We’ve all seen, in some movie or T.V show, the American Spelling Bee, where small, often bespectacled children approach a microphone on a large stage and confidently spell words such as antediluvian and weltanschauung, words that many people didn’t know existed, let alone how to spell them. Yet, despite the fact that often these Spelling Bee’s make us mere mortal spellers feel incompetent and less intelligent then primary-school-goers, we can’t help but be fascinated by the competition.
Rebecca Feldman drew upon this fascination when she created her improvisational play called C-R-E-P-U-S-C-U-L-E, which later became The 25th Annual Putnum County Spelling Bee, with the help of music composer William Finn and book writer Rachel Sheinkin. The play was transformed into a full-length musical, following the journey of six young wanna-be spellers as they spell their way through the annual competition to win the grand title of Putnum Valley Middle School’s greatest speller. The six peculiar kid characters are led by three (equally peculiar) adult characters to create a small, yet thoroughly entertaining cast.
And who’s taking on this fun and quirky musical? Why, JYM Theatre. Co of course! With a wonderful cast and creative team, JYM is proudly showing off its spelling abilities with this musical. I had the chance to speak with Harley Morrison, who will be bringing the character of William Barfée to life, about his past theatre experiences and his journey with Spelling Bee.
“I've had a fair bit of musical experience, both in and out of school,” says Morrison, “In the past 2 years, I have toured Melbourne and Adelaide in Once on This Island Jr, played Lumiere in Beauty and the Beast, toured Melbourne's shopping centres with A Gleeful Tribute Show and most recently performed in NOVA's production of Chicago.”
With this experience under his belt, Morrison assumed that he would know what to expect from his audition for Spelling Bee, but it is no normal show and it’s audition process involves not only the usual singing part, but also a section in which the auditionees improvisational skills are put to the test.
“I was in the middle of performing in Chicago at the time, so I was hurriedly learning lines and songs for my Spelling Bee auditions while driving to and from Chicago performances” says Harley of his stressful audition day, “To make my call back, I had to run from a matinee performance as soon as the curtain was down, hurriedly take my make-up off in the car while trying to get from Nunawading to St Kilda. Added to that was the fact the panel had agreed to stay and wait for me to arrive because I couldn't make their specified finish time. It turned out to be worth all the stress though!”
As any performer would agree with Morrison, the stress of rehearsals and especially production week are more then worth it when the lights are on, the curtains are up and the audience is filing into their seats. The excitement and pre-show jitters are all a part of the joy of performing, but the cast members of Spelling Bee have a little more on their minds then just performing. They have the added stress that a show with heavy audience interaction brings; the unexpected. Spelling Bee is a very unusual show, in the fact that it lets a few lucky members of the audience become part of the show. “Just after the opening number, we invite 4 randomly selected audience members up on stage to be contestants in the bee,” says Morrison. “They sit with the characters, are given words of varying difficulty to spell, and are encouraged to participate in any movement and action that happens during their time in the competition. ”
For the cast members, this adds an extra level of focus, as they have to be prepared for absolutely anything. For the audience, this adds several extra levels of hilarity as they watch, or become, the new slightly bewildered characters trying to drag up memories of primary school spelling lessons while being moved about the stage. Perhaps most entertaining is seeing how they react to the kooky and very funny characters who always have something to say. Being a largely comedic show, Spelling Bee presents some very odd and larger-then-life characters that add to the laughs with their bizarre characteristics. There’s Olive Ostrovsky, who’s best friend is the dictionary; Logainne SchwartzandGrubenierre who was raised by two overbearing fathers and practices yoga; Leaf Coneybear, who goes into a trance in order to spell the words correctly, and more. Morrison has the good fortune of playing William Barfée, the often grumpy and ever haughty finalist from last years competition who spells using a technique he calls ‘magic foot’.
With such big characters, however, the actors face a challenge of creating hilarious yet true to life people. “I had a lot of trouble creating William Barfee as a character, because he is so different from me and from anything else I have played,” Morrison confesses. “Our director, Jem Splitter, has spent hours with me trying different approaches and different voices, to try to create something more than the one dimensional character that Barfée can so easily become. And I think that's the case with pretty much everyone else. We have really focused on giving these characters something more than the stereotypical traits suggested by the script.”
Spelling Bee promises to be a thoroughly entertaining show, and Morrison is adamant that the “audience's should be prepared for a anything, because when you bring unscripted audience members on stage anything could happen!!”
For more information on show dates, to book tickets, and to brush up on how to spell words like syzygy, make sure you book tickets by clicking on the link here: