The latest production to come to the Arkansas Repertory Theatre stage is the two time Tony Award-winning show "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee." The story sees a group of, um, unique sixth-graders take the spotlight, all vying for a chance at the championship. Hilarity ensues, words are misspelled and even a few audience members get to take the stage.
We sat down with Tessa Faye, Ethan Paulini (both who graced the stage in "Elf" last December), Scott McLean Harrison (who last was at The Rep in 2009's "The Foreigner") and Andi Watson ("Death of a Salesman" in 2013 and "Hairspray" in 2011) to talk about the show's ridiculousness and its heart, as well as what it was like for them back in the days of sixth grade.
“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” opens Oct. 16 at The Rep, and is intended for adult audiences. For tickets or more information, click here.
For starters, tell me about your characters. What is it about them that you like or relate to?
Scott McLean Harrison: I play Douglas Panch. He’s the vice principal of a middle school and he’s a replacement for the day. He doesn’t really want to be there, he doesn’t really like his job. He would like to be the principal, but they won’t let him be the principal. He’s kind of the straight man to everybody else’s wacky characters. I’m usually the wacky character, so to be the straight face is different for me, but it’s a lot of fun. He’s a good guy.
Ethan Paulini: I play Leaf Coneybear. Leaf is unique because he’s homeschooled, he has lots of brothers and sisters and his parents are kind of hippies. He didn’t win his bee; he’s here by default as a second runner-up alternate. He doesn’t really have tons of confidence in his ability to spell, but surprises himself along the way. He’s just goofy, a little ADD and—like one of our stage directions reads—he is terribly amused by all of this. I think that’s sort of the fun of him is that everything is new and everything tickles him.
Tessa Faye: I play Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre, and she is the youngest competitor and has a little bit of a lisp. I like to think she just got finished with some major orthodontia work, like maybe she just got the ok for her retainer to just be once-a-week wear. What I like about Logainne is her love of the competition. She has two dads who put a lot of pressure on her to be the best at everything, but I think she really enjoys it. She’s totally wired really tight and just needs to take a breath, but she hasn’t figured that out yet. She’s the ball of nervous energy in the show.
Andi Watson: I play Rona Lisa Peretti. This is her ninth consecutive year as host of the spelling bee. She was the champ of the third annual bee, and she is very excited and very enthusiastic about everything… like, disgustingly so. She’s probably medicated, but I’m having a blast playing her. She loves every bit of this, it’s her legacy. This is the highlight, her heyday, and she likes to return to it every year. She’s also the top realtor in Putnam County, but this was her reigning achievement.
In such an over-the-top show, how fun is that to play?
EP: Even though we’re playing 12-year-old kids or really heightened versions of adults, you still have to approach it with an earnestness. I don’t want to be a caricature of these kids. It’s just interesting to play behavior. You see a kid do something and you’re like, “That is so weird!” If an adult did it, that person would be crazy, but because we get the freedom of playing children, we get to do these weird things. It’s fun to harken back to that energy where you don’t conform to what’s expected and what’s normal, you just do whatever impulse comes to you. As actors you kind of want to do that, so it’s a neat combination of those opportunities.
What might one of those be?
EP: I mean, I wear a cape. In the past couple of rehearsals, I’ve been putting in my mouth the string that’s around my neck holding my number sign, which I know I’ve seen kids do. And these kids have a lack of filter.
TF: I think the physical comedy is really fun to play with. We’re not keeping things small, we’re exploring with space and each other. In rehearsal, if we’re doing a musical number and you run into someone, in this show, you don’t try to cover it, you play the collision. Ethan’s sign will be over his head and I’ll end up on the floor, but it’s funny and we keep moving. It’s got a little bit of improv in there that we get to play with. If we feel like something happens in the moment, and we can use that and keep going, the whole rehearsal room will be laughing… It’s the physical comedy, though, that’s unique to the show. We are running around the stage, swinging from ropes, shooting through the audience, picking each other up. That wasn’t happening in Macbeth.
And what about as one of the adult characters?
SMH: Oh, it’s great. You get to sit back and watch everybody do this crazy stuff and…
AW: Try not to laugh.
SMH: Exactly. Trying to keep a straight face through this whole show is really, really tough. But like Ethan said, you have to be real people, just a funnier version.
AW: Even Panch and Rona Lisa are pretty quirky, but everybody knows them. Everybody has a Panch in their life and everybody knows a Rona Lisa. Even with the kids, anyone who’s gone into an elementary school classroom knows, oh, that’s the one who eats his own clothes and so on. Even though they’re caricatures, they exist in our everyday lives. I think that’s what makes Rona Lisa and Panch fun, too. You can fill in the blank with people you know.
A lot of people really love "Spelling Bee." What do you think it is that sticks with audiences?
