Improvising Success

When Rebecca Feldman '94 decided to use a spelling bee as the framework within which to "discover a play," she little imagined that within three years that play would become the basis for a Tony award-winning Broadway musical. In fact, the success of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, playing since April 2005 at the Circle in the Square Theater in Manhattan, still feels "sort of surprising," Feldman says. "It happened very fast."

Adding to Feldman's surprise is that this speedy success followed on the heels of a period in which she had taken some steps back from the theater.

Feldman, whose eclectic theatrical tastes were nurtured early on by a steady diet of 80s television and Broadway musicals, had acted from the age of eleven all the way through Kenyon, where she also began to direct. Returning to her native New York after graduation, she pursued her vocation as a director throughout her twenties, while working as a temp to support herself. A decision to go to massage-therapy school represented an increasing acceptance of the reality that theater work was not likely to pay the bills. Having also earned a certificate in nutrition counseling, Feldman took a hiatus from drama to pursue a nutrition counseling/massage therapy business full-time.

It was during that break, and perhaps because of the detachment it afforded, that the creative juices began to flow. In 2000, Feldman organized The Farm, a collective of writers and performers committed to exploring the role of improvisation in the creation of new plays. She fashioned a structure for collaboration: each actor would come in with a few characters, and the group would proceed to "interview" the characters to decide which ones would work best in the world they were creating together.

Then, working with the characters selected, Feldman would audio-tape three to four improv sessions. Afterward, she took the tapes home and typed up scenes, adding details and working to shape a story line.

By the spring of 2002, the group was ready to put on a workshop production of the spelling bee play, then called C-R-E-P-U-S-C-U-L-E. The full production, which followed in the fall, retained some improvisation. The random selection of six audience members to participate in the spelling bee, for example, made each performance unique.

The rest, as they say, is history.

C-R-E-P-U-S-C-U-L-E succeeded "downtown" (New York theater lingo for the off-off-Broadway spaces in which new plays are nurtured), and by January 2004 a decision was made to turn the play into a musical.

That's when life hit warp speed. Feldman directed the musical's premiere at the Barrington Stage Company in the Berkshires (in Massachusetts) in the summer of 2004. The show was playing off-Broadway by that winter, and by April 2005 it had hit the big time. The music and lyrics of Spelling Bee are by William Finn, the book by Rachel Sheinkin. "Conceived by Rebecca Feldman," the program reads.

Feldman credits Kenyon with giving her a first immersion in the world of improv, via the comedy troupe Fools on the Hill. A member for three years, she says the experience taught her to wrestle with the subtle distinction that improv actors must manage between archetypal characters and stereotypes. Another major influence, she says, was the College's drama faculty, especially playwright-in-residence Wendy MacLeod, who brought to her classes the real-world perspective of a creative artist winning commissions and staging works around the country.

The transformation of a highly personal project into a Broadway musical has provided its own real-world lessons for Feldman. Some cherished characters in the play were dropped in the musical, and the current production is much more scripted than the original. Feldman likens the process to a mother watching a child grow up. "Something's lost and something's gained," she says. "The show grew into a different animal."

Nonetheless, the success of Spelling Bee has been personally rewarding. "Throughout my twenties, I kept sending the message to myself 'I don't know,'" Feldman says. "C-R-E-P-U-S-C-U-L-E and the Spelling Bee thing was a gift--and I felt like I was getting a very definite message not to give up."

Feldman's muse has stayed with her. In November, she finished a TV pilot (it's about a middle-school A-V club), which she plans to bring with her when she and fiancé Jay Reiss move to Los Angeles early this year. "The TV piece felt so natural and so joyful, and that's how I want to keep creating, because it seems to work for me."

Even as she prepares to move to California, Feldman is working to start a summer theater festival in upstate New York. Scheduled to open next summer, the festival will focus on new works and under-produced playwrights. One of the plays will be a Farm production.

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