It's a typical night at the AS220 performance space, but with white-sticker name tags and an undercurrent of desperation. The revelers sip beer and cocktails. They feign calm. But soon, 30 of them will line up, enter the spotlight and be asked to spell words like "bratwurst," "lingonberry," and "parole." Most will fail.
It's Not About the Buildings' 5th Annual Spelling Bee for adults, where contestants compete for prizes and raise money for the literary events group founded in 2006.
Matthew Lawrence is a droll host, and dressed in a white suit, he plays the high school teacher well. But don't let the act fool you. In addition to helming Not About the Buildings, the man is a spelling savant. He won the spelling bee for the city of Cranston in sixth grade, advancing to the state finals at the Biltmore, where he remembers being knocked out somewhere in the middle. His undoing was "cudgel," a noun that means a short, heavy club. It can also be a verb: to beat with a cudgel.
Since his defeat, Lawrence has organized micro-memoir workshops — your life in a few paragraphs — and marathon readings of Edith Wharton's Ethan Frome, among other events. When I met him the afternoon before the bee, he told me he had prepared a list of about 300 words. Those at the end were impossible.
"I've never had a real spelling bee champion show up," Lawrence told me, "but just in case a couple do . . . The last word on the list has a silent 'gh' in the middle. It's the name of a fishing boat that is only in certain parts of the Mediterranean."
The first round begins with words like "dissent" and "abyss." The contestants seem composed, despite the crowd of about 50 that has assembled to watch them. Then Bill Lange steps to the microphone. Bill came in third last year, he says — an inch from splendor. The winner and runner-up get prizes. Third place gets nothing. But Bill has returned. This year, he could win it all.
His word is "turgid."
He spells it "t-e-r-g-i-d."
The crowd erupts with love for Bill, but there are no laurels for him tonight, no membership to the Providence Athenaeum — that goes only to the winner. I look for Bill after the event, but I can't find him.
Tension builds as the words become more difficult, moving from "felony" and "squirrel" to "papoose" and "garbanzo." The judges are Kath Connolly from the Learning Community in Central Falls — who reads the definitions with scholarly precision — and J.P. Reader, a former umpire for the Providence Kickball League who barks "Wrong!" with a guttural punch that knocks the losers flat.
The crowd is filled with ruthless hecklers, more brutal than middle school students, but alternately filled with boisterous love and affection for those who are eliminated. At the end, it's down to two contestants: Sasha Berkoff, a graduate student in computer science, and Kevin Girard, who is wearing a red collared shirt and brown vest. Each has a cheering section, filled, presumably, with people who have placed bets on them, and are hoping to gain a share of the prizes — and the glory.