Want to be a contestant in Ford’s Theatre’s production of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee”? Craig A. Horness, the production stage manager charged with selecting audience members to join the cast onstage, has a few suggestions to help you ace the theater’s screening test:
1. Be early. 2. Show up at the theater sober. 3. Don’t be a stage mom. 4. Don’t be a ham. Theatergoing civilians only. No actors. 5. Know how to spell “accumulate.”
“Are there one or two ‘c’s’?” Horness asked. “That one keeps tripping people up.”
“Spelling Bee” is Horness’s 32nd production at Ford’s, but his first in which, in addition to making sure the curtains go up on time and all the actors are in costume, he is also charged with casting four audience members to take part in the show.
“Spelling Bee” debuted on Broadway in 2005, after a successful run at two smaller New York theaters. The irreverent depiction of middle-school stereotypes — including Asian overachievers, schlumpy Boy Scouts and snot-faced nerds — has since become something of a mainstream hit, to the point where tourists and schoolchildren are lining up in Penn Quarter to see this slightly toned-down version of the musical.
Adult actors play six of the spelling bee contestants, and members of the audience play four. Spring is high tourist season in Washington, which means a significant percentage of Ford’s patrons are not regular theatergoers. That has created both opportunities and obstacles for the theater as it seeks to recruit audience participants. One week into the run, Horness finally has what he thinks is a reliable system, but he has had to make some adjustments.
Patrons standing in line or milling around the lobby are greeted by Vice Principal Douglas Panch (actor Matthew A. Anderson, in a suit and tie and in character). He directs aspiring spellers to a box-office window overhung with a sign that says, “Want to ‘bee’ a speller at this performance?”
The window is manned, alternatively, either by Horness or one of two production assistants. The questionnaire includes some biographical information and a liability waiver, in the highly unlikely event that anyone falls off the moving sets. As patrons answer questions, Horness and Anderson keep an eye out for any parents who are filling out their child’s form. Actors are already playing pushy parents in the show, and the theater doesn’t need to cast any more.
“We don’t want anyone who’s being coerced,” Horness said. “A lot of people are coming up to the window and are saying, ‘I want to sign up my friend.’ We don’t allow that.”
Also not allowed: drunk tourists. “There was this group of people from England who wanted to volunteer, but they were obviously too tipsy,” Horness said.
After several previews, Horness introduced some additional screening steps: They now ask the volunteers whether they are actors and administer an oral on-the-spot spelling test. The former became necessary after a volunteer who turned out to be a community theater actress came onstage and kept ad-libbing and mugging for the audience. Anderson and Rachel Zampelli, the actress who plays spelling bee host Rona Lisa Perretti, get to choose the words the audience contestants spell, and they made sure the aspiring actress was sent back to her seat in the theater pretty quickly.
“We are not looking for other actors onstage,” Horness said. “We want regular people who have some personality but are not up there to steal the show.”
So that was one lesson learned, but during the first couple of performances, some of the volunteers were eliminated so quickly that their early departures disrupted the flow of the show. That prompted Horness to test the volunteers with a few words in advance.
Volunteers have until half an hour before curtain to sign up. Then Horness and his assistants choose their spellers. Ideally, he wants two male and two female volunteers. One should be a senior citizen and one should be of school age. A school chaperone from Georgia has turned out to be the best volunteer speller thus far, drawing big cheers from the 100 or so junior high kids in her entourage.
“She was great,” Horness said. “Whenever she got up, they would whoop and holler, and it really added to the audience’s energy level.”
Given the number of young students attending performances, Ford’s decided to use alternate lyrics for the song titled “My Unfortunate Erection,” but most members of the audience still figure out that a bodily distraction is hampering one of the (actor) contestants. Other Ford’s adaptations include John Wilkes Booth and Abraham Lincoln jokes.
Because he is out meeting with the volunteers, Horness misses out on much of the backstage banter among cast members. Normally, 10 minutes before showtime, he would be checking in with all his actors, rather than giving instructions and a pep talk to several members of the audience.
“It usually takes me until right up until curtain,” he said. “It is kind of a crazy process, but it’s the process. Come sign up. We need good spellers. We need people who are in it to win it.”
Ritzel is a freelance writer.