10 Questions With 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee Director Melissa Zabell

This weekend, No Refund Theatre will hold a production of William Finn’s Tony Award Winning Musical, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. Before seeing the show, check out 10 questions with the show’s director, senior Melissa Zabell!

Onward State: How did you get involved with No Refund Theatre?
Melissa Zabell: I first joined NRT as an actor my sophomore year and fell in love with the club. I wanted to be more involved so I started getting involved in Tech and Assistant Directing. At the end of my junior year, I directed my first show and I’ve just been hooked on it ever since. It’s a great club with a lot of freedom and opportunity.


OS: What made you decide to direct a production?
MZ: This is my third time directing a show for NRT. In my very first show with the club, I wasn’t happy with how the directors were treating the show and thought to myself “I think I could do better.” So I then tried to prove to myself that I could. So far, I have directed a drama and a comedy. Directing a musical was a logical (and thrilling) next step.


OS: Were you able to select the show yourself? If so, what went into this process?
MZ: Show selection for NRT is unique because a different person directs a different show every weekend. For that reason, the directors themselves propose a show they would like to direct and a show selection committee selects what shows we will do and when. For the 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, we were extremely lucky because the rights for the show just came out. A director I had learned from and worked with my junior year was thinking about directing the show but couldn’t get the rights during the time he was here at Penn State. In honor of him, and also because I absolutely loved the show, I decided to take on the project. I am so glad I did.


OS: How long have you been preparing for the production?
MZ: I’ve been in planning for the Putnam County Spelling Bee since the beginning of the Fall semester. I set up my production staff at the end of that semester and filled my cast at the beginning of this semester. We’ve been in rehearsal since February.


OS: Can you tell us a little about Bee?
MZ: The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is a Broadway Musical that features, at the core of its plot, a spelling bee. The stage will be filled with all those interesting and strange children who you see on the national screen and on the front pages of YouTube being bizarre, passing out, and giggling at words that don’t quite seem like they should be at a spelling bee. The show is a hilarious comedy. You find yourself falling in love with the characters and maybe even recognizing your 10-year-old self among the spellers. Beyond the humor, the show is about growing up, relationships, friendships, and learning that win or lose, you get something out of every experience.


OS: What have been the most challenging and rewarding aspects of directing?
MZ: For NRT, a director takes on the responsibilities of a producer, publicist, set designer, lighting and sound designer, stage manager and casting director. This amount of responsibility is both overwhelming and empowering. What is on stage is completely yours.


Within the responsibilities, I think the hardest part of the directorial process is organizing it. The scheduling, ordering prop and set pieces, budgets, making sure rehearsals are running through the script quickly enough, there’s a lot to think about. It’s also been difficult because so much goes on in a musical. You have choreography, instrumentalists, musical numbers that a normal play doesn’t have to spend time on. Again, a lot of balls to juggle to keep the show in the air.


As far rewarding, seeing the finished product definitely tops that list. At our first full run in costumes, with the pit, with the lights, with everything, I found myself close to tears because we had done it. We had a show to be proud of. It’s a show I would love to go see. It’s a show that I can’t wait for people to see.


OS: How have you adapted to the nontraditional performance setting of the Forum?
MZ: Typically, the set for the Bee is of a gymnasium. For me it seemed simple. Why couldn’t a spelling bee be held in a classroom? This is the only show of the semester, and the only NRT show I’ve ever seen, that has not set up flats (or a background at all). The setting is the forum. I think this is great because it makes the audience focus on the show rather than the bells and whistles of the performance.


OS: How has it been working with peers?
MZ: Working with your peers is tricky because they are your friends but you are still in charge. However, if there is mutual respect from me to them and them to me, I find the process extremely easy. While we are student run, we try to be as professional as possible so our show can be as impressive as possible. Sure, we have a few hiccups that are less professional and a little tense, but at this point, everyone respects each other and is just so excited to do the project together.


OS: When I saw the show on Broadway, it featured audience participation. Will your production do so as well?
MZ: Yes! That is one of the reasons I love this show. We will have sign up forms at the doors so people can sign up to be selected to participate in the show.


OS: If you were in a spelling bee, would you use any of the characters’ special spelling techniques?
MZ: I am a very visual person (and a TERRIBLE speller) so I would probably use the visualizing techniques like writing on my arms or on my number to see the word before I spell it. I’ve always really related to Logainne’s character since she spells on her arm and has a lisp. I’m always glad my parents got me into speech therapy young, but please don’t ask me to say photosynthesis. I still can’t do it.


The production will hold three performances beginning tonight at 8 pm in 111 Forum. Performances will be held Friday and Saturday with the same time and location. As with all NRT productions, admission is free!


Come out to the Forum this weekend and support NRT! You could even be in the show yourself!


For more information on the show, check out the Facebook event, or view the trailer below!

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About the Author

Ali Fogarty

Ali Fogarty is a senior from the suburbs of Philadelphia majoring in Public Relations and Political Science who's passionate about Netflix and everything bagels.

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