In its drive to support education, one local nonprofit theater has become spellbound. The Brauntex Performing Arts Theatre in New Braunfels is set to host the regional spelling competition for the acclaimed Scripps National Spelling Bee for the first time ever, with the winner of the contest advancing to the national bee.
Dubbed the Brauntex Bee, the regional competition will include schoolchildren from 18 Texas counties vying for the title of regional champ and the opportunity to move on to the premier nationwide spelling contest in Washington, D.C. in June 2021.
The community and the theater have one very busy bee to thank for securing the event. Risa Miller, the production coordinator for the Brauntex Theatre, singlehandedly spearheaded the mission to bring the regional bee to the San Antonio 'burb, hoping to shine a light on downtown New Braunfels in the process.
“I’m a huge advocate for the town. I’ve always thought a lot about how to get people to downtown New Braunfels,” Miller says. “Kids and families are where it’s at, where the economy really thrives. One thing this theater has not traditionally done is focus on kids and family. That was something I felt was really important. … So, it just came to me one day that maybe this is the time and place to do the spelling bee.”
But simply deciding to host the regional bee was just the first step. And since the San Antonio Express-News has long hosted the contest, Miller assumed it was a long shot for the theater to assume the role. But when the newspaper, which had first right of refusal for the regional event, missed the sign-up deadline, she jumped at the chance to get the Brauntex Theatre involved.
Area schools facilitate their local spelling tests, then the top speller from each school district/category moves on to the Brauntex Bee, which is scheduled for March 27, 2021. Currently, Miller says 83 schools have registered and expects about 30 students to participate in the regional bee.
“We’d like to have about 200 schools registered. The goal is for every school district to be represented here,” she says.
Currently, the Brauntex Bee is set to happen as an in-person event, though Miller says the theater will adjust to an online-only event should pandemic require it. And the theater plans to broadcast the live recording of event the following day.
“We’ve got seating for 600, so we can definitely do it in a safe, socially distanced way,” she says. “But if necessary, we can do it all online.”
In addition to advancing to the Scripps National Spelling Bee, the Brauntex Bee champion will receive two round-trip airline tickets to the event, a complimentary hotel stay, and a $700 stipend to cover other costs during Bee Week.
The news that the theater secured the regional event couldn’t come soon enough for Miller, who notes the nonprofit Brauntex Theatre has hit a bit of a dry spell, thanks to the pandemic, having to reschedule all its planned 2020 shows. And given that the 2020 Scripps National Spelling Bee was also canceled because of COVID-19 concerns — the first time since World War II the national contest was scrubbed — Miller hopes the upcoming regional bee in New Braunfels will draw more schools, students, sponsors, and attention.
The deadline for schools to register, December 20, is quickly approaching. And currently, the theater has only one sponsor for the event.
“Typically, the bee is sponsored by news outlets,” she says. “A lot of these other regional bees have been doing it so long, like in Dallas and Houston, that they don’t have to go out and hunt for sponsors. We got a late start and had to start from scratch. We’re hoping to get some newspapers on board to help us support this thing. The tradition needs not die.”
Miller says she hopes to also create a new tradition of hosting the regional bee at the Brauntex Theatre. And since the theater now has first right of refusal, that outcome is likely.
“My hope,” she says of the regional competition, “is that it becomes as big as football.”