The Saltpillar Theatre Company rehearsing for The 25th annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. Photo: Peter Haskin
Funny and heartwarmingThe competitive world of spelling

Ad-libbing through a spelling bee

The Saltpillar Theatre is known for putting on quality productions with excellent stories. And this year’s musical is no exception. The AJN spoke to producer Dani Harrison and assistant producer Camryn Elbaum about The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.

Main image by The Saltpillar Theatre Company rehearsing for The 25th annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. Photo: Peter Haskin

In 1986, five members of Melbourne’s Jewish community decided that the establishment of a Jewish-based theatre group was long overdue. With an aim to foster Jewish creative talent in all spheres of the performing arts, Saltpillar Theatre has staged a number of theatrical productions and events over the years, all appealing to different tastes, ages and interests.

Hilarity has ensued with many of their other productions, and the latest one will be no exception. The main difference is that this time, the younger generation of Jewish talent will be featuring in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.

Producer Dani Harrison and assistant producer Camryn Elbaum said the youth was very important in the choice of production.

“We both saw the need to give young Jewish people an opportunity to be involved in theatre,” Harrison told The AJN. “We chose Spelling Bee because we wanted to introduce a musical, with the idea of starting with something that was a little bit smaller than some other musicals.”

Harrison explained that apart from being funny, heartwarming and enjoyable, it’s simply a fantastic musical, but the size of the cast was what really sealed the deal.

“It has a cast of 11 people, so we thought that was a good size to tackle for the first time for Saltpillar,” Harrison explained.

Dani Harrison and Camryn Elbaum.
Photo: Peter Haskin

For Elbaum, the Jewish connection was also an important part of the decision-making process.

“We’re a Jewish theatre company, and the writer of the musical is Jewish, as well as the composer of the music, so there’s nice synergy there,” she said.

Spelling Bee is a musical comedy conceived by Rebecca Feldman, with music and lyrics by William Finn, based on the book written by Rachel Sheinkin. The show is a hilarious take on adolescence, parenting, teaching and the competitive world of spelling bees.

When asked for a little sneak peek into the rehearsal mindset, both Harrison and Elbaum said it’s most definitely a laugh a minute, especially as the cast improvise quite a bit.

“We find it difficult to contain ourselves,” Elbaum admitted, while laughing.

“There are a lot of plays on words, everyone’s laughing,” Harrison agreed. “There are a lot of ad lib moments. And the other thing is when the cast change certain things to add a little Jewish joke here and there. We hope the audience will have as much fun as we’re having.”

Harrison explained that it was important to ensure the younger generation had a theatre company to go to, which was a big part of the reasoning behind Spelling Bee.

“I feel that young people are given a lot of opportunities when they’re at school to foster their talent in the performing arts, but when your passion is performing arts, and you finish school, it becomes extremely competitive,” Harrison said. “If you’re interested in sport, you can go to any number of sporting clubs in the community. But the amateur theatre opportunities are semi-professional really, and very competitive. I am really proud that Camryn and I have been able to offer this chance in the Jewish community. The standard is high but inclusive.”

Elbaum confirmed this, saying it was actually her experience.

“When I came out of school – I used to do theatre in school – it was difficult to figure out a place to go,” she recalled, explaining that it’s what she ultimately hopes the younger audience members take away from the play.

“For the young people who are sitting there watching, I hope they just look at it and realise that they can do this too,” she said. “Maybe there’s people there who aren’t sure whether they want to go back into theatre or how they can, but if they come and see this then it will convince them to join in again.”

Saltpillar Theatre Company rehearsing for The 25th annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. Photo: Peter Haskin

Harrison said she hopes audience members see the joy and talent that’s up on stage, agreeing with Elbaum that hopefully, seeing Spelling Bee and the opportunities it affords younger performers will encourage others to join in.

Plus, she said, she’s very passionate about the theatre.

“It’s a creative outlet and an opportunity to be part of a team all working towards a common goal,” she said. “It’s just such a joyous experience.”

Both Harrison and Elbaum said the audience can expect a funny, funny, funny night.

The production certainly has an excellent reputation, having been staged around the world, after its opening Off-Broadway in 2005. The first production outside the USA was actually at the Melbourne Theatre Company starring Marina Prior, David Campbell and Magda Szubanski, before moving to the Sydney Theatre Company when Lisa McCune joined the cast. The Melbourne production won the 2006 Helpmann Award for Best Musical. Subsequently, the production has been staged all around the US, in South Korea, the UK, Norway and even in Israel with Hebrew subtitles.

Speaking of casting, Elbaum said it’s very special to be in the company of such a special group of people with the Saltpillar production of Spelling Bee. “I find being in a space where everyone else wants to be there just as much as you do, and you all want to achieve the same goal of putting on an amazing show, it’s just so rewarding,” she said, as Harrison chimed in, encouraging people to come and support the incredible team.

“You won’t regret coming to see it.”

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is showing at the Phoenix Theatre, Elwood from October 14-29. For tickets:

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