Cast members practice social distancing during rehearsals for the Eight O’Clock Theatre production of  “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” running Aug. 7-16, at the Central Park Performing Arts Center.


LARGO – Can you spell LIVE THEATER?

Even if you can spell it, it has been quite a while since you could experience it. The COVID-19 pandemic effectively lowered the curtain on the 2019-2020 theater season in the Tampa Bay area and around the world. In August, theatergoers will have an opportunity to see a live production on stage – with plenty of safety measures put in place so audience members can enjoy an evening of light-hearted fun.

Eight O’Clock Theatre will present “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” running Aug. 7-16, at the Central Park Performing Arts Center, 105 Central Park Drive, Largo. Performances will be Thursday through Saturday, 8 p.m.; and Sunday, 2 p.m. For tickets and information, visit www.LargoArts.com or call 727-587-6793.

“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” is a musical comedy with music and lyrics by William Finn, and book by Rachel Sheinkin. The show was conceived by Rebecca Feldman with additional material by Jay Reiss. The musical opened Off-Broadway at the Second Stage Theatre in January 2005 before heading to Broadway, premiering at the Circle in the Square Theatre in April of the same year. The production earned Tony Awards for Best Book and Best Featured Actor.

The story revolves around an eclectic group of mid-pubescents all vying for the spelling championship of a lifetime. While candidly disclosing hilarious and touching stories from their home lives, the tweens spell their way through a series of (potentially made-up) words, hoping never to hear the soul-crushing, pout-inducing, life un-affirming "ding" of the bell that signals a spelling mistake. Six spellers enter — one speller leaves.

Derek Baxter is directing the Eight O’Clock Theatre production, with William Coleman serving as music director.

In a recent email interview with Tampa Bay Newspapers, Baxter talked about the challenges the cast and crew is facing to bring the show to the stage during the current pandemic.

“To begin, we are extremely lucky this musical works on so many levels and has such an open parameter in that it only has to resemble a local spelling competition anywhere, anytime,” the director explained. “That makes it easy to adjust the look of the show for masks and safety protocols.”

Baxter added that there are no love scenes, and no extreme dance numbers in the show, which also helps.

“For staging, the musical is typically done in a smaller, closer fashion, so I simply had to figure out stage pictures and blocking where they can be distanced.”

Baxter admitted that before March of this year, viewers might find the space and the distance odd to view. After months of social distancing, that’s no longer the case.

“We are accustomed to seeing space between people now and it has become an integral part of our visual library, so that the socially distanced staging looks ‘normal’ and ‘correct’ in society today. Honestly, there couldn't have been a better, more open to social distancing musical than ‘Spelling Bee.’”

According to Baxter, this musical allows people to reflect the current world without hyper focusing on the issues we are facing currently.

“We have set this musical in our current time; however, the musical was written long before the current pandemic and social distancing were even a thought in anyone's mind as something we would actually be living through,” Baxter said. “This allows us to treat this topic in a real world way, if we were actually at a spelling bee today the focus of the event wouldn't be wearing masks and social distancing — yes it would be a real world component, but the content of the event would be kept to the matter at hand: the spelling bee.”

Baxter said that those who auditioned for roles in the show were amenable to the considerations and boundaries imposed by the reality of living in the age of COVID-19.

“They were extremely receptive, and I believe they were more receptive and comfortable to the ‘new normal’ than I think anyone would have been had we tried to make this musical and process exist in a pre-COVID 19 world,” Baxter said. “The cast was thrilled to be doing a show, no matter what that looked or felt like. We honestly had more people at the auditions willing to join us on this journey and see what the ‘new normal’ for theatre looked like than I even anticipated, and with everyone's passion for theatre and their compassion for the health and safety of each other there was an overabundance of care and love and a very receptive nature to what we were doing.”

Cast members for EOT’s production of “Spelling Bee” include Martin Powers, Chloe McIntosh, Sarah Roehm, Jonathan O’Brien, Bri Fallahee, Dean Yurecka, Rachel Crissman, Latoya McCormick and Dean Kelley.

“This cast is amazing,” the director said. “I honestly can't even begin to describe how talented this cast truly is. I enjoy watching them work and hearing them sing every minute or every rehearsal. They are outstanding.”

In an effort to keep patrons, actors, volunteers, musicians, and staff safe during this time, Eight O’Clock Theatre and the CPPAC have implemented a long list of safety guidelines, such as:

  • Socially distant audience cabaret seating 6 feet apart from one another
  • All surfaces will be sanitized before and after every performance
  • The auditorium will open at 7 p.m. for evening performances to help maintain social distancing and avoid patrons congregating in the lobby
  • Each audience member will submit to a temperature scan prior to entering the building and masks will be required at all times
  • Each cast member, staff member, and volunteer will wear a mask as often as possible during each performance and will remain 6 to 12 feet away from audience members at all times
  • Each cast member, musician, staff member, and volunteer will submit to a temperature reading prior to each rehearsal and performance
  • Playbills will not be recycled
  • There will be no 50/50 raffle in the lobby
  • Patrons will remain seated after the show until they are excused

For a complete list of safety precautions, visit www.eightoclocktheatre.com/spellingbee.html.

According to Baxter, rehearsals are going well as the cast and crew work to overcome obstacles relating to the new normal.

“One of the challenges this cast faced that they have met above and beyond my expectations is just how much a mask changes what ‘acting’ is for us,” Baxter explained. “So much of our emotion is tied into our faces, and moments that could have been easily handled with a squint of an eye and a downturn of the mouth can't be read that easily anymore.”

Baxter said that the cast had to learn how to use their bodies in a much more expressive manner than modern theater typically calls for.

“It is extremely reminiscent of how theatre and acting began,” he said. “For many years and many forms of theatre around the world would, and even still do, rely on mask work and physical theatre to tell their stories. We are doing the same thing generally, only our masks aren't the archetypal faces of Commedia Dell'arte or the exaggerated masks of Greek theatre but instead the personal protective equipment required for health and safety.”

Baxter wants prospective audience members to know that they can expect a laugh-out-loud funny musical.

“A show about nine outsiders searching to find how they fit in to this world, and I think we can all relate to that a little bit,” the director said. “This musical is for the outsiders, the offbeat, the ones who march to their own drums and realizing everyone has a story to tell and if we just take a second to stop and listen we just might find ourselves in their story as well.”