Call Answered: Michelle Tattenbaum: "25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" at ACT of Connecticut
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is one of my favorite Broadway shows. When I heard ACT of Connecticut, one of my favorite regional theatres, was mounting a production of it, I just had to get the inside scoop!
I’m thrilled to have had the opportunity to speak with Spelling Bee’s director, Michelle Tattenbaum, about directing this Tony-Award winning show for Best Book.
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee “follows six awkward adolescents through their daunting and hilarious championship quest. As they navigate the tournament’s pressures, the eccentric coterie finds a new sense of belonging. Along the way, they learn that there is more to life than winning a trophy!”
With a vibrant score by William Finn, this fast-paced, wildly funny and touching book has charmed audiences across the country with its effortless wit and humor.
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee will be at ACT of Connecticut from May 30-June 23. Click here for tickets!
1. Who or what inspired you to become a director? I always had a really strong creative impulse when I was growing up. I loved making art; I loved performing; I loved singing. But in all of my creative pursuits, I was never able to achieve anything close to the image that was in my head. I wasn't good enough at drawing, or acting, or singing, or whatever it was I was trying. And then, when I was sixteen, I took my first directing class. We had to direct five-minute scenes that had no words in them but told a story. And mine turned out even better than the version that was in my imagination. So, it felt like I had finally found my medium.
2. What made you want to work at ACT of Connecticut? I love having the opportunity to work at new institutions, which have such a sense of passion and possibility! The staff and leaders of ACT are the best, and I'm thrilled that they wanted to work with me. And I went to school at Yale, so every time I get to work in Connecticut, it feels like a homecoming.
3. Why did you want the 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee to be the show that brought you to ACT of Connecticut? 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is one of my favorite musicals, and I'm a long-time Bill Finn fan. (When I was a teenager, I was obsessed with Falsettos – I still have my pirated cassette recording of In Trousers! Also, I bought the CD of In Trousers when it was finally released – don't steal music, folks!)
4. How will you make this production your own, while honoring the original? I don't see this as the job of a director, actually! So instead, I'd like to talk about one of the differences in directing existing work and new work. There's a particular challenge to directing a world premiere production. You have to create a framework that allows things to be as flexible as possible, so that if the writers want to make a significant change that will better the show, the production can accommodate it. For example, if I'm directing a world premiere of a piece, I might choose not to spend a lot of the budget on technical elements for a part of the show that might be cut or substantially revised. Or sometimes, the writer comes up with something amazing late in the preview process that might have changed the entire way I conceived the production had I known about it from the beginning, but I only have time to do a bit of restaging when adding in the rewrite before we open.
The thrilling part of directing existing work, however, is that you know what needs to be part of the production from the very beginning and can conceive the piece as an entire whole. It's always been exciting for me to see or find out about later productions of plays or musicals where I directed the world premiere, because the directors of those productions are able to take the whole, finished product of the script and score and base their productions off of that. To me, that's how a director honors the original and makes the production their own. And I hope if anyone involved in the original (or any other) production of Spelling Bee were to see this production, they would see the fruits of that process.
5. Which character do you relate to the most? I relate to some part of every single character, which is super-fun. But I think I'd have to go with Marcy Park, not because I speak six languages or am anywhere near as accomplished as she is, but because I have always struggled to see a path for myself outside of pursuing achievement. The most profound growth experiences in my life have always been moments when I was forced to really look at what matters to me personally, in my heart and soul, and break myself out of the habitual routine of achieving societally-sanctioned goals. I love that we get to watch Marcy have that epiphany on stage.
6. One of my favorite songs in the show is "I'm Not That Smart." When has there been a time you felt like, "I'm not that smart"? Very recently, in fact! I just returned from Denmark, where I spent seven weeks at Fredericia Teater directing a production of Urinetown in Danish, a language that I do not speak. The actors and production team at the theater are all bilingual (some are even trilingual!), so we talked in English, and then the text of the show was in Danish. It was utterly humbling to be monolingual. And even just going to the grocery store made me feel "not that smart." (They're on the metric system! It made my head hurt).
7. What is your "Favorite Moment of The Bee"? I love that each performance, the show is different, because there are audience members onstage, spelling words, and the words that they get can be different, and how they get eliminated from the bee can be different.
8. Another song in the show is "The Last Goodbye." What is a project you had to say goodbye to that you wish you could still be working on? I have been directing a scripted podcast for kids called Six Minutes for close to two years. We get together once a month and record a new batch of scripts, and we release two short episodes every week. It's a wonderful mystery thriller, and it's been so much fun to work on. The actors, writers, and producers and I all feel like a family. In fact, one of the cast members, Amy Hutchins, is playing Rona Lisa Peretti in this production of 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. While I can't reveal the exact details, the story of Six Minutes will eventually be wrapping up, and it will make me very sad to say goodbye to the project. It's been such a blast.
