Spelling Bee Challenges the Audience

Ben Weiss ’20 feels hundreds of imaginary gazes boring into him, waiting for his response. Will he spell the word correctly? With tonight’s opening of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Ben’s character and five other quirky elementary schoolers will get the opportunity to spell, sing, and dance.
Adapted from Rachel Sheinkin’s book of the same name, the musical comedy centers on six adolescents competing against each other in a spelling bee. Although only one of the six can win, each contestant learns valuable lessons from the bee, such as humility or self-confidence. Instead of highlighting one main character, the focus of the show jumps from person to person. Mr. Marcus Olson, director of the musical and instructor in theatre, said, “[The] six kids who are competing in the Bee are all a little quirky. One kid uses his feet to spell the word out before he reads it, and there’s this whole song in the show called ‘Magic Foot’ [about it]. It’s really fun.”
Unlike last year’s musical, Runaways, Spelling Bee is a comedy. A special feature of this musical is viewer participation. In the middle of the show, four random audience members will be invited up on stage to compete in the spelling bee alongside the actors. Mr. Olson said, “[The audience members] will be asked to spell, [and] they can say whatever they want. It will make the show fun for the audience, because they have someone to root for.”
Along with 15 other student actors, Benjamin Weiss ’21, who plays sixth-grader Chip Tolentino, has gotten a deeper understanding of his character as a result of daily rehearsals. Weiss feels that, although Chip is initially a self-centered and narcissistic person, there are more layers underneath his egotistical exterior. He said, “Acting is an area where I can express myself, put out my emotions, and discover something about myself. You can find something in a character that connects with you, and put some part of yourself into that character – a part that you didn’t even know existed.”
Besides the work on stage, the complexities of the set and special effects reflect the effort that the crew has put into the show. Technical details such as lighting and sound set the tone for each scene. Mr. Derek Breashears, director of theater and technical director of the show, said, “For [flashbacks], the lighting is going to shift to non-realism, and [we will use] angles of light that we don’t experience in real life.”
The Hotchkiss Dramatic Association makes an effort to choose shows that are relatable for students. Although Spelling Bee is a comedy, real issues that affect adolescents are underlined and addressed, such as depression or familial separation. Mr. Olson said, “The show is heartfelt. [For example,] one girl is on her own and really misses her parents. A lot of Hotchkiss students could probably relate to that, being away from their families.”
Weiss also said, “[The show] follows the idea of what it means to be a kid, the idea of adolescence. It looks deeper into a time period where so many changes happen to us, when we are learning about ourselves.”

You can find something in a character that connects with you, and put some part of yourself into that character – a part that you didn’t even know existed.”

— Ben Weiss ’21

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee will be performed at 7:30 p.m. on November 7, 8, and 9, and 2:30 p.m. on November 10 in Walker Auditorium.