In part one of a series of interviews with the cast of Greenbelt Arts Center’s The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, meet Director Jeffery Lesniak.
Joel: Please introduce yourself and tell our readers where they may have seen you on local stages before and what shows you have directed and roles you have appeared in and played.
Jeffery: I’m Jeffery Lesniak, the director of the show. I don’t perform much any more, but occasionally I get a minor role. I mostly direct, having led shows for Bowie Community Theatre, Annapolis Summer Garden Theatre, Prince George’s Little Theatre, and my home here at Greenbelt Arts Center, where this is my thirteenth show in the last 14 years.
Why did you want to direct The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee?
When looking for shows to direct, I tend more towards the less mainstream. While this is performed more often than the shows I usually choose, it’s still not too overplayed. And with the built-in improvisation, every performance is different. Plus, I was one of these kids growing up. It’s nice to do a show that gives a glimpse through a small window on my life.
How is this production similar or different from other productions you have directed, appeared in, or seen?
I’ve only seen one other production of this, and to be honest, when I saw it, I didn’t like it. I’m not sure if it was the direction, the cast, the venue, or what, but it didn’t really grab me. This production on the other hand, has an amazing cast, and as GAC is an intimate 80-seat theater, it really makes the audience feel that they are at an actual Spelling Bee instead of a theatrical performance.
There’s an audience participation aspect in the script. Tell us about that. What can audiences expect?
When people pick up their tickets, they are told that we are looking for additional spellers, and if they are interested they can fill out a volunteer form. Those who are chosen will join the cast spellers on stage, be called forward to spell words, and join in some of the dance numbers. Other audience members are pointed out as parents and family of the spellers.
How would you describe this show’s score?
Mostly fun. But as in life, there are more gentle and touching moments as well. There are lots of well-thought out lyrics, many instances of tight harmonies, and enough variety to give nearly all cast members a chance to shine.
What is your favorite song in the show and why?
One of the early songs is ‘Pandemonium.’ It’s one that the whole cast joins in, and with the high-energy choreography from Rikki Lacewell, along with the repetitive lyrics of ‘Life is random and unfair, life is pandemonium,’ it sets the scene quite nicely about what we are to expect from the rest of the evening.
What have been the most challenging scenes/songs to stage and direct?
Staging ‘The I Love You Song’ gave me the most headache. It’s a very touching song about familial love, and there were quite a few options as to the stage picture I wanted to display, and I kept changing my mind about which one was best. I think what I finally decided on will bring out the most emotion.
Introduce us to your cast and tell us what you admire most about their performances.
They’re over there. Hi! [Jeff gestures across the room] From the start, they all dove into their roles. Watching them grow, both as performers and as their characters, always makes me happy. The six who are playing kids needed to stay away from caricature and yet bring out the innocence of youth. They have done an incredible job at this.
How have the designers brought your vision to life? Introduce them for us.
I generally do most of my own design at GAC. That being said, Gayle Negri and Jeaneo Binney designed the costumes, and put an amazing amount of detail in each character’s “look” that people will notice. Seeing the cast in costume just makes everything pop that much more. And sound designer Scott Bringen has done wonders to balance the music and the voices, it’s not easy to do in that space.
What does Putnam County Spelling Bee have to say to theater goers? Why do you think it is a popular, modern musical?
The message of Spelling Bee is one that we need to bring back into this country: not every kid can be a winner. There’s only one trophy here, and the winner gets it; there are no participation ribbons. We can love the kids, and we can feel sad when they lose. And that’s ok.
What is your favorite spelling word in the show?
That’s a tough question to answer. Some of my favorite words are the ones that are given to the guest spellers, and those can change for each performance, depending on how long they last in the competition. Should one of your readers come to the show and are chosen to be a guest speller, well, I don’t want to accidentally give them the answer and make it too easy.
Running Time: Two hours, with no intermission.
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee plays from March 3 to 25, 2017, at Greenbelt Arts Center – 123 Centerway, in Greenbelt, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (301) 441-8770, or purchase them online.
Meet the Cast of Greenbelt Arts Center’s ‘The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee’: Part One: Director Jeff Lesniak.
Meet the Cast of Greenbelt Arts Center’s ‘The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee’: Part Two: Pamela Northrup and Jim Adams.
Meet the Cast of Greenbelt Arts Center’s ‘The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee’: Part Three: Rachel Pino-Elliott and John Carter.