all very one-dimensional,” Eisbart said.
And while it’s a story about high schoolers, Be More Chill was initially written to be performed by adults. The show has some heavy subject matter. It deals with drugs, alcohol, sex and mental health.
“First and foremost, our intentions were to put on a musical that we really liked, to create art that we were proud of. And it just so happened that the show we chose to do had a lot of really more complicated stuff that had to be handled well,” Allensworth said. “And a big part of this process – putting on a show, running a company – is learning how to handle these more difficult things with grace.”
For example, in one scene, Eisbart’s character, Chloe, comes onto Jeremy. Jeremy tries to leave, but the SQUIP, convinced that hooking up with Chloe will improve Jeremy’s social status, prevents Jeremy from moving, and the scene becomes one of sexual assault.
“We made it so he wasn’t putting Jeremy into a situation he didn’t want to be in,” Johnson said. “We tried to take it into as much of a different direction as possible. Because we are children. Our target audience is mainly going to be adults who know us, kids who are friends with us, and that sort of heavy discussion can be handled really poorly. And we wanted to make everyone feel as comfortable with the show as we could.”
Still, the team didn’t shy away from engaging with the show’s heavy topics altogether. Allensworth says a lot of what happens in the show is relatable for anyone who’s been through high school.
“A lot of the stuff that’s covered in the show really happens during high school now,” they said. “And it’s definitely something that has to be brought up. And the stigma has to be broken around it.”
Be More Chill wrapped on Sunday, May 8, after five performances at Rocky Mountain Theatre for Kids’ Englewood stage.
“Every actor has their own way of processing a show after it’s over. People cry after the show, before the show, cry weeks after the show — like, the post-show depression kind of feeling,” Allensworth said. ” I don’t usually cry after shows. I cry before them. I’m really hopeful for the next thing”
The next thing is Red, a two-person play written by John Logan about the painter Mark Rothko and his assistant Ken, roles originated by Alfred Molina and Eddie Redmayne, respectively. New Generation Productions plans to stage Red in October 2022.
“It’s about his relationship between his paintings and how people view them, and how he views them,” Allensworth said. “It’s his worldview versus Ken’s worldview. It’s very socially loaded. I’m excited for it.”
After that, the company will stage a production of Sweeney Todd in the winter, and Little Shop of Horrors in spring 2023. Allensworth said that throughout the season, other students will be stepping into leadership roles in the company.
“I think it’s exciting to bring on new people. I think it’s really exciting to bring these new ideas to the table,” Allensworth said. “If you stick with the same people, every year you’re gonna get the same product. If you have a different person directing each production, if you have new ideas, and new leadership, you’re gonna get something different.”
“I think that no dream is too big. Even though we’re kids,” Johnson said. “I think we’ll be able to find a way to to make something really good that I can be proud of, that Grayson can be proud of, that everybody involved will be proud of.”