Daily Herald
Reporter gets shot at participatory 'Putnam County Spelling Bee'
By Eileen O. Daday | Daily Herald Columnist
Published: 9/22/2010 12:00 AM

If you go

What: "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee"

Where: Metropolis Performing Arts Centre, 111 W. Campbell St., Arlington Heights

When: Previews run at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 3 and 7 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 23-26. Regular run starts at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 7 p.m. Saturdays and 3 p.m. Sundays, Sept. 30 through Nov. 6. No show Sunday, Oct. 3. Extra show at 2 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 6. Show on Sunday, Oct. 17, at 2 p.m.

Tickets: Previews: $27-$33; regular run: $35-$43. Call (847) 577-2121 or visit metropolisarts.com.

In my nearly 25 years writing for the Daily Herald, I've covered my fair share of spelling, geography and even chemistry bees. Luckily, I've never had to compete in one -- until last week.

Acting on a whim, I accepted a request to "help out" with a rehearsal of "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee," the Tony Award-winning musical that opens in previews at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 23, at the Metropolis Performing Arts Centre, 111 W. Campbell St. in Arlington Heights. The regular run opens Thursday, Sept. 30, and continues through Saturday, Nov. 6.

For the last few weeks, production members have recruited unsuspecting participants to take part in the bee, as part of the show's opening scene. How hard could it be, I reasoned?

When colleagues in the newsroom began wishing me good luck, I should have known something was up.

Joining me that night were Anna Riddle of Des Plaines, Amanda Nianick of Buffalo Grove and Judy L'Amoureux of Arlington Heights, all nonactors but supporters of the theater.

We waited anxiously as the actors and their understudies went through their vocal warmups before pouring over "notes" from Director Robin Hughes, the resident artistic and casting director at Metropolis.

"I think the writers have packaged this musical in such a fun way," Hughes says. "It's not all bubble gum or fluff, but is rooted in real stories. I think the audience will be able to relate to at least some of the aspects of these characters."

Still, she adds, while the show is tightly scripted, it does leave room for some "improv moments," especially during the spelling bee itself. That, apparently, was where we came in.

Michael Herschberg, who very convincingly plays Vice Principal Douglas Panch, bee moderator, approached us with clipboard in hand. He needed to get more information from us, he explained.

In retrospect, the only thing missing after he took down our names and background information, was a number to hang around our neck.

Hey, whatever happened to the notion that we were going to "help out" with rehearsal and give the cast members a chance to bone up on their spelling bee delivery and timing?

I started getting nervous. I was instructed to approach the microphone when my name was called, and to remember the rules: I could ask for the word to be repeated, for its definition and for it to be used in a sentence.

Most importantly, I could go back and restart a word, but I had to keep the letters I already had used in the same sequence. That proved to be important.

When the bee started, it turned out that we were mixed right in with the actors, and they would turn to us in astonishment as the other contestants competed and make hushed comments about their performances.

We were so embedded into the cast that bee moderator Panch made no allowances for us: We were given the same hard words as the cast. Take Nianick. She had the misfortune of landing the word "aegrotat," which knocked her out of the first round.

L'Amoureux survived spelling "jihad" in the first round but got knocked out in the second with the word "ahimsa." Riddle, too, saw her fortunes end in the second round, when she failed to spell "crèche" correctly.

When my turn came up, I lucked out with the word "cow." It sounded like the fix was in, but it was all part of the script. The unfairness of the seemingly easy word launched the cast into the song "Pandemonium," in which they rant about how the element of luck makes the bee unfair.

Consequently, I survived that round but had to be eliminated in the next, according to the script, so they can get on with the show.

It turns out that the very intimidating-looking Panch seeks out bee contestants from the audience before every show.

"You wouldn't believe how much it adds to the show. The audience really pulls for them," Herschberg says. "We look for someone who looks fun, who we think will be a good sport."

So, in that way, I felt vindicated. I guess somehow I must have looked like a good sport or fun. It certainly couldn't have been my spelling prowess. That's why they invented spell-checker, for writers like me.