Michael Fischer Reveals Improv Techniques in “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee”

BY CARY GINELL

I haven’t posted a story yet this year because I’ve been busy. For the past two weeks, I’ve been immersed in learning the flute part to the score of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, which concludes a brief four-day, five-show run this afternoon at the Hillcrest Center for the Arts. Spelling Bee is a great show for improv artists, and being in the pit for rehearsals and every show, I am able to see how the actors handle the show’s free structure, which allows for improvisation. If you’ve seen the show, you know what I’m talking about. Spelling Bee is being staged by YA4Ever, the alumni group of Young Artists Ensemble. To help out on this show, writer/director Michael Fischer agreed to play the part of Vice Principal Douglas Panch, the contest’s “word pronouncer.” We talked to Michael after a particularly riotous Saturday matinee performance.

VCOS: I’ve heard that you haven’t acted in nine years. How come you decided to return to the boards?

MICHAEL: I started directing at a really young age. Well, I stopped directing for a while because I wasn’t sure if I was good enough or I understood it enough. And then I started teaching elementary school kids. And it kind of humbled me and showed me how to kind of simplify it and make it easier and make it fun again. So that reinvigorated my passion for theater and I wanted to get back into directing to prove to myself I could do it. So I started directing, directing, directing, trying to motivate middle schoolers, kids for Young Artists Ensemble, and kids I teach at elementary school.

VCOS: Which elementary school do you teach at?

MICHAEL: Walnut Canyon in Moorpark. I started off as the after-school drama teacher. Tom Walsh, who is my music writing partner, and I started writing musicals that the kids could do, and the school really liked what Tom and I were doing with the after-school program so they hired us as the daytime music teacher and drama teacher. So I’m there every day, from eight in the morning till about five-thirty at night, working with them. I teach a lot of improv to the kids. My goal was to get kids comfortable with themselves and to believe in what they’re saying and to have confidence in what they want. I’ve been there for about seven years now and it’s amazing just to see the kids volunteer – no one’s afraid to get up there and embarrass themselves.

VCOS: Where are you from originally?

MICHAEL: I’m originally from Detroit, Michigan. I moved here when I was about ten years old. I was in middle school and was an awkward, non-sociable elementary school kid. I never had that kind of class where someone would motivate me to be more confident in myself and that’s what I believe what I do is so important.

VCOS: Getting to Spelling Bee, there are more opportunities for improv than in most stage musicals that are done here. Is that your expertise with regards to this show?

MICHAEL: Well, it’s kind of the perfect show for me to do. I’ve never been the strongest singer; I’ve done a lot of musicals and whatnot, but I’ve always loved improv and believing in what you’re saying, whether it’s true or not, and for this show, you have this guideline, this path, and then there are all these detours with the guest spellers. You never know how they’re going to act, whether they’re going to be themselves or are going to try to act with the show. Are they going to be easy or are they going to try and sass you and see how far they can push you?

VCOS: How did you work with the director, Amy Perkins, on this?

MICHAEL: She asked me to help out with the improv factor a lot. On callbacks, she asked me to come in and help lead improv sessions and play different games and exercises and bring out different people. But I always confide in Amy. I give different words to the audience volunteers and always talk to her before the show, like, “Is this bit funny?” There are a couple of lines I have to make up and I’m always talking to her about it, so she was very supportive. She knew I could do it by myself but she was always there, putting in her two cents and making me feel confident. It’s tough when you’re in front of 127 people and you’re making up a line. You have no way of knowing whether it’s going to be funny or not.

VCOS: Are any lines made up on the spot?

MICHAEL: A couple of them are. Right before the show, I’m always writing down different lines and trying them on different cast members. So it’s like rehearsed improv.

VCOS: So you have two things that you’re doing with improv. You’re working with the cast members and you’re working with the audience volunteers. Let’s talk about the cast first.

MICHAEL: They’re insane. This cast is so crazy and so energetic and so big with their characters. For example, Kristen Wisneski, who plays Olive. When you watch her, her whole body’s in character. Everything about her is in character. So when she does something, I have to keep that energy up. I can’t point out a flaw, I have to keep them going with their characters. I would say that my role in this show is more keeping the energy going and keeping the show fluid. They’re the ones that have to do all the hard work.

VCOS: You mentioned games that you play with them. What are some of those?

MICHAEL: Just improv games and exercises. There was a show, Whose Line Is It Anyway? that uses these but I also have friends who have connections with the Groundlings and have taught me different things to try out. We play “freeze,” changing things at the top of your head, or “world’s worst,” where you have to come up with terrible characters. But with this, Amy was leading us in a lot of improv games. We had to come out as our character and answer questions as our character might. That got us in the habit of thinking like the character, which is great when things go wrong, like with audience interaction. So when a ringtone goes off in the audience, we have to be ready to say something in character.

VCOS: And of course, the cast has to remember that they are supposed to be kids.

