826 Valencia’s Spelling Bee for Cheaters

Judge Jay Reiss helps Mythbusters' co-host Adam Savage pronounce a word. Photo by Emily Loftis

Mother Jones (byline with Maddie Oatman)

The atmosphere at San Francisco’s Herbst Theater on Thursday night felt more like a high school auditorium than its usual elegant performance space. Hundreds had come to observe the Spelling Bee for Cheaters, a fundraiser for literary nonprofit and tutoring center 826 Valencia, and the air bubbled with the sounds of peppy teams cheering on their spellers. A team of librarians near stage right quietly practiced snarky rhyming chants, and teens dressed in bee costumes flitted around the orchestra seats. As the lights dimmed, the “Black Swan” team near the front row turned on their twinkling electric crowns, stood up, and in unison did a ballerina spin in support of their tutu-clad teammate on stage.

As the costumes and spirit suggested, this wasn’t going to be a normal spelling bee. Contestants would be allowed to cheat, using tickets like “Try Again,” “Free Letter,” and “Ask a Teammate” they had purchased as a part of the fundraiser. And rather than rooting for the standard crop of awkward child prodigies, this audience could expect to cheer on the likes of writer Michael Chabon, Lemony Snicket series author Daniel Handler and his artist wife Lisa Brown, Mythbusters co-host Adam Savage, former bank robber and now-author Joe Loya, indie rocker Thao Nguyen, demure folk singer Tracy Chapman, and, the contestant with the most groupies present, beaming high school counselor Ms. Sortino. The trio of judges were improv actors Rebecca Feldman, Liz Feldman, and Jay Reiss, creators of the Tony-winning musical “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.”

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