Thursday, August 11, 2016

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

By Rebecca Feldman and Jay Reiss
Music and Lyrics William Finn
Directed by Artistic Director
Produced by Astoria Performing Arts Center

Nominated for: Outstanding Actress in a Lead Role,  Becca Andrews; Outstanding Costume Design, Jennifer A Jacob; Outstanding Actor in a Lead Role, Lee Slobotkin; Outstanding Production of a Musical

       Photo by Michael Dekker

About the Production
Astoria Performing Arts Center (APAC) strives to bring professional theater to Astoria, Queens. With their production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee they revealed the dreams and struggles of a group of lovable and eclectic sixth graders, all eager to win the spelling bee.

Dev Bondarin, and nominees, Becca Andrews, Jennifer A Jacob, and Lee Slobotkin discuss the excitement and challenges of bringing this hysterical and moving musical to life.


What attracted you to this production?

Becca: Spelling Bee has always been a dream show for me. I think the music is so brilliant and the script is so funny. I also really wanted something challenging for me as an actor and as a singer and Olive definitely had her fair share of challenges.

Jennifer: I was really excited to work with the wonderful team of people at the Astoria Performing Arts Center again, especially director Dev Bondarin. I was also really drawn to the concept for this production, embracing the theater space that is a gym and finding the reality in these characters.

Lee: When I saw Spelling Bee at the Circle in the Square in 2006, I left the theatre so touched and inspired. The show is a gem, and Leaf had always been a dream role of mine. This show was instrumental in taking my passion for theatre to the next level. I identified with the quirky misfits of Putnam County, and vowed to spend my life on stage doing work that brings people joy. A decade later, this dream came true in the form of my NYC debut!

Dev: I’ve always love the excellent writing and characters, high stakes, and the ability to create a world in which the hopes and dreams of the spelling bee contestants resonate and connect to an audience.

What did you want the audience to walk away with after watching Spelling Bee...?

Dev: I wanted the audience to connect with the characters and their hopes, fears, and dreams and to reach the memories within all of us when we struggled and won in our own way.

What was your favorite part of working on this production?


       Photo by Michael Dekker

Dev: My favorite part was creating an exciting and vivid world with the actors and designers while also fostering an environment where four audience members could go up on stage every night and feel safe and happy with the actors. We also transformed our theater space at APAC info the actual setting for the Bee, which was great fun and served the production well.

Jennifer: I loved digging in to the fun, quirky, original characters in this piece. All of the kids are such individuals, and it was fun to work with the actors to find the look and feel for each of them in the world of this production.

Lee: I loved harnessing my inner child and letting him run wild. It was a very creative, imaginative, and fun process chock full of positive energy from the entire team at APAC. Dev, Misha, Michael, and Katie gave us all the freedom to play and a safe haven to try new things, fall on our faces, get back up, and try again.

Becca: My favorite part of working on Spelling Bee was telling the story every night. I'm a huge anti-bullying advocate and have always said that that 12 year old time is so hard for kids. They have so much to say and struggle with so much that I think it's so important for their voices to be heard.

What was the most challenging part of working on this production?

Lee: The music was definitely the most challenging. William Finn's score is whimsical and complex, expressing the deepest fears and fantasies of adolescence. We only had a month to put the show together, and sang with very little amplification over the band. It took a lot of patience and perseverance to drill the harmonies and get our blend just right, but the payoff was worth it.

Becca: The most challenging part was the music. Those harmonies are so intricate and perfectly written and it was quite a challenge to perfect them and to blend them. It was also the first time in a while I had to carry a vocal line by myself and that's always a huge challenge.

Dev: Rehearsing the improvisational part of the show enough so that the actors were ready for four additional audience members at each performance. Also, the show has deceptively challenging choral music which took some time to master.
       Photo by Michael Dekker


What was the most exciting part of working on this production for you?

Becca: I think the similarities between Olive and 12-year-old Becca are astounding. I wasn't obsessed with books and words but I was certainly obsessed with other things (musicals and theatre) that alienated me from a lot of other "typical" kids. I often felt during the performance that I was just sitting there as my middle school self and it was an odd sensation but a very cool one.

Dev: Instead of dropping the black curtains that we usually use at APAC to create a theater space, we took them down and painted the entire room in which we perform! 
Jennifer: I was really thrilled to work with a custom knitter who created a sweater for the character Leaf Coneybear. We made a piece that looked like a 12 year old could have knit it himself out of leftover yarn, and what she created really fulfilled my vision of this character.

Lee: THE WHOLE DARN THING! The production itself is hysterical, and truly came to life in APAC's "churchnasium" space. We just had to arrive open, honest, and ready to play. The audience participation and improv aspects of the show kept it different each night. One matinee, I was asked out on a date by a handsome guest speller. The next performance, someone whipped out their iPhone and started taking selfies with us. Never a dull moment at the Bee.

What was it like working with APAC?

Jennifer: Everyone at APAC is fantastic! They have such supportive staff and volunteers, and it's such a fun, collaborative environment.

Becca: Getting to do a show in Astoria was awesome because so many actors live there and I got to meet so many people because of the accessibility of the location.

Lee: It was fantastic. Working on a dream role, exploring and eating my way through beautiful Astoria, and creating some new friendships I'm sure will last a lifetime.

What was it like working with Lee, Becca, and Jennifer?

Dev: They were all a joy to work with! Lee Slobotkin was ready to try anything and continued to strive for greater specificity, humor, and truth. Becca Andrews is a workhorse in the best possible sense of the word. She was always interested in going deeper with her character for both comic and tragic effect. Jennifer Jacob is creative and innovative and her specific touches made this production the success that it was.

You can follow these artists on Twitter:

Astoria Performing Arts Center @apacnyc
Jennifer A Jacob @jifjacob77
Lee Slobotkin @leeslobotkin (@leeslo-instagram)

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