SMH: It’s so fun. The music’s really catchy, it’s funny, but there’s a lot of heart. And you can relate, you remember what it’s like to be a kid in the spelling bee or the science fair, and it’s all so important. The show just takes you back.
AW: I’m sure part of it is the audience participation, because that’s not something you often have when you go and see a show—you’re sitting down, you’re watching the show for the whole two hours. In this case, there are four volunteers that are chosen randomly from the audience to participate. So you’ve got that element, which is completely unknown, that makes it a new show every day. Even if we were doing the same thing night after night, we’ve still got that variable now that comes from the audience.
SMH: And when the people in the audience know the people on stage, they love to laugh at and with their friends on stage.
EP: They’ve crafted it so that, as an audience member, you know that it’s unique to the show you’re seeing. But I think the show is so smart in terms of how sweet it is in celebrating the fact that everyone, no matter how good they are at something, they still have their struggles, and that’s ok. You can figure out ways to overcome them, and you can figure out ways to celebrate the things you’re good at. Every kid has something that they struggle with, and this is where they get to be themselves and be congratulated for being themselves, rather than be made fun of or picked on or thought of as less than. Everyone had that experience as some point when they were a kid.
TF: What’ll be interesting is talking to audience members after the show. Eight people sitting in the same row, each one will have a different favorite character. Everybody relates to something different, and that absolutely happens every time this show is done. The cast is so colorful and identifiable.
Do you guys have a character you identify with?
EP: It’s Leaf, for me. He has such a wacky, weird energy and a silly sense of humor.
AW: As a kid, I think I probably related more to Marcy, a little bit of an overachiever, go-getter, all business kind of thing. Now, I’m pretty sure I’m Rona to a T. I’m kind of like the grown up Pollyanna.
So what were you like in sixth grade?
SMH: Braces, certainly. It was the first year of middle school, so I felt like everyone was nervous all the time.
AW: I think I was pretty obnoxious. Pretty sure that was was the first year I discovered choir, so that was a great outlet. I think sixth grade probably shaped who I am today, for better or worse.
EP: I guess I was already kind of a theater nerd. I also was kind of, like, fussy, so maybe I was nothing like Leaf in that regard. I used to wear dress shoes, and I can remember walking down the hall and seeing the gym teacher go, “I guess you don’t have me today,” making fun of my shoes. I’d just be like, “Yeah. Ugh.” I think I probably took myself much more seriously than I do as an adult. I probably already thought I was an adult.
Did you venture into the world of spelling bees?
TF: No, I never even had the opportunity. What was up with my school?
AW: Oh, I did.
SMH: I did, too. I was fifth grade champ, went to the middle school and this one student named Sonya, as always, beat everybody else.
AW:I was sixth and seventh grade school champ. In fact, I almost brought my trophy, but I was already overpacked. I was traumatized after I won the first school bee. I went to district and was eliminated on the word “bicycle.” Who gets eliminated on a stupid word like that? So from that point on, I had something to prove. The next year, I think I came in fourth or something, but I will never forget the first time. I had an argyle sweater and argyle socks to match, and I was ready for business. Then I realized I hadn’t studied and that that was an important element.
EP: I didn’t do spelling bees, I did geography bees. In seventh grade, I was the Massachusetts state champion and went to Washington D.C. and Alex Trebek did the whole thing. I’m sure I did spelling bees, and I’m actually a pretty good speller, but I was much more interested in countries and rivers and mountain ranges. I remember thinking I was so cool, but when I got to D.C., I did not do well. I was out, like, right away, and on an easy question, too. So yeah, that was my experience with the bee.
Tell me a more about the audience participation. What's that like to work with on stage?
SMH: If definitely keeps you on your toes. In a show, sometimes you can kind of settle in and can become almost robotic—you do the show, you go home. But with this, everything’s going to be different every time. Some audience members might know how to spell the words, then we have to figure out how to get them off the stage to move on with the show.
TF: It’s so funny because I think there are moments where it’s going to feel like some of these audience members have a shot. It can’t possibly happen, but when one of them gets a word right, you feel the entire audience start to get anxious. All of a sudden, you’ve got this local hero on stage who can spell “conjunction” and every’s at the edge of their seats. That’s a good feeling to have. There are these moments of camaraderie with the cast, the audience, the crew, everybody.
What do you hope audiences gain from the show?
TF: I hope they enjoy this type of musical. I hope someone sees “Spelling Bee’ and thinks, “Wow, I had no idea musical theater could be like that.” I would imagine if you had only seen “Oklahoma,” “Annie” and “Oliver,” you’d have no idea this kind of musical theater exists. For some people, this is the kind of musical that gets them hooked.
It’s such a cool show to be a part of this season. “Little Mermaid” is going to be huge and “Macbeth” was this traditional, Shakespearean epic piece, but “Spelling Bee” comes in there and it just might be your favorite.