Arts campus arts

A glimpse behind the curtains

Inside the Musical Theatre Guild’s fall production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

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MTG cast performs a scene from The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee during rehearsal.
Karleigh Moore—The Tech

At the beginning of every fall semester, the MIT Musical Theater Guild (MTG) takes the stage in Kresge Little Theater to deliver a charming musical performance. This summer, MTG has been working on a production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, a musical comedy telling the story of six middle schoolers as they compete to become a spelling champion.

I’ve attended many MTG productions over my years at MIT, and I’ve always wondered about what goes on behind the scenes. Students run every aspect of the performance: the direction, acting, set building, lighting, publicity, choreography, and many other components of a theatrical production that I never even thought about before.

The thing that surprised me — and first time director Hubert Hwang ’07— most was that a ton of work goes into the show before auditions even begin. The directorial staff meets well before auditions are held to construct strict character guidelines to keep in mind as they cast actors for roles. This is to ensure the characters match the director’s vision for the show as closely as possible, and to reduce possible bias during casting.

I found that MTG is a pretty welcoming place — the group was kind enough to invite me to one of their rehearsals to get a backstage glimpse into the work that goes into their productions, and they even invited me to take part in their rehearsal by briefly taking the stage to “compete” in the spelling bee. It was hilarious and nerve wracking (I was asked to spell a word that I couldn’t even pronounce after hearing it twice). One advantage of producing The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee over other musicals is that the group has more of an opportunity to make the show their own — expect a touch of audience participation, and keep an ear open for many MIT related jokes.The group has a good deal of flexibility with this show, and it will certainly add comic effect that I’m sure the MIT community will appreciate.

In addition to Hwang, I met with Lindsey Wang ’16 (who plays Olive and is the Assistant Producer) and Carrie Fowle ’18 (who is the Assistant Director, Publicity Designer, and Choreographer). Because the group is entirely student run, members often wear a variety of hats for each performance (as you can see above). Since the shows demand a huge amount of work, and a variety of skills, students are encouraged to try new things. Fowle told me that just a few weeks ago, she picked up construction skills when on a whim, she decided to drop in on a set building session and ended up learning how to use power tools to build a structurally sounds set of stairs.

Hwang revealed that he decided to try his hand at directing this particular musical because he thought many MIT students would relate to the characters and the situations they find themselves in. “The show is about failure and learning how to deal with failure, and that is something every MIT student needs to learn. I’m sure the average student here will see themselves in at least one of these characters — these were the kids in middle school who didn’t really fit in. As much as you want to root for all of them, only one can win, which is the tragedy of the show, but that’s life,” he said.

I witnessed only a brief portion of the show during the rehearsal, and I am really excited to see the full performance. In particular, I can’t wait to see how the audience members react to being called up to the stage to compete in the spelling bee alongside the actors. The show opens on Saturday, September 4 and runs September 4-5, 10-12, 17-19 at 8pm, and September 6 at 2pm. Prefrosh get tickets at a 50% discount, so if you’re new to campus, don’t miss out!