All the classroom’s a stage

Shakespeare and Wordsworth were replaced by singing and acting at Linsly-Chittenden Hall last weekend.

The musical “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” directed by Maggie Burrows ’10, was performed in LC 102 because of the unavailability of other performance spaces on campus. Other recent performances, including “A School for Greybeards,” directed by English and Theater Studies professor Murray Biggs 10 days ago, have also resorted to using classrooms for theater productions.

“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” was performed in LC this weekend because traditional theater spaces were all booked.
Charlie Croom
“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” was performed in LC this weekend because traditional theater spaces were all booked.

For most student plays, large professionally-equipped spaces like the Yale Repertory Theatre, the University Theatre or The Whitney Theater are hard to book. The problem of finding performance space often leads small, independent student productions to fight over alternative venues, including residential college theaters such as the Jonathan Edwards Theater and Saybrook Underbrook, four students interviewed said.

Burrows and the show’s producer Nora Wessel ’10, a former editor at the News, wanted to emulate the setting of a real spelling bee, such as a gym or a schoolroom, but their preferred spots, black box theaters like the Off-Broadway Theatre, were already booked.

“After meeting with the registrar, we decided on using LC 102, mainly because of its availability on the nights we had already scheduled for the show,” Burrows said.

School of Drama Dean James Bundy DRA ’95 said the play made good use of a non-traditional space, especially given how crowded the undergraduate theater calendar is.

“Some of the most exciting theater I’ve seen has been in non-traditional, or site-specific venues,” Bundy wrote in an e-mail. “A healthy theatrical environment like Yale’s is probably always going to include work being done in traditional theatres, and work done by people who for esthetic or practical reasons choose to play outside the box.”

LC 102, unlike most classrooms, has a podium that could serve as a stage for the performance. But Yale classrooms were not meant to be theaters.

Because the room is used for classes during the day, the students said they had to limit rehearsal time to after-class hours and move all the equipment — 11 stools, a table, a drum set, two pianos, amplifiers, costumes and props — in and out of the room for each rehearsal.

The actors interviewed said they were forced to find creative solutions to the technical problems that the space posed. For instance, they placed an amp inside the fireplace so the actors sitting to the right of the stage could hear the musicians to the left.

But Burrows said the non-traditional space, which they initially saw as a limitation, “evolved into an element that enhanced the comedic, improvisational nature of the show.”

The lack of theatrical lighting, which forced the actors and the audience members to stay in a space that was entirely lit, integrated the audience into the performance.

“This was a choice designed to make even the audience feel like they were a part of the bee,” Burrows said. This effect was enhanced by the participation of audience members, including Bundy, in the spelling bee within the play. Bundy tried, unsuccessfully, to spell the word “ecchymosis.”

But Burrows added that the actors had to work harder to hold the focus of the audience.

Brennan Caldwell ’11, an actor in Spelling Bee, said he appreciated the fact the production did not solely depend on the “bells and whistles” of theater. When he saw the Broadway production of the same show, he said he noticed that they relied heavily on the lighting to make certain shifts between scenes more apparent, Caldwell said.

“Without the lighting, I felt the audience members were more included in the show, and as an actor I found it easier to connect with them,” he added.

Actors in the play sang and danced among the audience. Caldwell, at one point, handed out Pop-Tarts and candy to audience members.


  • Brad Beall

    I was fortunate to attend all three performances of “Spelling Bee” this past weekend, and while necessity may have forced its production in a lecture hall, I thought the venue was absolutely perfect! Not only did it lend the “classroom” or “gymnasium” feel to the production that most of us associate with spelling bees, but it focused the audience’s attention on how well the actors developed their respective characters. Unlike other productions where set-design, lighting or orchestration are essential parts of the story, “Spelling Bee” is character-intensive, and therefore succeeds or fails based on that single criterion. Cheers to Miss Burrows, her cast and her crew for making “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” an enjoyable and memorable experience! I’m glad that I made the trip to see it.