On Friday, November 10, Hart House Theatre will continue its 2017–2018 season with the classic musical The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. The play is a comic showcase of the lives of six quirky children participating in a spelling bee in their small town and the drama that ensues.
The Varsity sat down with Erin Humphry, who plays Logainne SchwartzandGrubenierre, a participant in the spelling bee, and Carson Betz, who plays the eccentric Mitch Mahoney, to learn more about the show, the audience participation involved, and even glean some theatre advice.
The Varsity: Since this is a production with such a large cast, let’s just start with the name of the character you’re playing, and a little bit about your character.
Erin Humphry: I’m playing Logainne SchwartzandGrubenierre. There’s no real way around saying that last name. Logainne is a very complex being. I think she’s one of the youngest kids on the show, but she is stress and she is pressure, coming from all sides. She puts pressure on herself and her parents put pressure on her as well, and she feels like she needs to solve the world’s problems on her own.
Carson Betz: I play Mitch Mahoney in the show. He is the ‘comfort counsellor.’ So any time someone gets eliminated, I have to go and make them feel better about themselves. These kids make this bee out to be something a lot larger than it is.
EH: It is their whole life.
CB: So when they lose, they’re crushed, so I have to go help them and — so I comfort them and then people we pull from the audience as well when they get things wrong, if they get them wrong. [The character] is doing this for his community service, for his parole, so he’s kind of an intimidating force in the show. He’s the strong and silent type, doesn’t say too much.
EH: Got a lot of opinions, though.
CB: He kind of goes through a bit of a change throughout the show too. He comes in clearly not wanting to be there.
TV: How is it different playing a character that’s a lot younger than you? What are the things you need to remember every time you go on stage?
EH: It’s weird. It’s a lot of fun, but you don’t want to play it ironically. You don’t want to make fun of it because I think that especially with Logainne, she’s a very exaggerated character, but the things that she’s dealing with — anxiety — are very real. You don’t want to be judging that character or making fun of that character, especially as a kid, because it’s such an amazing age that they’re all at.
As an adult, you want to be portraying it for the love of being that age, not as ‘look at how weird and dumb the kids of this age group are.’ Because I guess we’re all weird and dumb at that age, but we all were that age. So playing a kid is weird, it’s hard and, in a weird way, [you] go into it without the mentality of I’m playing a 12 year old, just with the mentality of ‘this is who the character is and this is how I have to portray them’.
TV: Can you give us a summary of the show and why people should come see it?
CB: Quick synopsis of the show: it’s a spelling bee. It’s basically six kids — well, ten — four of them are audience members, who come up and you learn these little neurotic tendencies of all these kids and about their families through things that they say or do. I think there’s a slight comment on the stress that we put on ourselves and how younger on that keeps happening. It kind of gives you this idea of ‘let kids be kids.’ And then why people should come see it — oh god, because it’s amazing. It’s a lot of fun.
I have done this show before, as one of the kids. The comments that people would say, especially my friends who don’t necessarily go to theatre, they’ve come and said ‘I don’t enjoy musical theatre, but this was a blast.’ It’s inappropriate when it’s unexpected, and it’s just hilarious to see kids worrying about adult things.
EH: I would definitely recommend this, and especially the audience participation. Audience participation — you say that, and as an actor, my insides shrivel. But for some reason in this show, the audience participation is so fun. It’s the part I’m most nervous about but also so excited for. Every single audience member who gets up on that stage is just going to be so safe and protected by all of us, and it’s such a fun experience.
That’s also why it appeals to a lot of audiences, because you go with your family, and your little brother gets called up to spell a bunch of the words. You’re automatically rooting on a personal level for four of the people up there because you’re in it with them.
CB: The audience spellers aren’t just randomly chosen, they’re asked beforehand in the lobby. It’s not like you’re going to come to the show and you might get randomly pulled up on stage.
EH: It’s very consensual.
TV: Let’s go back to your characters for a bit. What similarities do you relate to when it comes to your characters, or do you just go on stage and you’re a different person?
EH: Oh god, so much. I feel like a lot of the adults playing kids in the show relate to their characters. I don’t relate to [Logainne’s] level of stress, I mostly relate to Logainne wanting to change the world and having these big political ideas that she wants to share and not let anything stop her because she’s a girl, and because people have been telling her that she can’t her entire life. I think that I relate a lot to that kind of drive in Logainne, her political sense and her big heart, her ability to both be so competitive and also make friends with just about anyone.
CB: Well, I’ve never been to prison, so I’ve never had to do community service. However, Mitch does, when you get down to it, have a big heart. He hides it at first, he doesn’t let anyone see it, but at the end it’s just out there. He makes these connections with these kids that are just so unexpected, and I think I’m very similar to him in the sense that I have a big heart and I care about people and I want to help people when I can, but there’s a lot of me that’s very guarded.
TV: What’s your favourite song, or which one’s the most fun to perform?
CB: This is tooting my own horn, but I’m a huge fan of “The I Love You Song.”
EH: That’s my answer too.
CB: It’s just gut-wrenching but beautiful. And amazing.
EH: “The I Love You Song” feels like all of the things you would never want to say out loud are being yelled in your face. This is a very funny show, and then all of a sudden for 20 minutes at the end your heart is ripped out a little bit in the best possible way.
CB: Everything pauses for five minutes, and then we keep going again, but just to see inside this girl’s head and see how broken she is inside. And then she comes right out of it, she’s like, ‘I’m fine!’ But you’re like, ‘Oh! Oh!’
TV: What advice do you have for aspiring theatre artists who want to get to where you are?
CB: I don’t want to be cliché, but work. The one thing I’ve realized after university in the world of theatre is there’s so much responsibility all of a sudden put on you. In university there’s a lot of, ‘Let’s take time, and work on this, and work on lines.’ There’s so much all of a sudden that becomes your responsibility. And it took me a while to figure out how to do that on my own because I was so used to the world of university where they want the best for you so they help you as best as they can.
You forget that, ‘Oh right, I’m not going to have professors reminding me to do these things.’ I see so many people who don’t do that, and then they’re not as good as they want to be. Just put in a little more work, and not like in a hard way. Maintain, don’t ever disconnect from it and think, ‘Oh, it’ll be fine when I audition for the show, I can pull this out of my back pocket.’ Nope. work it. Just make sure.
EH: Work it until you can pull it out of your back pocket. Work it until it’s such a solid thing that when you have a billion other things going on and you suddenly have an audition you can be like, ‘I’ve worked it so that it is in your back pocket.’ It’ll save your ass so much.
My piece of advice is — someone told me this before I went into school — have something else. The world of theatre is so intense a lot of the time, and you do need to work really hard, and you need to be super driven and very passionate, but you also need to have an ability to step away and have something else. As theatre artists, we’re supposed to be portraying life, and the living, and people, and our lives are often so different from the lives of the people we’re attempting to become on stage or on screen. And so it’s important to step away from that world. Just be so kind to yourself.
CB: And don’t give up. That’s the other one. Just don’t, you know what I mean? It’s going to get hard, but don’t stop, because when you stop, then it’s done, because it’s all up to you.
EH: Slow and steady wins the race.
CB: Just keep auditioning and you’ll get there at some point.
EH: Gonna hit my big break at 65.
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee opens this Friday, November 10, at Hart House Theatre.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.