Town Hall Arts Center’s production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, which opens this Friday, January 7. We wanted to take an opportunity to give an insider’s perspective to this production of this kooky musical. In particular, Kateri McRae, Scott Rathbun and Chris Trimboli have all played their roles in previous productions! Kateri McRae has previously played Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre in a production in California, while Scott Rathbun played William Barfée at Carousel Dinner Theater and Chris Trimboli played Chip Tolentino at Little Theatre of the Rockies. Read below to hear about that experience for each of them.
HE ASKED: Four of the nine actors in Town Hall’s productions have played their roles before (including you). What’s that like? How much does the previous production impact what you’re doing in this one?
Scott Said: This is not the first time that I have played the same role multiple times, but here it was only a matter of months, which means that the previous production is very fresh in my mind. Playing the same role again has allowed me to delve even deeper into a character that I am already familiar with to try to find new levels and make new discoveries. The challenge is to make the character grow and not just play exactly what you played before. That said, the previous production can only inform a performance with a new cast to a limited extent because you have different actors throwing different interpretations at you, so your character has to change with those around you.
Kateri Said: What was cool was starting at a very comfortable point in terms of knowing our music and our lines — there were a few times where I wasn’t sure I remembered my notes, so I just opened my mouth and the right thing came out! Muscle memory is amazing. But not always a good thing — it’s kind of been a challenge in terms of exercising flexibility for me. In the first rehearsals I had to really concentrate to motivate my new blocking, and to be open to different relationships with the other characters because of the way they’re being played.
HE ASKED: The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee follows six middle-schoolers through their county spelling bee. What’s it like to play a kid in such a tense situation?
Chris Said: It’s a lot of work. I am so exhausted by the end of this play- not just physically, but emotionally as well. for these kids this is life or death and you really have to make that ring true every time you step up to the mic. The challenge in that is not to play it too heavy and remember that they are still kids and they are having fun. It is really easy to get caught up solely in the competition of the piece, so for me I have to constantly find the lighter moments in the script and play those up more.
Scott Said: Playing a kid is a lot of fun and a large challenge at the same time. Young people are not encumbered by social norms and are often much more free with their emotions. At the same time, kids are fully functioning people, not caricatures, so finding a balance is extremely important. Playing these roles in too “kiddie” a manner would be the downfall of this show. Being a kid in such a tense situation allows the best and the worst of the roller-coaster of emotions to come out in short order and creates a fun acting challenge.
HE ASKED: One huge part of the show is the audience volunteers who are selected each night. How do you prepare for having people onstage every night that you can’t control?
Kateri Said: Well, it’s improv, so there really is no way to prepare entirely! We all have to stay flexible, and the best we can do is brainstorm about the different ways that things could potentially go. The show is so well written in terms of how to deal with the audience volunteers that it’s really one of the highlights of the show each night, and it’s different during every performance! I think it’s part of what’s made the show so popular on Broadway, and why there’s been such a rash of local companies producing it as well.
Chris Said: I love having that element of uncertainty in the show. The audience volunteers in many ways steer the energy of the show. If they are into it and having a great time then the rest of the audience is doing the same, so I always just try and make sure that they are having an amazing time. Playing with them and making them feel a part of the cast even if its for this short amount of time. The other stuff is going to happen the way it happens, but if you can make sure that they are driving the energy then the rest of show is a breeze.
HE ASKED: This show showcases a lot of comedy and improvisation with some very serious and touching moments. How do you balance both of these?
Scott Said: I handle the comedy/emotion of the show the same way that I handle every production. It does not matter that we are playing kids. My philosophy is to play the realism in every situation and to allow the comedy/emotion to be borne out of that. I believe that comedy comes from belief in what you are watching. The second you think that an actor is searching for laughs, it becomes unfunny. The same is true of other emotions in the theater. I believe in playing the situation as honestly as possible and letting the emotion and/or humor come out of that.
Kateri Said: It’s tricky, but our director (Bob Wells) has a really good eye for how to make each of these moments specific and real, and I think they naturally balance each other out. Like Scott said, the best comedic performances and the best dramatic performance have something in common – they’re both incredibly honest. So we just stay true to what our characters are achieving throughout the bee, and the humor and heart just fall naturally out of that.
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee plays January 7- January 30 at the Town Hall Arts Center in Littleton. Click the banner below for tickets and more information!