Broadway Bullet Interview: Spelling Bee's New Actors
Stanley Bahorek played Leaf Coneybear in the San Francisco and Boston productions of Spelling Bee. He also appeared in the National Tour of Big River. He is graduate of the University of Michigan. www.stanleybahorek.com
Jenni Barber played the role of Olive Ostrovsky in the San Francisco and Boston productions of Spelling Bee. In New York, she has also appeared in Henry and Mudge, and The High Life. She is a graduate of the University of Michigan.
For more information, and for tickets to The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, click here.
Broadway Bullet: The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee has just passed its second anniversary, and the new cast just came in on April 17th. With us today, we have two of those members, Jennni Barber and Stanley Bahorek.
Jenni Barber: Hi!
Stanley Bahorek: Hi there.
BB: How are you guys doing?
BB: So, one thing that really interests me about both of you with the show is: you both are kind of making your Broadway debut with the show, and you've both taken the route of -- you've done a couple of regional productions of Spelling Bee before moving here into the New York produciton.
JB: Yeah, we both -- in January 2006, we rehearsed with the First National Company before they even had the tour; we were the National Company and we opened the show in San Francisco, and did that for seven months, and then went to Boston, and did that for three months, and then we had a few months off, and then they decided to bring us to New York. So, we've done it for about a year now.
BB: So how did you find out about the regional situations, to get involved?
SB: I read about it online, that there was going to be a production in San Francisco, and [I] happend to be in LA when they were auditioning, on the West Coast, for actors for the show, and I think I had heard that they were trying to cast it from the West Coast, so I just went to an audition while I was out there.
JB: Yeah, I actually got it from -- it was an agent's submission. They brought a lot of people, [that] they saw on the West Coast, over to New York, to meet with the creative team, and they kind of supplemented with some people from New York, so I got really lucky to be seen in the group.
BB: Okay, so you [Stanley] were in LA, and you [Jenny] were in New York, but both of you went to college together originally.
JB: Yes, (laughter) we both went to the University of Michigan.
BB: So, was it odd that you ended up working together again after that?
SB: We heard through a professor, somebody who taught both of us when we -- did I call you first?
JB: Yeah, you called me. It was over like, Christmas Break, and I had gone to Ohio for a little bit -- We're both from Ohio as well -- And he called me, and was like, "Do you know we're going to be in a show together?"
JB: Again. So funny. It was great; I was so happy. Yeah.
BB: I got to stop making fun of Ohioans; that's, like the, default state that I mention when I mention tourists on the showI shouldn't do that.
SB: Associate resident director --
JB: -- associate director is from Ohio, so lots of Ohioans. (laughs)
BB: So, how is it, making your Broadway debuts? You guys having fun?
SB: It's fantastic.
JB: Yeah, it's awesome.
BB: The one thing about the show is -- because, maybe it's partly because the original cast also very much participated in the creating of the characters -- there are a lot of real distinctive character traits --
BB: -- in the show, and I noticed that there were definitely a lot of liberties in you guys taking some new things on with the characters, but also still incorporating some of the really crucial things that worked for the characters. How much freedom did you have, and how hard was that, trying not to imitate, but to take on some of these traits that were important?
SB: Well, when we initially started in New York, [the creative team] was very supportive of our -- to having our own take on the characters. We brought in pictures of ourselves when we were 10, 11, 12, and they didn't have us see the production that was still obviously running in New York; they just let us play around. And they talked to us a lot, telling us that they had created a lot of these characters from themselves, from their own lives, so we were to just take what was on the page, and then bring it to life, sort of, which was great. It was great.
JB: And definitely from our own experiences, how we were at that age and taking -- sort of seeing the character through who we were, and I think that has been the most successful kind of way of going about it, as opposed to imitating. But it's hard not to. But I think when we were -- being out of town for so long was really great because it was just the nine of us, and we could really create together, what our company was going to be like. And it was really great, especially to come to New York, and feel like we had so many months of so much -- just getting to know our characters, and getting to know one another and trusting each other on stage; it really felt like a family coming into it.
BB: Some shows say that there's no difference between regional and New York audiences, and then other shows notice a dramatic shift, especially with the audience-interactive part of the show. I'm wondering if you see a difference between the audience reaction outside of New York versus here?
SB: There's definitely a significant difference between a San Francisco theater-audience, and a Boston audience.
SB: That was a big shift, but here --
BB: What awere some of the reactional differences?
SB: Well, also the spaces that we played in have been completely different, which changes [the reaction] dramatically. In San Francisco, we were in -- they were all about the same number of seats, but the audience was a little bit further away from us in San Francisco. It wasn't that they were reserved, but --
JB: They just sort of were -- they were waiting for us to kind of -- lead the way.
SB: Lead the way. And then in Boston, they were much closer to us, and so they were a little bit more rowdy, a little bit more raucous, riding the wave with us.
