Ethan Paulini as Leaf Coneybear. Photo by John David Pittman.
Can you spell F-U-N?
To highlight all of the cool (and funny) things about our upcoming show The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, we have launched a week blog series called Spelling Bee Thursday!
Our dramaturg, Robert Neblett, had a chance to talk with Ethan Paulini on his role as the cute and socially awkward Leaf Coneybear, his incredible involvement with Arkansas Repertory Theatre, what patrons can expect from the interactive show and tons more.
Here is what he had to say!
Q: You’ve had a busy year with The Rep. Can you talk to us about your growing relationship with the company and your activities in Little Rock over the past few months?
A: I started working at the Rep in 2007 and The Bee will mark my seventh production. Recently, I have come even more frequently because I directed the SMTI Select program in a production of Carole King’s musical Really Rosie in the brand new Education Annex. As an artist, beyond looking for a community, you also really seek an artistic home. I have found that here. To watch this organization grow and evolve and for me to be able to go on that ride to some extent is so rewarding. I am so grateful to Bob, Nicole, Mike and everyone at The Rep for their continued support and trust. From being able to play incredible roles like Buddy in Elf to becoming a staff member of SMTI, I take great responsibility and pride in the challenges The Rep presents to me. In addition, the patrons and community of Little Rock has been so welcoming that central Arkansas has really become my second home. I strive to do the best work here because both the supportive staff and the astute patrons deserve that. I look forward to watching the organization continue to thrive and hope to continue to be a part of that.
Q: The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is a unique work of musical theatre, combining improvisation and audience participation with a wickedly funny script and score. What can Rep audiences expect when they walk into the theatre?
A: At the risk of sounding cliche, audiences should expect the unexpected. The fun of this show is that it is never the same twice. We, as actors, are at the mercy of what the audience gives us. Their experience is almost entirely up to them and how they participate. While the improv is very structured and well thought out, it is impossible to know who and what will be joining us onstage. The results are deliciously unpredictable. If we as actors really respond to that, it is quite clear to the audience that it is not planned. The shared experience between us and the audience is indescribable. That is ultimately the thrill of live theatre– that sense that anything can happen. This is a show that takes that idea, turns it on it’s head and multiples it by a thousand.
Q: Tell us about your character, Leaf Coneybear, and his journey in the show.
A: Leaf marches to the beat of his own drum. He didn’t actually win his qualifying bee and instead is here as an alternate. He is just thrilled to be there and is probably the least competitive and most surprised by whatever success he achieves. He is the product of homeschooling and has many brothers and sisters who he feels inferior to in the intelligence department. The biggest thing Leaf gains is real confidence that while he may have issues learning from a book, he in fact is and always has been quite smart. Because of his inability to connect with people, he could be called a bit misunderstood but this experience really helps him come out of his own shell.
Q: How did you prepare for this role?
A: I played this role previously in Northern Stage’s production. It has been a few years, so I had to revisit his storyline, his mannerisms and his relationships to the world of this play. Of course as I have already mentioned, this show is never the same twice, even when doing the same production. So to prepare for this go-around, I really am just approaching this with an openness toward what these new actors and creative team will bring to it. The advantage is that many of these actors and creative team are near and dear and frequent collaborators. If ever there was a show that called for a sense of playfulness, this is it, so I just am gearing up for a few weeks of playing with friends new and old in pursuit of an authentic and earnest production.
Q: Do you feel Leaf exists along the autism spectrum or is just socially awkward? How does this impact your portrayal of the character?
A: I do think he probably exists on the spectrum but that’s just one more clue I gather about this character. Whether clues exist in the text or you infer them based on your own human experience, they all come together to create a vivid and alive character. When I was growing up, Autism was not as common a diagnosis, so I am sure I have had many peers who have existed on the spectrum. For me, the decision as an actor to accept that information is no different than information that exists such as his relationship to his family, or that he likes apple juice, or tosses his hair. It is just one more piece of the portrait you hope to put together when creating an alive, vivid character.
Q: You also play another role in the show. Tell us about this character and how you alternate between roles in the course of the performance.
A: I also play Carl Grubinierre, one of Logan’s adoptive fathers. He appears twice. Once during Logan’s song “Woe is Me” and then again in a very pivotal scene toward the end. Carl is educated, a bit fussy, mature and fiercely competitive. I think he is kind of the opposite of Leaf’s go-with-the-flow attitude. A lot of the work I get to do is about creating very broad but distinct characters, so I really relish the opportunity to find the differences between the characters but also not shy away from the parts of my own personality that can act as a sort of through line. It hopefully allows for some cohesion in the performance for the audience.
Q: The characters in the musical are misfits and outsiders, but in the competitive world of the spelling bee, they have found a place in which they excel, in which they belong. What does this aspect of the show have to say about our lives and a search for community?
A: Ultimately, I think as humans we strive to be a part of something. It validates us, bears witness to our lives and allows us to share experiences. This is easier said than done sometimes. I think this show really celebrates that idea of embracing who you are and accepting everyone. There is also comfort in realizing that everyone has insecurities and personal struggles. Despite the competition that these kids face from each other, ultimately they find support and a place to belong and be themselves at the Bee.
Q: What advice would you give to students in the Little Rock area who are interested in building a career in musical theatre?
A: It’s the same advice I would give to anyone hoping to pursue a career as an artist: STUDY, STUDY, STUDY. To be a successful artist, you have to be willing to constantly evolve. The advantage an aspiring artist in Little Rock possesses is access to professionals and resources. The Rep and the resident artists here are as good as anyone I have worked with anywhere. Learn from them and take advantage of their expertise. The SMTI program is so wonderful and unique. No matter how serious a student may be about pursuing this as a career, there is an immeasurable amount of benefit that can come from participating in that program.
Q: Did you ever participate in spelling bees as a child? Do you have any anecdotes that you would like to share.
A: I’ve never been in a Spelling Bee, but in seventh grade, I was the Massachusetts State Geography Bee Champion and I went to nationals in Washington, D.C. The Bee was hosted by Alex Trebek. I didn’t get too terribly far. I think I came in 40th or 41st out of 52.
Q: Spelling Bee is a hilarious show, yet I am always surprised by how moved I am by this show and its characters. Can you talk about the emotional impact of the musical? Is there a particular moment in the play that speaks to you?
A: Well, ‘The I Love You Song’ breaks my heart every time. But I think when the audience catches their breath from laughing, they realize these are earnest, sweet and unique characters who all face both struggles and triumphs equally. I also think watching characters have personal discoveries and change is what makes for a great musical and these characters do that. Not one person in this show is the same at the beginning as they are at the end. It’s a snapshot of the growing process and I think that can be very poignant.
See Ethan in action by booking your tickets when the musical takes center stage Oct. 16-Nov. 8– call the Box Office at (501) 378-0405 or visit TheRep.org.