"Can you use it in a sentence?"
"Um … what's the definition?"
You can hear questions like that asked by participants of any given spelling bee. What you don't hear is people asking those questions — and meaning them seriously — in the midst of a theatrical production.
And that's what makes "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" such a unique theatrical work. The musical comedy, which will be performed by the Columbia-based community troupe Silhouette Stages starting Oct. 28, lets four audience members per performance take part in an actual spelling bee as it tells the story of seven kids each trying to be a spelling champ.
So if audience volunteers spell a word wrong, they get disqualified. If they happen to be great spellers, well, then that particular performance might go on for a while. Such are the chances actors and directors take on when performing this play.
"If an audience member happens to be a really good speller, you've got to get them off stage at some point," says Conni Ross, who is co-directing the show with Debbie Mobley. "We can't have them up on stage indefinitely, of course. So we have to come up with words they can't spell.
"I've seen a lot of productions of it across the United States," muses the Columbia resident. "And, inevitably, somebody from the audience turns out to have been a spelling bee champ at some point in their lives, and they get right up there and they throw (the cast) because they just keep spelling the words right."
Er, so what happens if one of those aforementioned former spelling bee champs finds his or her way onto the stage and fouls up the proceedings with total spelling mastery?
Well, that's where the emcee's ad-libbing skills come in. The emcee takes the form of a school vice principal named Douglas Panch, who is played by Ellicott City actor Eric Stein.
"He literally has to come up with words somewhere down the line that will throw them off," Ross says. "They might get a word like 'cow' to get them set up and get them going, but they might get a fourteen-letter word at the end to get them out.
"So he really has to be able to manage what's happening on that stage."
Ross says the show was "hard to cast," because doing what amounts to improv isn't usually part of the community theater experience.
"We had to make sure that the actors had the ability to do improv, because not everybody can," she says.
So that's why the troupe turned to Stein, a veteran area actor known for his recent dramatic work at the Silver Spring Stage and Baltimore's Vagabond Players. Stein has been acting since the early 1990s, when he played starring roles in several Catonsville Community College productions under the direction of innovative director John Wynne.
After having played leading roles in productions ranging from "Cabaret" to "Six Degrees of Separation," being put on the spot each time this production runs doesn't faze him at all, he says.
"I like the fact that there is an element of chance in the play," explains Stein. "It gives you a little bit of time to step away from the script and kind of riff on what the writers have given you, which is always exciting. Also, it's been a while since I've done something which is purely musical comedy. It's nice to go up on stage and have fun and not worry so much about dramatic acting."
Adds Ross: "It's hard not to have fun with it as a production. It's very upbeat."
Under its spell
The "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" has been a hit with both audiences and performers since it hit Broadway in 2005, and the actors at Silhouette Stages aren't the first to fall under its spell. It was nominated for six Tony Awards, won two, and quickly became a standard show for community troupes to perform after it closed in New York.
The main reason it strikes such a chord with people, says Ross, is that it focuses on adolescence, a period of life that virtually all of us have strong feelings about one way or the other.
"It's one of those shows that if you come into it remembering what you're childhood was like, you will find someone on that stage to identify with," says Ross, who lives in Columbia. "Because each one of the characters in the show has something that they face just like every young child and every middle school kid runs into."
On the surface, the show's plot seems almost ridiculously simple: seven young people compete in a spelling bee. But what makes it resonate with audiences is the "back-story" of each character, which is revealed through both songs and dialogue. Thus, the audience gets to see kids under massive parental pressure, kids having issues with anxiety and kids learning how not to be "sore losers."
"You're bound to see one of these characters," Ross says. "And go 'Holy crap, that was me!'"
Jogging even more memories will be Stein's character of Vice Principal Panch, the kind of desperate-to-be-hip school administrator everyone seems to have once known.
Says Stein: "He's one of those people who thinks he's cool, but is about as uncool as you can possibly get."
To make the proceedings even more interesting, Silhouette Stages has arranged for one local celebrity to compete as one of the four contestants during the troupe's performances. So far, the schedule includes Howard County Arts Council Executive Director Coleen West on Oct. 28, Howard County Council member Calvin Ball on Oct. 29 and fellow council member Mary Kay Sigaty on Nov. 4.
As such, audiences can see which local leader studied linguistics most. Meanwhile, Ross, Stein and the rest of the crew are rehearsing regularly at Slayton House, hoping the incoming audiences don't contain a Spelling Grandmaster who will keep everyone in the theater until closing time.
"We've had some guest spellers come in and we've practiced with them a little bit," Stein says. "But I think until we get the show up on its feet we're really not going to know what's going to happen. It really depends on if people who get involved try to ham it up as actors, if they want to get up there and actually try to win the bee."
Silhouette Stages will perform "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" Fridays-Saturdays Oct. 28-29 and Nov. 4-5, at 8 p.m., and Sunday Oct. 30 at 3 p.m., in the Slayton House Theater at 10400 Cross Fox Lane in the Wilde Lake Village Center in Columbia. Tickets are $18 general and $15 for seniors and students. For reservations call 410-637-5289 or go to http://www.seatyourself.biz/silhouettestages.
After "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" closes, Silhouette Stages has a variety of other productions on tap for its 2011-12 season. Future shows include two Cabaret Nights, which allow local performers to strut their stuff (Dec. 12 and Feb. 4), the area premiere of the Broadway favorite "Avenue Q" (March 2-11), another Cabaret Night (April 28) and a revival of Stephen Sondheim's bittersweet romantic musical "Company" (May 11-20).