A few months ago, a student production of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” was only the tiny seed of an idea in the mind of Maggie Burrows ’10. But the path from the thought to the theater — “Spelling Bee” premiers this weekend — has been fraught with difficulties. When Burrows, an English major in Berkeley College, decided to apply for a Sudler grant to bring the acclaimed musical to Yale, she knew she wouldn’t have access to many of the resources available to shows affiliated with the Dramat, Yale’s sprawling, well-funded undergraduate theater organization. She would have to work with a relatively small cast and crew, unconventional performance spaces and a limited lighting and equipment budget.
Luckily, Burrows is good at improvising. Last year when she directed the Commencement musical, a revival of “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” her cast and crew worked grueling hours — 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., according to Burrows — to prepare for the show on a hyper-condensed rehearsal schedule. Burrows drew heavily on those experiences in the weeks leading up to the premier of “Spelling Bee,” and, indeed, four of the cast members in the new musical also appeared in “How to Succeed in Business.”
“We’ve been through commencement,” explained Burrows, making “Spelling Bee” ’s three-week rehearsal period (quite short, by Dramat standards) seem relatively luxurious.
In addition to an abbreviated rehearsal schedule, Burrows also had to contend with the scarcity of venues available for staging a play.
“We applied for nonconventional spaces,” she said, including the Payne Whitney Gymnasium, the Whitney Humanities Center auditorium and even the auditorium of Co-Op Arts High School on College Street; she was turned down by all three. Finally, she settled on room 102 of Linsly-Chittenden Hall, an amply proportioned lecture hall with seating for over 150 audience members. Burrows was confident that the unusual space would not detract from the overall experience: “It’s going to feel like a real spelling bee,” she said.
The show will also be “very low-tech”; due to the location in LC, an academic building, Burrows and her colleagues will have to assemble and then strike the entire set for each individual performance. “The cast literally carries the set in and out every night,” she said. The music for the show, ingeniously arranged and executed by Ben Wexler ’11, is performed by only three musicians — two on keyboards, one on drums.
Improvisation has not been limited to the preparations for “Spelling Bee”: it is vital to the show itself. At each of the shows, cast members will solicit four audience members to join them on stage as competitors in the spelling bee. I asked Burrows what they would be looking for in a potential participant: “We’re not looking for a theater person. You don’t want them to act,” she said. “There’s a danger of audience members highjacking the show.”
In other words, the director will be aiming to recreate onstage what the production has embodied all along: a kind of controlled chaos.
That Burrows and her cast have had to do more with less does not, however, mean that the production will be second-rate. “The performers are all extremely vocally talented,” said Burrows, which this reviewer can corroborate, having seen the last 40 minutes of Wednesday’s dress rehearsal. The show is also sure to be gut-bustingly funny: at the same rehearsal, cast and crew (who had probably heard the jokes dozens of times) couldn’t help but burst into fits of laughter at the exaggerated mannerisms and pratfalls of the characters onstage. The sense of camaraderie was palpable, and it extended beyond the cast to the musicians and crew, a fact that sets Sudler-funded shows like “Spelling Bee” apart from their larger Dramat counterparts, according to Burrows.
The show’s finale recaps the events of the spelling bee, concluding that “At the 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee / We grew up undeniably.” Sounds like it was a learning experience for everyone.