SB: But then, finally, when we come to New York, the theater -- obviously since it's in the round -- and there are people sitting right in your nose.
JB: Right next to you. (laughs)
SB: -- Actually sitting right there. That's completely different [here in New York] . I think we had to adjust: make some things a little more subtle -- they get the jokes a lot quicker.
JB: Yeah, and I think also, the audiences in San Francisco weren't really aware of the the show, you know? In San Francisco, they have their own things going on there, and so they sort of came -- they were curious about the show. Whereas in Boston, it kind of had a bit of a start there.
SB: The East Coast knew about the show.
JB: The East Coast knew about the show: they were ready to come to laugh, they were ready to interact. Whereas in San Francisco, they weren't sure, and at the end, you kind of had to win them over, which was difficult; it was a little difficult right at the beginning. But, also, the spellers in San Francisco, I have to say, were better; they were really good. I mean, they got some hard -- we had two national spellers who -- in general, I think --
SB: -- And they were wackier too.
JB: Well, maybe -- they were just crazy; just wacky. They weren't nervous on stage; they were so happy to be up there, and they were just rolling off those words.
SB: There were a lot of Coneybears -- Coneybear belongs in San Francisco.
JB: He was from the Haight, right? When we did it?
SB: Smoking a bowl.
BB: You actually even get the audience involved in the choreography in the thing. Have you ever had an audience member, kind of not willing to get in line with the choreography?
JB: (laughs) We had one person, who unfortunately, had -- he had a fake leg.
SB: A prosthetic leg.
JB: A prosthetic leg. And he --
SB: The worst part was: he tripped coming on stage.
JB: -- he tripped coming up the stage, and fell, and it was horrible. Luckily, he -- not luckily, but I mean, he spelled his first word wrong, so he got out.. So he didn't have to participate in the choreography. But that was unfortunate. And we've had some people, who were sort of, getting along in years.
SB: We've had overly excited people.
JB: Oh yeah.
SB: They're throwing in some kicks and--
JB: They're dancing --
BB: They want to become choreographers.
JB: Yes, yes.
BB: One last thing: I just always think that it's interesting when you set [up] an audience participation [in the show], and all the chance that goes into it: the female [Rona Lisa Piretti, former Spelling Bee champion, who runs this bee] always makes comments about the characters as they step up to the microphone, and I'm wondering if any of the comments she's made about audience members have ever caused an audience member to -- not be in on the joke with them -- if they've gotten upset or what's been said or --
SB: Very rarely, but I can remember, like once or twice, where the audience and the stage collectively winces.
JB: (laughs) Yes, everyone's really pretty good sports about it. I mean, everyone's really great. And [the actresses playing] Rona Lisa Perrett, whether Jen Simard, or, when we had Betsy Wolf, they're pretty -- really tasteful about it. They're very careful, and people are ready to sort of -- I mean, [audience spellers] are warned that [the cast] may make fun of you a little bit, but everyone's been pretty good about it.
BB: Backing up a little to where you both mentioned you went to university together -- That was Michigan?
BB: University of Michigan?
JB: Yes. University of Michigan.
SB: University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. We were a couple of years apart; two years apart. I was a senior when you were a sophmore.
BB: So, what do you guys feel was the best thing about the program that prepared you for going into this.
SB: That's an interesting question.
JB: I think the program gave us -- well gave me -- the freedom to discover who I was as an actor. There are certain things you can't really change about yourself: your height, the way you look, the way you sing, whatever, and I felt like it gave me the freedom to develop who I was as person.
SB: I like the liberalness of the education; it's a huge university, and I took a lot of classes outside of the theatre training, so that helps to, hopefully, make you more of a well-rounded person, but -- just great teachers.
JB: Great teachers
SB: Great acting teachers --
BB: Anyone in particular you want to shout out to?
JB: Mark Madama. We love you.
SB: He was our --
JB: -- Acting teacher.
SB: There's an acting for musical theater course -- two courses -- one or two, I can't remember -- One. And he teaches that.
JB: And of course, Brent Wagner, who is the chair of the program, who is just so fantastic and so --
SB: Gave us a lot of opportunities.
JB: -- generous with his intelligence and what he has to offer to all the students.
BB: So, how long are you slated to stay in Spelling Bee here?
SB: Into next year--
SB: --at least.
BB: Any ideas for what you guys would like to accomplish afterwards?
JB: The world. (laughs)
SB: No idea. Just trying to live in the moment.
JB: Yeah, exactly.
SB: Enjoy this great thing.
BB: Well, I thank you guys for stepping down, right before a performance. Stanley, I understand you're actually going on stage crippled today.
SB: It's true. I fall down during the show -- not to spoil any surprises -- and occassionally, I guess I fall too hard.
JB: He's fine. He ran two miles this morning with me.
BB: All right, well, enjoy the rest of your run, and again, thanks so much for coming down for our listeners.
JB/SB: Thank you.
From This Author Michael Gilboe