MICHAEL: Yes. That’s the biggest thing that we had to work on, that Rona Lisa Peretti and I are the adults and Mitch is the younger guy, and then there are all these kids. Sometimes I forget that when I do jokes to the audience and some of them don’t get it. Well, the kids in the cast play like they don’t get it either. I did an L. Ron Hubbard line today and they were going, “Who’s L. Ron Hubbard?” They know who it is, but their character wouldn’t. I’m glad I get to play an adult. I don’t know how I would handle acting like I don’t know something. That’s tough.

VCOS: Playing in the pit, I notice new stuff, bits of business, that they keep adding to the show. This afternoon, Coneybear brought in a bottle of bubbles and was just sitting there blowing bubbles while waiting his turn.

MICHAEL: Yeah, and he’s holding a stuffed animal that I didn’t know could talk, and today, he pressed on it and it said “I love you!” And Fran [Francesca Barletta, who plays Rona Lisa Peretti] covered that perfectly. Last night, the mike dropped and I just said, “I have that same problem.”

VCOS: Yesterday, Mitch dropped the mike and Barfée said, “That’s coming out of your pay.”

MICHAEL: (laughs) Yeah! That’s what I love about it. I’ve always been taught that acting is reacting. When you’re in a show, you’re not playing a character, you’re being a character.

VCOS: And all these kids are being their character.

MICHAEL. Yes. Even offstage. We don’t get to leave the stage during the show. We’re all always on, even during intermission.

VCOS: Yes, I follow them as they’re wandering about, mingling with the audience, who are getting their snacks, and it’s terrific how they use this to stay in character and use their improv skills.

MICHAEL: Kevin Gilmond is just drenched in sweat. Playing Barfée, he gives 110% all the time. He just doesn’t turn off. Even during intermission, his one time to take a break. It’s that kind of dedication that makes this so great. They just get it, and they care a lot.

VCOS: As for the guest spellers, who picks them?

MICHAEL: Amy and Emily Hare, the production manager, pick them. They try to give us a list of the four people who are going to be “guest spellers” before the show. Today was the first time I was not shown the list until I was ready to go on stage. Fran, who plays Rona Lisa, is the one who has to make up the things to say about them, so all I have to do is read their names poorly.  She and I try to change up a lot of stuff sometimes, just because we get bored. We’ve been rehearsing with the same people for the past couple of weeks and we get bored hearing the same jokes over and over again, and sometimes we forget that the audience hasn’t heard them, but she made up a bunch of them and gets advice from Amy. Francesca and I support each other a lot because if I make a mistake, she’s there to catch me.

VCOS: Are you prepared for people to come up who are really good spellers or who know some of the stock words that are used in the show, like “cenacle”?

MICHAEL: I’m terrified every time. Every time. I have index cards that are color coded, based on the difficulty of the words. On opening night, a girl I was supposed to get out spelled the word right and I had to react off of that and then figure out how to get her up again and give her a harder word. It’s always in the back of my head: “what if they get this word?” I always try to think how I would feel if I were up there in a show. I’m not a good speller. I would be nervous in front of all these people, messing up, and I would just spell words wrong by accident. But some of these people are really competent!

VCOS: I was watching on YouTube today where Julie Andrews was a guest speller during the Broadway run and was given the word “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” and got it wrong.

MICHAEL: She got it wrong?! That’s great! (laughs) That proves that you never know. It’s like with us. We don’t know what’s going to happen. I always think that if the volunteers act like themselves, they kill it. They’re just hilarious just being themselves. It’s seeing the contrast between a normal person and these crazy kids.

VCOS: I’ve seen versions of the show where the guest spellers try to be funny.

MICHAEL: There were a couple of times in the rehearsal process where people would try to out-jerk me. I play it like a deadpan jerk, but no one can out-jerk me. Kevin and I love improv-ing with each other, so much that we’ve been told to tone it down a little, cause he and I love acting and going off on tangents. But you always have your fingers crossed that the audience members are cool and won’t try to sass you too much.

VCOS: Well, you’re really good at it and I hope this experience encourages you to continue with your acting.

MICHAEL: Oh, I’m having a blast! This cast, this crew, this show, you and the musicians, it’s kind of a dream-come-true to be in a role like this where I can’t break character, I can’t smile, I just got to stay in this character.

VCOS: That’s the hardest part for me to get – with all the hilarity that goes on, and especially last night when we opened, how everybody maintains their poise.

MICHAEL: It was a lot of work to get to that point. Opening night, we had all the problems with the stand mike. Ra’shawn, the guy who plays Mitch, was just KILLING me with how he was interacting with the audience and going up to fix the mike. I almost cracked up so many times. No, these guys make it really, really hard to keep that deadpan face, but I know that if I keep that face, it makes them look better, and that’s what it’s about, making everybody better, because we care about this show a lot.

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The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee concludes its run Sunday afternoon at 2 pm. Buy tickets at the box office for the last performance. See the VC On Stage Calendar for directions to the theater and other contact information. 

 

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