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Behind the scenes at a busy bee

IPFW presents The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

By Michael Summers


Fort Wayne Reader


In a studio off the main auditorium in IPFW’s William’s Theater, director John O’Connell is leading a group of actors through a series of warm-up exercises that will help transform these self-possessed, articulate drama students into the insecure, awkward, and sometimes downright strange bunch of characters that make up the 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.

The final exercise before heading out to dress rehearsal is called “pass the clap.” The casts stands in a circle, turn towards the person next to them, clap and say the character’s name, and that person turns to the next actor in the circle. They go around and around, speeding up towards the end. O’Connell explains that the object is to get the cast listening to one another, to get in sync with one another and react without anticipating.

“Pass the clap” typically doesn’t work with a cast larger than 12 or smaller than five, but for the nine actors in the cast of Spelling Bee, it might be the perfect way to bring some precision and focus to a play that moves at a frantic pace. After all, six of the nine characters are elementary school students; they’re in permanent fidget mode, even while they’re sitting on bleachers waiting their turn at the microphone, and the play’s momentum often reflects their near-to-bursting energy.

So the cast needs to be “on their toes,” sometimes literally — The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is a musical, after all, and a comedy; energy is essential.

But they also need to be “on their toes” in a more figurative sense, because every night, sitting up on stage among the actors for the first act, are three “guest spellers,” who have no real idea of what’s going on. The cast has to react to them in different ways, and pull them into some of the shenanigans that go on on stage.

When The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee was in the midst of its award-winning Broadway run in 2005-2008, the guest spellers were taken from the audience. “People would line up around the block for the opportunity,” says O’Connell, who tried to get in himself (he arrived too late). But occasionally, the production would slip in a celebrity speller, anyone from Julie Andrews (makes sense) to Al Sharpton (makes less sense, though I’ll bet he sounded good spelling the words).

IPFW’s production promises the same thing, with a few local celebrities and public figures lined up to spend some time on stage. IPFW’s Chancellor Wartell is scheduled to appear on the first night, and Mayor Tom Henry closes the final Sunday matinee on October 17, just to name a few.

Your Humble got a taste of what these guest spellers will be going through when he filled one of the guest spots in a “almost-all-the-way-there” rehearsal a few weeks before opening night.

The company up there on the bleachers is… interesting. To my right was Marcy Park, a Catholic schoolgirl who believes she has to win. “My character thinks ‘if I don’t win, God’s going to hate me’,” says actress Marcia Smith, who plays Marcy. “She’s been raised with the ruler on the hand, and very high expectations. She’s not allowed to cry. But She’s starting to get tired of being perfect all the time.”

Behind me was Leaf Coneybear, played by Michael Bartkiewicz. Bartkiewicz explains that Leaf is really excited — really excited — to be there. “His parents are hippies, he’s home schooled, he makes his own clothes, he’s ADD… He’s just bouncing off the walls, but then he goes into this trance and sees the letters in front of him.”

Also on the bleachers is William Barfee (Nathan Garner), an obnoxious, arrogant geek trapped with a bully’s body and temperment. “He’s got this trick where he spells out the word with his foot,” Garner says. “And he constantly correcting people when they mispronounce his name as ‘Barfey’.”

Then there’s Logainne Schwartzandgrubenniere (Heather Moser), raised by her two dads to be perfect; Olive Ostovsky (Kearsytn Keller), a shy girl, usually left alone by busy parents, who likes spelling for its own sake; and Chip Tolentino (Ben Bercot), the returning champion, who is unfortunately distracted at an inopportune time. “He’s going through changes he didn’t expect to go through,” Bercot explains (basically, he hits puberty right in the middle of the spelling bee, if you know what we’re saying. Did we mention some of the subject matter is a little mature?)

The adults and authority figures have their own quirks and issues. Annie Robinson plays Rona Perretti, the bee’s organizer for the last nine years and a former champion. “The bee is very dear to Rona’s heart, and she has to make sure it runs perfectly,” Robinson says. “She sees a little bit of herself in every one of the spellers.”

Prentis Moore plays Mitch Mahoney, who dispenses comfort, juice boxes, and, in the case of this particular guest speller, a song to the losers as they’re lead off stage. “Mitch is fresh off parole,” Moore says. “He’s there as a part of his community service. He doesn’t get these kids, but little by little, he starts to sympathize.”

Finally, there’s Vice Principal Douglas Panch (Nick Tash), brought in at the last minute to read the words. He’s the perpetual vice principal, and running low on both sympathy and patience. “He’s someone who can watch the Discovery Channel all weekend long,” Tash says. “He got the call really early that morning to do the bee, and by God, he’s going to do it and impress everyone out there.”

Then, of course, there are the guest spellers, who aren’t required to do much… but they do have to spell. Fortunately, these are words that — at least early on — shouldn’t pose much of a problem, even to the most stage fright prone (the words change nightly). In this particular rehearsal, Your Humble’s first word was “Mexican,” which he got right. Another guest speller got “cow” (also spelled successfully).

My second time up, I got “cetajune,” which I still don’t believe is a real word. Nevertheless I apparently spelled it correctly, much to the annoyance of Vice Principal Panch, who next threw out an unpronounceable word beginning with a “z.” I blew it on the second letter, and was given a juice box and escorted off the stage by Mitch Mahoney and the rest of the cast, who sang me a heartfelt song of farewell.

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is a musical and a comedy — a very funny one, too. But I got a very small glimpse into all the hard work that has to happen behind the scenes in order to make a play like this look easy and fun. It’s sort of like the story that The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee tells. While keeping things funny, light, and sarcastic on the surface, the play shows you that beneath the quirks and eccentricities of these characters, there are some serious things happening as these kids try to figure out who they really are. “All these kids at this spelling bee, they’re trying to ‘break out’ and become their own person,” says Heather Moser, who plays Logainne Schwartzandgrubenniere. “To some, that means winning. To others, they discover it means something else.”

The IPFW Department of Theater presents The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
Fridays, October 8 and 15 at 8 PM
Saturdays October 9 and 16 at 8 PM
Thursday, October 14 at 8 PM
Sundays, October 10 and 17 at 2 PM

Williams Theatre – IPFW North Campus
2101 E. Coliseum Blvd
Fort Wayne, IN 46805

Admission for IPFW students with I.D. is free
$16/adults; $14 seniors/faculty/staff/alumni; $12 groups of 10 or more; $5 students 18 and under; $12 other college students with ID

Children 6 and under will not be admitted

Schatzlein Box Office in the Rhinehart Music Center
Monday – Friday, 12:30 – 6:30 pm
Box Office: 260-481-6555
TTD: 260-481-4105

Or visit www.ipfw.edu/vpa/theatre

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