What does it take to compete in a spelling bee?
“Opera length gloves, little black dresses, rhinestone cat-eye glasses, and colorfully dyed beehive wigs,” said contestant Melissa Ligon.
These are the makings of a spelling bee champion. Or at least in Columbia at Columbia Spells, the Columbia Children’s Theatre’s fifth annual spelling bee competition. This signature look is rocked year after year, in one form or another, by the group the Bee-Dazzlers.
“We did think of doing something different but people now recognize us because of our big wigs,” Ligon said. Besides, they aren’t the only contestants decking themselves with themed costumes and silly accessories.
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“I once saw a competitor wearing yellow and black striped stilettos, with a tall black stinger for a heel,” said Jerry Stevenson, artistic director at the Columbia Children’s Theatre.
And speaking of stingers, attendants to this bee-tastic event on Saturday, Feb. 2 will have the opportunity to taste Columbia Spells’ signature cocktail, The Stinger.
“We carry this bee thing to the Nth degree,” Stevenson said. That includes the evening’s specialty drink, which is a combination of butterscotch schnapps, cinnamon schnapps, and whiskey.
Can you spell buzzed?
For many of the contestants in Columbia Spells, competing in CCT’s adult-only fundraiser depends on their ability to spell under the influence, something many of the participating teams fully embrace.
“A few of us who were competing met for beers and quizzed each other from a dictionary one evening before the Bee,” said Perrin Hall Bunson when asked how she prepared for last year’s big event.
Her team, the Bad Orthographers, came in second in 2017, defeated by Unicorn Slaughter House Death Match. This year, Unicorn Slaughter House Death Match will return to the stage not as champions, but as runners-up out for vengeance. As Stevenson described it, “it gets a little cut throat. People come back year after year to defend their title.”
It’s a competition, make no mistake. Under all the fishnets and body glitter are grown-up fifth graders seeking retribution.
“When I was in school, (spelling bees) gave me huge stress and anxiety,” Bunson said.
Ligon remembers losing her school’s national spelling bee over the word “horrible.” Even Stevenson, who competed in a second-grade spelling bee has bad memories.
“I spelled ‘soap’ s-o-p-e and I remember being laughed at and forced to sit down,” Stevenson said.
This, however, was not the case for three-time regional Scripps Howard champion and Columbia Spells 2019 enunciator, Jonathan Monk. Monk began taking part in spelling bees in the third or fourth grade and said the contests did a lot for his self confidence.
“Spelling bees were a way for me to engage in competition. To be in the final round of something with only one or two others,” he said.
But unlike their childhood spell-athons, those competing in Columbia Spells don’t spell it alone, each individual is part of a team of three. After the enunciator announces the word, uses it in a sentence, and gives its country of origin, teams write the word out on white-out boards. If their spelling is correct they move on. And because playing by academic spelling bee rules would be such a buzzkill, eliminated contestants can either bride the judges or be bought back into the game through audience donations.
It’s an eccentric notion: several rounds of spelling done over whiskey and champagne with not a single elementary student in sight — just unconventional enough for a theater. Five years ago, when CCT was looking for an adult-centric fundraiser, spelling bees were the newest rage, popping up at local bars and nonprofit functions.
“My favorite aspect (of the Columbia Spells event) is bringing together a group of contestants and spectators who would probably never hang out together, and never will again,” said Larry Hembree, director of development for Columbia Children’s Theatre.
Spellers will compete for the coveted golden bee trophy, the chance to return to the competition next year for free, social media exposure, and of course, bragging rights. In an effort to not relive the trauma of spelling bees of yesteryear, teams not crowned queen bee have the opportunity to win People’s Choice Award or walk away with the title Best Team Spirit.
Spectator tickets are $15. Teams of three or more can register for $100. For more information and to register, go to www.columbiachildrenstheatre.com.
“Columbia Spells is a fundraiser for an amazing cause — bringing quality theater programming to young people in our community,” Monk said.
I couldn’t have spelled it out better myself.
If you go
Columbia Spells adult spelling bee
When: Saturday, Feb. 2. Happy hour begins at 6 p.m. Competition starts at 7 p.m.
Where: Columbia Children’s Theatre, 3400 Forest Drive in Richland Mall
Tickets: $15 for onlookers and supporters; $100 for teams of three. www.columbiachildrenstheatre.com
Good to know: The event is for those age 21 and older. There will be a cash bar opening at 6 p.m. All proceeds benefit Columbia Children’s Theatre.