By Dustin Turner

The North Augusta Cultural Arts Council is known for bringing performing arts, music and visual arts to the city of North Augusta. Now, the organization is planning a spelling bee, complete with songs, a live orchestra and a comfort counselor for competitors who get eliminated. No, this isn’t your average school spelling bee. It is, however, a beloved Tony Award-winning Broadway hit.

In The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, six quirky adolescents compete to crown the best speller. Ryan Abel plays Mitch Mahoney, who is the bee’s comfort counselor as part of court-mandated community service. “When they misspell a word, Mitch gives them an apple juice box and a hug,” Ryan said with a laugh.

The show will be performed March 9, 10 and 11 at the North Augusta High School Auditorium. General admission tickets cost $20 and can be purchased by calling (803) 646-2815 or by going to Parks Pharmacy or the North Augusta Arts and Heritage Center.

Putnam will be the fifth show presented by the theater committee of the North Augusta Cultural Arts Council. The first show came to fruition with the guidance of Angela Burkhalter. “We were doing all these other things – concerts in the park and the veterans’ concert – but I realized there was no theater in North Augusta.”

Burkhalter’s daughter had performed in several shows with the Augusta Players, “So I saw the value of theater for kids and, well, for everybody,” she said.  Burkhalter saw a need and was inspired to bring theater to North Augusta. In January 2014, she served as the production manager for I Love A Piano, the Cultural Arts Council’s first theater production. The organization has staged one show per year ever since.

In The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, even the kids are played by adults. “This type of casting gives the audience a realistic glimpse inside the often R-rated minds of the kids and makes them more relatable,” said Kris Harwood, the executive director of the North Augusta Cultural Arts Council’s Theater Committee. For North Augusta’s audiences, however, the R-rated language and innuendo have been toned down to PG-13.

“I think we can all relate to anger, embarrassment and hurt and in order to express it, there is some minor adult language and some amusing pubescent mishaps that aren’t often discussed around every dinner table.” As an actor, Abel likes the use of adults in those roles and explained,“Being that we are adults who have been through adolescence, we remember how it can be a confusing time, but we know the end game and can relate to the uneasiness. This really is a coming-of-age tale. They all learn something new about themselves and about the world. They all grow as people.”

Richard Justice, who has lived in North Augusta for 16 years and has directed many shows around the CSRA shared, “Putnam is a wonderful blend of funny, touching and moving. All walks of life are represented by these characters. There will be someone on the stage you can connect with. Each speller represents a different fragment of the population so it also runs the gamut of emotions with themes like diversity, inclusiveness and morality.”

Four competitors will also be selected from the audience. Don’t worry, though, you aren’t expected to be a great speller. In fact, it’s probably better if you aren’t. “I think probably the most difficult thing would be if you have a really good speller as a volunteer,” Justice said, “because they have to miss a word in there somewhere to advance the plot. If they keep spelling the words correctly, we just keep throwing increasingly difficult words at them. That kind of audience interaction adds a level of uncertainty, but this is a great cast, and they can handle it.”

Like any large arts organization, various committees of the North Augusta Cultural Arts Council oversees the functions of the council: annual concerts, the North Augusta Idol Talent Show, scholarships and grants. The theater committee, however, functions differently. “The theater committee stands alone in that we are self-funded with our own vision,” explained Harwood. “So we reach out to our community for ad sponsorships and donations, and of course ticket sales so that we can continue to offer the city of North Augusta and the surrounding area with quality theater.”

Abel, the committee’s artistic director, helped choose Putnam for this year’s production. He said the group narrowed a list of potential shows down to three: The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Forever Plaid and You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown. From there, they decided Putnam would be a good fit.

“We picked Putnam because we like to do shows that work well with limited resources such as a minimal set and minimal costumes. This is a very beloved show and it works well for the venue (the North Augusta High School auditorium) and the resources we have,” Abel said, adding that Charlie Brown and Forever Plaid will be considered for future productions.

As a performer, Abel is drawn to the music. “I am inspired by music and this show has a great blend. It has music of all genres that will appeal to a lot of people.”

With all eyes focusing on North Augusta with the new GreenJackets stadium and Riverside Village, the theater committee hopes to make a big splash with the 2018 show. “It’s a show that brings in a wider audience in that it doesn’t cater to any certain age group,” Harwood added. “It’s a well-known Tony Award-winning show and loved by all who have seen it. This isn’t the kind of show that you just see once. If you have spoken to someone who has already seen it, more than likely, they already have tickets to see this one.”

Putnam’s broad appeal also was a big selling point. “This show has something for everyone in attendance,” Harwood said. “The cast loves these characters and is having fun with them, which definitely shows on the stage. It creates an environment for the audience to want to join in on that fun. It’s fun and fast-paced and the music is incredible.”

Just like the North Augusta Cultural Arts Council’s board of directors and committee members, the cast and crew of Putman are all local volunteers. “The live orchestra, directed by Evan Read, is phenomenal. The choreography designed by Elle Starzec, of The North Augusta School of Dance, is fun and surprising. All of this being directed by North Augusta’s own Richard Justice will be sure to delight the audience,” Harwood added.

For five years, the theater committee has performed each show in the North Augusta High School auditorium, but that might change after Putnam. “The high school is also going through its own growing pains with lots of changes in construction and facility use,” Harwood said, “So I’m not sure where the auditorium stands in that regards. We can’t schedule any future shows due to possible conflicts.”

The ultimate solution would be for the North Augusta Cultural Arts Council to have its own performing arts center. A committee led by Abel and Rich Brasco, with the backing of the entire North Augusta Cultural Arts Council, recently presented its plan for a multi-faceted performing arts venue to the City of North Augusta. City Council is considering the project as part of its plans for a revitalization of Georgia Avenue.

“We are asking the City Council to include a PAC in the Capital Projects Sales Tax vote that will occur in November,” said John Bigger, the president of the North Augusta Cultural Arts Council.  “I do not know if they will but we are at least getting the need out there in front of the community and we would like to see it in the downtown area.”

Leave it up to actors and theater enthusiasts to come up with a creative way to promote their idea: “Maybe we should schedule flash mobs every few months at the Municipal Center until the city decides we definitely need a venue for performing!” Harwood said. “North Augusta is growing and we just want to grow with it.”

Whether a performing arts center comes to fruition, the theater committee’s mission stays the same – to bring quality theater productions to North Augusta and for people to be able to experience theater at a venue in the city.  “The CSRA already has a theater community made up of dedicated actors, directors and artists,” Harwood said. “We only hope to join that community and bring something new to the table. We are still formulating that niche, and with Ryan as the theater’s artistic director, we can be sure not to duplicate anything in existence and add another outlet for performing artists.”

Abel, Harwood and the theater committee would love to do more than one show per year. Harwood said the organization plans to start creating an entire season in advance. “It will be difficult, but between myself, Ryan and Angela Burkhalter (she is our fund-raising director for the theater who managed to keep this going for five years already), I believe we can pull this off.”


The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

RATED: PG-13

WHEN: 7 p.m. March 9 and 10; 3 p.m. March 11

WHERE: North Augusta High School Auditorium

HOW MUCH: $20 general admission

DIRECTOR: Richard Justice

CAST: Robb Smith, Chelsea Essigman, Rebekah Roberson, Ralph Sap, Tom Reed, Karen Brotherton, Amy Miller, Ryan Abel, Warren Post and Caleb Rivera-Bloodworth

FOR TICKETS: 803-646-2815, Parks Pharmacy, North Augusta Arts and Heritage Center

This article appears in the March 2018 issue of Augusta Family Magazine.
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