Find your "weltanschauung" with HRDC's "Spelling Bee"

by Simon de Carvalho '14

Weltanschauung (n), German: 1. a unique and personal philosophy of life; 2. a comprehensive conception or image of the universe and of humanity’s relation to it.

At heart, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is about finding your Weltanschauung. The show had a five-show run this weekend at Agassiz Theatre.

The musical, directed by Alex Willis ’14, is the hilarious and heartening story of, appropriately, the 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, and features a cast of bizarre, awkward, somewhat troubled children who are all entirely adorable. The spellers, young though they may be, all deal with their own problems, such as a mother who is no longer around and a distant father, parents with no confidence in their son and a mother who places burdensome expectations on her daughter. These problems are real, and they’re very powerful, but this is a show that’s about dealing with problems by accepting them, and accepting that everyone else has problems, too.

Putnam achieves this noble goal through humor, sensitivity and a little bit of camp. "As valuable and thoughtful as ‘heavy theater’ can be," says Willis, "campy theater is equally deserving of praise, I believe. It is important to laugh now and then, and I thought this show would the perfect way to bring joy and humor to the Harvard theater scene."

The message has its relevance to the student body, too.

"I think it's important for Harvard students to remember that they can be imperfect and weird," Willis explains. "There is so much pressure here to always be perfect, and I think the show really illuminates the joy in being your weird self and in messing up once in a while."

To tie the message of the show even more explicitly to the Harvard audience, the show heavily features audience participation. Guest spellers are called onstage to participate in the competition, and each performance features some special "Harvard celebrity" (or two or three!) as guest spellers.

At the performance I attended, one of the "Harvard celebrities" was New College Theatre production coordinator Dana Knox, who was given the daunting task of spelling "cow."

For Knox, being involved in something as silly as Bee sends the message to students that administrators are "more than our job. We are engaged in the students as people outside of the classroom or the office. We want to see their work, and if given the chance, participate and engage in their work."

Audience participation, combined with the uplifting themes of the show, makes Spelling Bee a truly entertaining and heartwarming evening.

"It was exciting to know I could do well or fall flat on my face, and all of the students in the audience would still have my back and cheer," said Knox after the show. "That all builds community, which is what the arts are about."

What Spelling Bee teaches us is that losing is perfectly all right, which at Harvard is not something you hear every day. If you can construct for yourself a Weltanschauung in which losing is just a fact of life, in which you can count on others to be there for you, then life -- and school -- can be so much more rewarding.

In other words: Spell something wrong—fail at something. It might just be the most valuable thing you do with your day.