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Can you spell ‘interactive musical comedy’?

The Department of Theatre’s final production of the spring semester is The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, which opens Tuesday night in the Studio Theatre. We asked director Scott Edmiston, department chair and professor of the practice, to tell us what’s in store for the audience at this “bee-loved” musical comedy featuring Northeastern students. Hint: Lots of spelling and “an immersive theater experience.”

Synopsis, performance dates, and ticket information
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, which is a Tony Award-winning musical comedy, depicts six anxiety-ridden, overachieving adolescents who vie for a highly coveted middle school championship. The play opens Tuesday night and runs for 13 performances from March 22 to April 3 in the Studio Theatre. Tickets are on sale now, and prices range from $5 for students with an NU ID to $15 for general admission.

It’s probably the funniest musical I’ve ever directed.
— Scott Edmiston, director

What can the audience expect? (Hint: There will be a lot of spelling.)
This will be an “immersive theater experience,” Edmiston explained. The seats have been replaced with school desks, so audience members feel like they’re really attending a middle school spelling bee when they walk into the Studio Theatre. And did we mention lots of spelling? But it won’t just be the cast members. At each show, four audience members will also volunteer to participate and compete. Yes, that means they’ll come up on stage and attempt to spell words. (If you want to volunteer, arrive early to the show and notify the stage manager.)

The actors will also improvise each night in response to the audience as well as to what’s happening with current events. (Translation: Expect some fun political jokes.) There will be a host of topical references to life at Northeastern as well. “The script allows itself to be adapted for different audiences,” Edmiston explained, “so we think it will be a uniquely Northeastern experience in that way.

“There’s a wonderful improvisational quality to the play,” he added. “In theater, we like to think that the performance is different every night. But that’s especially true in Spelling Bee because we honestly don’t know what’s going to happen. Every performance will be new, and the shows will feature people from all across the Northeastern community, from students to co-op advisors to deans.”

What drew you to this play?
For starters, Edmiston said, “it’s probably the funniest musical I’ve ever directed.” He said the play celebrates language, and the student cast has a special gift for playing comedy. “There hasn’t been a rehearsal where at some point they haven’t struggled to stay in character and not crack up at each other,” he said.

There’s a wonderful improvisational quality to the play. In theater, we like to think that the performance is different every night. But that’s especially true in Spelling Bee because we honestly don’t know what’s going to happen. Every performance will be new.
— Scott Edmiston, director

Edmiston said he’s also drawn to stories about people outside of the mainstream—outcasts, misfits, eccentrics. “I find those stories very compelling,” he said, “and I think theater tells those stories very well.” Spelling Bee, he said, is about quirky kids who don’t quite fit in, but spelling is one thing they all do very well. “The play allows us to laugh about their eccentricities but also develop an affection for these characters,” he said. “The difficulties of adolescence are something we can all identify with, particularly college students.”

Edmiston was also attracted to Spelling Bee for one thing it is not: a spectacle. “We tend to think of musicals as big and splashy, and Spelling Bee isn’t so much about the size of the production as it is about the distinct and endearing qualities of the misfit characters. It’s been wonderful to work with student actors on a musical in which they can dig deeply into the characters and make them uniquely their own.”

And for even more, here’s a video of students rehearsing for the play and discussing the production:

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