9. If you could be a contestant in a spelling bee, which word would trip you up? I'm not actually a great speller of hard words! I'm a great speller of common words. At summer camp, after lunch, we'd have rest hour, and we'd all be writing letters home, and girls in my bunk would constantly be asking how to spell words for their letters, and I always knew how to spell them and could call out the spelling. But in an actual spelling bee, I would certainly get out on anything even remotely tricky. (I initially misspelled "idiosyncrasies" up above – thank goodness for spellcheck!)
10. I love that you worked with the Q Brothers. I got to interview them when their show Othello The Remix was in NYC. If the brothers were to remix Spelling Bee, what kind of spin do you think they would put on the show? I love the Q Brothers! I directed the world premiere of ms. estrada, their hip hop adaptation of Lysistrata, at the Flea (where I'm an associate artist) last year. It was such a joy to work on, and they're the most creative and supportive collaborators. One of the things I love best about the Q Brothers is that their ideas always feel completely singular to me. I would raise a question or concern about the script, and their solution for addressing my question or concern was always something surprising and perfect that never would have occurred to me.
So, I didn't feel like I could truly answer this question on my own (other than to point out that they share Spelling Bee's deep love of language and idiosyncratic sense of humor). I passed your question along to a couple of members of the Q Brothers collective, and they said "it'd be a spelling bee where everyone competing is actually illiterate!" and "we'd probably set it in the hood and make sure a black girl wins at the end and tears down the patriarchy!" I think both of those remixes would be hilarious.
More on Michelle:
Michelle Tattenbaum directs extensively in New York City and regionally. She directed the New York premiere of the musical Nobody Loves You by Itamar Moses and Gaby Alter at Second Stage Theatre after directing the show's world premiere at the Old Globe Theatre (Craig Noel Award nomination for Best Director of a Musical). Other projects with Itamar Moses include directing his play Fucked at the Flea Theater, following up on her twice-extended production of Moses's Love/Stories (Or, But You Will Get Used To It) also at the Flea. She directed and co-produced The Sublet Experiment, a site-specific, touring production that played to sold-out crowds in New York City for over six months.
Other projects in New York include: the world premieres of ms. estrada by the Q Brothers Collective and Student Body by Frank Winters both at the Flea Theater; Lisa and Leonardo and Mother Jones and the Children's Crusade for the New York Musical Festival (Best Director, Honorable Mention); The Chromium Hook for Manhattan Theatre Club, and Lincoln Center Directors' Lab; Untitled Short Play and Szinhaz for Naked Angels; Gallathea (which she also adapted) at Here Arts Center; An Archipelago Of Clouds and Laughing All the Way From the Sperm Bank at FringeNYC; 'Til Sunday for Loeber Entertainment at the Abingdon Theater Arts Complex; Sunday on the Rocks and Danny and the Deep Blue Sea for Yolo! Productions; Hands in Me for the Women of Color Festival; Stand Up Girl at Center Stage; Too Much Information at Ars Nova; Idea and Authorial Intent at Manhattan Theatre Source; Dia de los Muertos for New Directors/New Works; and Guyler Beguiled at the Maverick Theater.
Regionally, she directed the Los Angeles premiere of Itamar Moses's The Four of Us. She has directed staged readings of the musicals Reality! (now titled Nobody Loves You) at the Cape Cod Theatre Project and Goodspeed Musicals, and Tales From the Bad Years also at Goodspeed Musicals. She directed the world premiere of Roan @ the Gates by Christina Gorman at Luna Stage. She has directed Peter and the Starcatcher at Cape Fear Regional Theatre, Dov and Ali by Anna Ziegler at the Chester Theatre, Pinocchio, Anatol, and Gallathea at the Hangar Theatre; Educating Rita, The Tale of the Allergist's Wife, Cats, Little Shop of Horrors, The Secret Garden, and Baby at the New London Barn Playhouse; The Miss Firecracker Contest at the Clinton Showboat; and The Sign In Sidney Brustein's Window and Souvenir at the Women's Theater Company.
Michelle directs scripted podcasts, including seasons 2 and 3 of the Peabody Award-winning podcast The Unexplainable Disappearance of Mars Patel and Christmas is Coming, a holiday podcast for kids, both for the Panoply Podcast Network. She has also directed the podcasts Six Minutes and Mayan Crystal for Gen-Z Media.
Michelle worked for the Manhattan Theatre Club for three years as the Artistic Development Assistant and was closely involved in producing Andrew Lippa's The Wild Party and A Class Act prior to its Broadway transfer. She was also the Artistic Associate for America In Play and Signature Theatre Company's Literary Fellow. She is currently an Associate Artist at the Flea.
She spent two summers directing at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey. From 2000 to 2007, she was a member of the First Look Theatre Company, in residence at NYU's Dramatic Writing Program, and she continues to direct and develop musicals at NYU's Musical Theatre Writing Program. She was a two-time Drama League Directing Fellow and is an SDC member. Michelle graduated from Yale with a degree in Theatre Studies.