"Spelling" rules


A production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee explores adolescence, academic perfectionism and audience participation while helping bring first-year singer-actors into the world of Harvard theater.

By Sasha Barish ‘20

It was backstage at Harvard College Opera’s The Marriage of Figaro that Madeleine Snow ’20 first came to Gregory Lipson ’20 with the idea of putting on a musical with an all-freshman cast. Both of them were freshmen at the time, and both had faced rejection in their first experiences with HRDC’s casting system. Snow had been cast in the ensemble of one show, and Lipson had been on no cast lists.

“I’m mostly interested in directing, not acting, so it’s fine for me,” said Lipson, “but I was thinking, if you’re a person who’s interested in theater but isn’t 100 percent certain that theater’s what you want to do in life, going through the experience that Maddy and I had could be a big turn off, and it could mean that people who are very talented and certainly could play leads in musicals at Harvard don’t audition for theater after their first or second semester.”

Snow and Lipson, who are now producing and directing Spelling Bee respectively, wanted to combat that by helping new students find their place in Harvard theater through a show with a cast of freshmen.

“My hope,” Lipson added, “is that the nine freshmen that we have cast will continue to do theater at Harvard and will dig into a real role through this show, and get to act and sing a lot and show off their talents [to other people at Harvard].”

In addition to having nine parts, all of which are of significant size and detailed character development, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee has themes that are particularly apt for the Harvard community, so it was a natural choice of musical for the staff of the show.

“A lot of the characters in the show have these external pressures from their family, their friends, and even themselves about trying to be perfect, trying to be competitive,” said Snow. “I think there’s these pressures at Harvard as well, and the way that these characters overcome it is by being true to themselves and rejecting perfection and embracing collaboration and just enjoying where they are.”

Lipson agreed: “One of the things that I love about Spelling Bee is how each of the six kids transforms in some way and in the broadest sense they all start as, quote, ‘losers’ and end in some way winners, even though obviously only one of them actually wins the spelling bee.”

As with many Harvard students, he emphasized, as they make new friends and discover themselves, the competitors in the spelling bee have to learn that it’s OK not to be the best.

Adults playing children is one element of the musical’s humor, and Snow said that this works well with freshman actors, who are “going into a new environment and feeling young again, comparatively.”

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is the first theater show in over a decade to be performed in Lowell Lecture Hall. Though this limited some of the production team’s choices, since a lecture hall isn’t designed with the sound and light systems of a theater, and although the hall’s rules required that the show only have one performance, the director and producers felt that it was the perfect space.

“It’s been really exciting to work in a nontraditional theater space,” said Snow, “and it’s a great venue for a show like this because we have a huge stage, and the audience is on three sides so we really get to interact with them in lots of different ways.” She also pointed out that the show itself is set in a gymnasium, which has a similar feel to the wide-open layout of Lowell Lecture Hall.

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee has origins in improvisational comedy, and as the show has been produced widely, including on Broadway and at Harvard, both audience participation and improvised reactions to the participating audience members have remained a major part of the show.

“There are four real people who are not involved in Spelling Bee who are onstage and spell words, and figuring out what that’s going to be like is very difficult,” Lipson said. “I’ve never had to do anything like that, [so] it’s a huge wild card.” The cast has been practicing interacting with audience members by bringing non-actors into rehearsal to fill the places of the volunteers. Lipson also hopes to be able to attract some well-known Harvard professors to the audience and make them spell some words.

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee will be performed in Lowell Lecture Hall, 8:30 PM on Friday, October 27. Students can reserve their seats for free, and non-students can buy tickets at the Harvard Box Office for $5. The show has some adult humor but is suitable for most ages.