It’s time for the “25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” featuring contestants like Mayor John Engen, Monte the bear, UM President Seth Bodnar, and maybe even you.
The most unusual spelling-bee-themed musical ever written, “Putnam,” opening its run at the Missoula Community Theatre this weekend, takes its cues from improvisation.
“There’s a lot of moving pieces,” said director Adam Ferguson.
The show is about the spelling bee, with six seventh-grade participants and three teachers and moderators, all played by adult actors. “Putnam” promises to examine middle school angst, awkwardness and puberty through a humorous, adult lens.
But its calling card is the audience participation: two additional spelling bee contestants will not be actors, but instead volunteers from the audience that night. A third will be from a rotating cast of local celebrities like Engen and Bodnar, including Susan Hay Patrick, chief executive officer of United Way of Missoula County; KettleHouse co-owner Suzy Rizza and several local news anchors.
There’s a booth in the lobby before every show where volunteers can enter their names to be selected as a guest speller. Ferguson said they have to fill out a small form with their name and a little bit of personal information the actors can use in the show.
The producers then select two names and the people are called onstage during the show. They won’t know what words they’ll be asked to spell beforehand, making for potential craziness.
“They become very much a part of the play, an integral part,” Ferguson said. “It’s always new and fresh like theater is, but this kind of takes it to another level.”
The spelling bee moderators have to be prepared for any outcome — Ferguson said they try to influence the show’s direction a bit by giving participants more difficult or easier words. But if the participant succeeds or fails, the show follows, even if it wasn’t what was “meant” to happen.
That requires improvisation from the actors and quite a bit of “structured chaos.” It also means every night will be a unique performance.
“It has that unknown wild-card element,” Ferguson said. “It’s out of the ordinary to have not just audience interaction, but audience members injected directly into the story line.”
The craziness of audience-actors isn’t the only reason to attend though. “Putnam,” first produced on Broadway in 2005, acts as a sort of musical-theater antecedent to the recent movie “Eighth Grade,” with a more unfiltered look at the pain of middle school.
Adult actors pull this balance off because of their perspective, Ferguson said. They’ve lived through middle school and can keep the characters more grounded and true to life as they struggle with winning and losing, not fitting in, the discomfort of puberty and a lack of confidence in one’s individuality.
“It allows them to play around with these different themes we deal with,” Ferguson said. “These performers are doing a great job with capturing the spirit of all of it.”
That spirit is definitely seen through a grown-up perspective, he said, warning the show is rated PG-13. It's more for people who’ve been through middle school than middle-schoolers themselves.
The humor doesn’t mince words about awkward topics like puberty and other themes that might make kids squirm in their seats sitting next to parents.
“(It’s) really relatable to anyone who’s been through middle school and knows the awkwardness of it,” Ferguson said.