In the summer of 2014, FCCMT produced our 8th musical in Monteverde, Costa Rica - The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, or El 25to Concurso Anual de Deletreo Local. As with each of our previous productions, careful consideration of a variety of factors went into this decision. Because our mission as an organization is to provide a space for young people to not only be creative artists but to also examine issues in their community through an artistic lens, we try to choose shows that give us these opportunities for exploration and discussion! Spelling Bee did exactly that.
Spelling Bee takes place during an elementary school spelling bee, following the action of the competition while also revealing the backstories of the lives of the six competitors. We learn about their idiosyncrasies, their family lives, and what is important to each of them as individuals. One contestant has a “magic foot” and spells his given word out on the floor before spelling it aloud; another is a perfectionist who speaks six languages and feels immense pressure to excel at everything she attempts; and a third just wants to see her parents together in the audience. While silly and fantastical on the surface, this show deals with important themes that are universally accessible and meaningful. The characters encourage us – cast and audience, alike - to question the definition of success, of family, of self-confidence. Through comedic songs and upbeat dances, this show puts adolescence in the spotlight and asks us to delve into this turbulent time we all experience – a period often overlooked by live theatre.
Spelling Bee also reminds us that kids are whole people – funny, complex, and unique in their own ways. The characters in this show may be no older than 12 years old, but they each have a distinct point of view and have been shaped by a variety of life experiences. The young people depicted in this show are aware of the world around them, have opinions about what they see, and display a depth of emotion that exceeds our expectations. These characters remind us of our participants; they are smart, hilarious, and have huge hearts.
In addition to having important themes and challenging content, it is also important that our shows be appealing to our young participants. What was really fun about this show is that the characters in this musical were instantly relatable for our cast members. They are around the same age as our students and encounter many similar experiences and challenges of adolescence, but they are also caricatures that allow our participants to laugh at themselves. This show provided numerous opportunities for our students to be comedic actors, both through lines written on paper and in numerous improvisational scenes.
As far as artistic challenges, this show had plenty! The music in Spelling Bee is incredibly catchy and fun, but it also very challenging. Filled with complicated rhythms and harmonies, our participants worked hard to master the musical side of this show, with great success. Additionally, this was the first true comedy we had done in several years, which offered a lot of opportunities for our participants as actors. This show challenged them not only to think about all of the important themes present in the play, but also then to present them in a comedic context. How do we talk about loneliness, isolation, abandonment, and low self-esteem in a comedy? Spelling Bee showed us that a musical could be both hilarious and meaningful... not to mention a whole lot of fun.