Must See: The Middle School Throwback in NEU's Theatre Department's Latest Musical

By: Non Kuramoto

Remember those awkward middle school days, when you felt lonely, but didn't know how to express it? You felt misunderstood by your friends and family, and had no real way to measure your success? Have you hoped to have grown out of all of that since, but still notice that it's never really left you? Sometimes, you catch a glimpse of that person as you look into the mirror. How do you feel?

The Northeastern University Theatre Department presents the laugh-out-loud musical, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, filled with quirky characters and catchy tunes that will have you jamming out.

Directed by Scott Edmiston, Chair of the Theatre Department, the musical achieves a balance between being incredibly funny and leaving pits in our stomachs from nostalgia of how difficult pre-pubescent life was for all of us.

The costuming is a key element that brings the characters to life, both on stage and within the audience members’ childhood memories. The costume designer for this play is Beckie Price CAMD’17, a fourth year theatre major on the production track with a concentration in costume design.

I interviewed Beckie about the process of designing costumes for a theatrical production, and to get her take on the play from a designer’s perspective.

N: How did you become the designer of the show?

B: I assisted Frances [Frances McSherry—also the advisor of Fashion and Retail Society!] when she designed costumes for The House of Bernarda Alba last semester. Scott was looking for a designer for his show, and she recommended me to him.

N: What has the process been like?

B: The process has been really great. It was very collaborative from the start. The design team (Director, costumes, set, light, sound, etc) met about the concept before winter break so we had time to hash it out, then we met again after winter break to finalize it. The entire design team came up with the concept together, so we were confident going in that our final products would work well together. I also met individually with Scott a couple of times to get his opinions on specific costuming ideas.

N: So what was the concept?

B: We started off by discussing a lot of different ideas—like do we want to be literal, or do we want to make everything abstract? In the end, we ended up choosing the very literal path; the theatre looks like a middle school gym and the audience seating is classroom chairs. We really wanted the audience to experience the “return to middle school” nostalgia, and to draw them in to feel sympathy for the kids. Also, since a lot of the songs are inside the characters’ heads and have fantastical elements to it, having the visual aspects be literal kept everything grounded.

N: What was the process of designing and finding costume pieces?

B: I did a ton of online research at the beginning. Several characters have very specific clothes, like a Catholic girls’ school uniform or a grammar school uniform. One character is a Boy Scout, and I had to figure out how many badges would make sense for his age. To get the pieces themselves, I did a lot of shopping. I searched through shops ranging from Old Navy to The Garment District, and found some stuff online.

N: What were some of the challenges you faced?

B: The hardest part was making everybody look like kids. I mean, I’m dressing college students to look like middle schoolers! I focused a lot on hiding curves in girls, and making them look as shapeless as possible. For the guys, I gave them tighter pants. [laughs] 

N: Which is your favorite costume?

Leaf Coneybear. I love his costume. His cape is traditionally red, but Scott and I decided that he lived on a farm with his huge family and hippy parents… so we tie-dyed his cape. Olive usually wears overalls, but I put them on Leaf. In the play, Rona mentions that Leaf makes his own clothes, so I’m putting a bunch of patches on the overalls to give it the hand-made look. He also wears a helmet that looks like a bear because he falls a lot, and wears cowboy boots. It’s all just so adorable.

N: What do you want people to look forward to in the play?

B: The show is just super fun, and the actors portray their characters perfectly—obviously the costumes help! I’ve seen the play a couple times already, and it makes me laugh every time. The show calls for audience volunteers and has a lot of ad-lib, so the play changes every night and you never know what you’re going to see!

N: What do you have in store for you?

B: Well, this coming fall, I will be on Co-op at the Drury Lane Costume Shop in Chicago. They make costumes for a lot of plays that move to Broadway, so I’m very excited. After I graduate, I plan to continue pursuing costuming, both designing and in the costume shop. I hope to stay in theatre because the TV and film industry can be more political while theatre will give me the freedom to be creative. Also, I just love the live aspect of theatre!  


Photo by Non Kuramoto

Photo by Non Kuramoto

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee opens on Tuesday, March 22 and runs until Sunday April 3. Tickets are $5-$8 for students and $12 for adults and available on MyNEU

Images: Northeastern University Theatre Department, Becky Price