UCF deans Jose Fernandez and Ross Hinkle certainly know how to spell P-A-R-T-I-C-I-P-A-T-E. And that’s exactly what they’re doing for the upcoming Theatre UCF production of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.”
The play calls for several guest spellers to compete at each performance, so Fernández, dean of the College of Arts & Humanities, and Hinkle, vice provost and dean of the College of Graduate Studies, accepted the challenge to test their spelling skills on stage. The play also provides them the opportunity to be part of the theatre experience and make connections with students.
The spirited Tony Award-winning musical is about six young overachievers trying to become the county spelling champ. Along the way they learn that winning isn’t everything, and losing doesn’t have to be a catastrophe. The cast and invited guest spellers also join select audience members for a little “I before E” competition.
Fernández, who will appear on opening night, July 10, has appeared in two other campus plays in recent years. The dean said he accepts the roles “because I can better appreciate the tremendous talent of our students and faculty, and at the same time it gives me the opportunity to interact with the students and learn about their goals and aspirations.”
Fernández said he is not a native speaker of English but considers himself a decent speller. He said he finished second in a promotional 2002 Dairy Farmers Association community spelling bee in Orlando.
Hinkle said Fernández told him about the walk-on opportunities at Theatre UCF, and said it sounded like a fun way to help promote the theatre programs and meet folks in the arts, “which should help me in building relationships across the university and better understand the arts at UCF – as an ecologist and biologist I have had limited exposure to the arts.”
He describes himself as an “above average” speller, “but I do love spellcheck – even though sometimes it spells words correctly but out of context.”
“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” will run July 10-20 and Aug. 20-24 at Theatre UCF’s Main Stage. Hinkle will be put to the test during the July 20 performance, and some other surprise invited spellers may appear during the run of the play.
Before each performance, a few audience volunteers also are handpicked to participate in the play as spellers, so each group presents new and unexpected outcomes. Contestants are chosen through pre-show lobby interviews and questionnaires. Anyone wishing to be considered should arrive at least 30 minutes before the show begins.
The UCF performance is directed by Be Boyd, an associate professor in the Theatre department. While on Broadway, the play was nominated for six Tony Awards in 2005, and won for Best Book of a Musical and Best Featured Actor. There is some mature language in the play, so it is suggested for ages 12 and up.
As for Hinkle and Fernández, they said their previous stage appearances have been limited. Hinkle did a reading of “Waiting for Godot” in undergraduate school, and Fernández said he was in a couple plays years ago at FSU and the University of Colorado in addition to two previous cameos at UCF.
In Theatre UCF’s 2012 production of “Zombie Town,” Fernández served up some bloody gore as one of the walking dead.
“It was a lot of fun and I learned a lot from the students. After the play, they considered me one of their own,” he said. “Last year when Terrance (Jackson), one of the students, got his diploma at graduation, he hugged me and I said, ‘Thank you for coaching me.’ – It was a priceless moment.”
Performance times for “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” are 7 p.m. July 10-12 and July 18-20; 8 p.m. Aug. 21-23, and 2 p.m. July 13, July 20 and Aug. 24. For tickets and other information, go to theatre.cah.ucf.edu/.