“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” is one of those shows that you can see repeatedly because you know never what is going to happen when you have audience volunteers participating in the show. The portrayal of the characters also varies wildly, and Moorpark College’s current production of the show is one of the wildest and funniest you will ever see. We spoke with Ryan Palmer, who plays the role of Vice Principal Douglas Panch, who is the Bee’s official “pronouncer” and found out some inside secrets about how the show is run. Ryan is starting his sophomore year at Moorpark College and is hoping to transfer to either a UC or CSU school for his junior year. He wants to study film, but hasn’t decided in what specific discipline yet – he’s interested in direction, cinematography, editing, writing, and animation.
VCOS: Tell me about your career as a performer in musicals.
RYAN: This is actually the first production I’ve done in over a year, and the first outside of the Thousand Oaks High School Theatre Department. I’ve been in plays and musicals such as You Can’t Take it With You, and The Wind in the Willows, Working, Curtains, and Singin’ in the Rain. My favorite roles include Neil Simon’s Rumors as Ken Gorman, and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying as J. B. Biggley.
VCOS: How did you study for Vice Principal Panch?
RYAN: I auditioned for “Spelling Bee” with the goal of playing Douglas Panch. He was a tricky character to find at first, and I didn’t quite decide definitively how to play him until about halfway through the rehearsal process. I try to refrain from watching other productions of the show, whether it be a movie or a YouTube video, in an attempt to create an original, organic character the way I see it. I read the script, and waited to really do anything (including memorizing the lines) until rehearsal started. I like to mess around with the character in ways that I wouldn’t necessarily do on stage. I respect a director’s role in any production, and like to help create an amalgam of both his/her visions of the character as well as my own.
VCOS: So what sort of person is he?
RYAN: Vice Principal Douglas Panch, in my opinion, is the epitome of someone who just has the worst day possible every day. But this day in particular, the one the audience sees, the one when the Spelling Bee takes place, is exceptionally bad for him. I like to imagine that he woke up with a simile on his face, rolled over to his calendar seeing that every previous day was marked off with an “X”, all leading up to this very day, which is circled boldly. He put on his new suit, got his hair cut, and took $25 cash out from the bank with the intention to take Miss Rona Lisa Peretti out to dinner. He wants to return from his “five year hiatus” a changed man, a hero, a role model, and most importantly: a man Rona could fall in love with. It may already be obvious that none of this happens, and actually goes in the opposite direction.
VCOS: You have one of the more difficult roles in “Spelling Bee” because you have to deal with, in Act I, the volunteer spellers. How do you maintain control?
RYAN: I wouldn’t say I have the most difficult roles, as opposed to maybe a role that has sort of an odd challenge. Every role has its challenges and difficulties, and the role of Panch simply has one of the more out of the ordinary types. Dealing with guest spellers every night offers a nice change and sense of unexpectedness to the show. I have my set of words that I choose in an attempt to get them out in the suggested order; but of course, there is no guarantee of that happening. A well-worked mind in the improvisation side of acting, and the use of more difficult words can help sway the odds in my favor.
VCOS: What are some of the most difficult things you’ve had to deal with regarding the volunteer spellers?
RYAN: Every once and a while, we get a speller who wants to be just as funny as the actors on stage, or decides to be difficult in hopes of throwing us off or something, and this can make things tricky. People ask for the language of origin, how to spell the word, announce that they give up, and sometimes act out as a character of their own. When things like this happen, I tend to try and get them out immediately with words like “Oubain” (WA-bay-n) “Alkekengi” (al-keck-EN-gee) or even “there/their/they’re” with no specification of which one it is.
VCOS: Sometimes, the volunteer spellers can be as funny as the regular cast. How do you manage to keep a straight face through all of this?
RYAN: Keeping a straight face has never been too difficult for me. My acting roots began in improvisational comedy, which turned my interests towards larger stage acting. I like to think that I’ve been quite funny in situations where I’ve been able to keep a straight face, simply because I stayed in character. Once I can get in the mind set of the person I’m portraying, if I don’t think they’d laugh at what just happened, then they won’t laugh. With that being said, the character Barfee, specifically the way Kevin Gilmond plays him, can sometimes bring me to a smile.
VCOS: We know that the script calls for the cast to spell the same words for every show, but who prepares the spelling words for the volunteer spellers? Are all of the “extra” spelling words and sentence usage examples used?
RYAN: We have our crew members round up the volunteers out in the audience before the show. They then bring them backstage, where “Rona” and I speak to them (in character) telling them the rules and some of what they’re in for. We select the words I want to begin with before I go on stage, and then choose the words on stage according to how the show plays out.
VCOS: All of the guest spellers have to be eliminated by the end of Act I. If a guest speller turns out to be really good at spelling, how do you get them off the stage?
RYAN: We had this exact situation at one point. We had a speller who I tried to eliminate earlier in the act, but to no avail. She ended up as the last guest speller, so I gave her the word “catterjoons.” She spelled it right. She went and sat back down as the audience clapped, and I called her up again, which is quite a funny gag. Then I gave her “Xerophthalmiology.” She got that right. She sat down; I called her up again. “Albumgraecum.” She got it right. I acted frustrated and annoyed, and didn’t have her sit down. “Just stay right there,” I said, shuffling through my cards. Finally, I gave her “there.” No matter which way she spelled it, I dinged the bell.
VCOS: Do you have any dream roles you’d like to do in the future?
RYAN: I don’t have any dream roles that I can think of. I’m a bit more of a casual actor in comparison to some of my cast mates, however, this doesn’t lessen how much I enjoy doing it, and how much I work and put into it. Every role, every night, I try my hardest and give it all. I tend to say that “this show will be my last.” Through the people I meet, the fun I have, and the simple fact that for two hours every weekend I can go put on a costume and play pretend time with a bunch of other big kids, keeps bringing me back.
“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” concludes its run tonight through this Sunday, August 11, at Moorpark College’s Black Box Theater. For dates and show times, see our Calendar of Events. You can also read my review of the show in Friday’s Moorpark Acorn.