Rehearsals with “The Putnam County Spelling Bee” cast


Eleanor Hedges Duroy

“The Putnam County Spelling Bee” cast rehearses every day from 7:30 p.m. to 9:15 p.m. The student-produced musical opens in December.

Cadence Chen, Staff Writer

As the nine-person cast of her student-run production of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” reaches its midpoint in preparations before opening in December 2022, director Lucy Polyak ’23 describes this project as “a roller-coaster ride.”

“Right now, I’m doing the screaming, arms-in-the-air thing,” she said. 

During the first week of October, Polyak, stage manager David Gales `23 and music director and pit lead Jacob Johnson `23 held auditions for the musical. On November 8th, the cast rehearsed through the show cover to cover. Rehearsals are typically every day from 7:30 p.m. to 9:15 p.m. and are split between music practice and stage blocking. By now, Polyak said, the cast is almost off-book. 

In the next month, the cast will work on developing their characters as they discover the quirks and subtleties that define their individual styles. This structure is in hopes of encouraging the cast to making bigger choices. Johnson began pit rehearsals over the weekend. The cast and crew are “aggressively in the swing of things,” said the director. 

This week, the cast is set to rehearse at the Loft Theatre at the Grinnell Area Arts Center, where the show will ultimately be performed. The Loft is a black-box theatre, where the audience members are near the actors and the seats wrap around the stage in a stadium-like curvature, seating 65 to 100 people—“a small, intimate space for a small, intimate show,” cast member Sophie Noyes `24 said.  

Originally created by Rachel Sheinkin and William Finn, “The Putnam County Spelling Bee” follows six eccentric middle schoolers and three adults as the adolescents compete in the titular spelling bee. The show’s lightheartedness and strong moral values are what initially drew Polyak to this show.

“I walk in the room and silliness hits me in the face,” said Reese Hill `24, who plays Rona Lisa Peretti, an adult who now runs the spelling bee after winning it as a child. 

Polyak’s production features adults playing kids, which has led the cast to reflect on their younger selves in relation to the present. Noyes said that they and the rest of the cast have found that playing a younger character has allowed them to heal their inner child. 

“You get to embody a child and show them the most amount of love you possibly can,” they said.

As a director, Polyak emphasizes showing compassion for one’s character. Gales, alongside their many other roles, dedicates time before rehearsals to be a dialect coach for Maggie Morris `26 to help her replicate her character’s lisp in a way that sounds authentic and is not a caricature of someone with a lisp.   

Morris, who plays precocious and ultra-politically aware Logainne SchwarzandGrubenierre (Schwarzy for short), said she initially felt like she “was trying to act more grown-up” at the beginning of rehearsals. Similar to ten-year-old Schwarzy, Morris is the youngest in the cast. 

“I’m managing myself, but also, I miss my mommy and daddy like I never have before,” she said. “And these people around me already have a major or maybe even a career plan, and they’re really going into adult life—where I feel like I’m just catching up to, like, being a college kid.” 

Morris also finds that Schwarzy’s passion over political issues but general misguidedness to be an aspect of her character that she relates to.

“It’s such a relief to find that funny rather than just finding that embarrassing.” 

Even as Hill is playing one of three adults, she has still been able to find the “echoes of puberty and awkwardness” in Rona. 

While the show maintains a playfulness throughout, each character is internally going through something emotionally volatile, driving their individual desires to win the spelling bee.  

Sheepish contestant Olive Ostrovsky, played by Noyes, is the only contestant who does not have a parent in the audience due to her dad’s abuse and mom’s neglect. This culminates into “The I Love You Song,” a heart-wrenching song that, Gales noticed, everyone cried to.  

“The show doesn’t ever soften the impact of its blows with humor,” said Gales. “The humor in the show is separate from the tragedy in that there are funny things and there are sad things and they exist simultaneously, but they are not the same.” 

Over the past month, some cast members faced illness and had to manage their personal lives alongside regular rehearsals. This coupled with the campus-wide mourning of Davis Cooper’s `26 life made for an emotionally taxing rehearsal period. 

Noyes said that they sometimes struggled to come in with a positive attitude. Among much sentimentality, Hill finds that the space the cast has cultivated together is one free of judgement and full of people who want to support one another. 

“We are holding space for negative emotions, to be like, you don’t have to be feeling anything other than what you are feeling in this rehearsal process,” said Noyes. 

“That sort of balance and that sort of sincerity can be a really hard thing to strike if you’re not in the headspace to do it. But they did. And they did and are,” said Johnson.