SPARKcon: What It Is and What It Isn’t.
When SPARKcon first started in 2006, I clearly remember seeing the iconic little stick figures with their heads on fire in all sorts of random places. The branding obviously worked – it was memorable – but I didn’t know what “it” was. A year later, the little flameheads were back and there were more posters getting plastered around. SPARKcon returned again and again each year.
In those first few years, I thought I wasn’t cool enough for SPARKcon. I thought it was some big underground party that I wasn’t invited to. I could see that there was music, art, film, circus, ideas, but I didn’t know what was going on or when or how this was taking place. It just seemed overwhelming and impossible that so much was going on in such a short amount of time.
I finally got a chance to see some of SPARKcon a few years ago. Some friends, the Nickel Shakespeare Girls, were performing in “theatreSPARK,” which at the time was on a small stage in front of what was then known as the Progress Energy Center for the Performing Arts. There may have only been 3 or 4 companies represented at the time. I saw some potential for growth and wanted to find out how to get involved.
The way to get involved in SPARKcon, it turns out, is to show up.
I somehow found out about a meeting they were having at the old Designbox. When I arrived, they actually got excited that someone was there from theatre! Who knew? They also sort of assumed that I knew what was going on or that I was a representative from the local theatre community. At the time, I wasn’t speaking for anyone – I was just there for information!
That is how SPARKcon goes.
What I saw at that first meeting was a tradition that occurs at all of the SPARKcon general meetings. They go around the room and each SPARK talks a bit about ideas they have, what they are working on, and sometimes ask for help or resources from the others. It was collaborative, and it was exciting to hear about all these new things that were going on around town.
Though this event, this “explosion of creativity,” was conceived by Aly and Beth Khalifa of Designbox, it was obvious that they weren’t dictating who or what should be involved. Even now, eight years on, Aly says “We don’t know exactly what’s going to happen at these events” – a deliberate choice that is one of the defining characteristics of this festival.
I’m a big fan of this choice. There’s no headliners at SPARKcon. It’s not like HOPSCOTCH, the huge annual music festival that precedes SPARKcon by one week. The Roots won’t be playing this weekend. This festival is all about local. The “headliners” here are the major and up and coming artists from Raleigh and the Triangle.
Each SPARK represents a community. The SPARKs come together and show what they do. Some of them come up with really amazing interactive games and opportunities for audiences. One of my favorites this year is the new Raleigh Rampage from geekSPARK. Festival attendees get to dress up like giant monsters and destroy a scale model of downtown Raleigh.
The other aspect of SPARKcon that is so unique and fascinating to me is the variety. You can go to this festival, FOR FREE, and see visual art, hear new bands, or see scenes from current stage productions. Local filmmakers screen new short films, circus performers juggle fire and do aerial stunts (this year’s circusSPARK even features parkour demonstrations!). There are also design and technology exhibits, and Raleigh’s version of TED Talks, the Pecha Kucha Night, from ideaSPARK.
What SPARKcon isn’t is polished or corporate. There are sponsors, but SPARKcon isn’t dominated by branding. It’s a grassroots festival. A central committee of some 5-7 organizers works with the various SPARK coordinators, who in turn work within their various communities. It’s not a business, and therefore it’s free.
What has come out of SPARKcon? I can only speak from personal experience.
SPARKcon is directly responsible for Bare Theatre’s collaborations with Cirque de Vol Studios, PineCone, and The Zinc Kings that took place at Raleigh Little Theatre this past summer. If there was no SPARKcon, our productions of The Comedy of Errors and As You Like It would not have happened. It was the exposure of theatre to circus and vice versa that began Errors, which led us to seek collaboration with PineCone. These were by far Bare Theatre’s two largest shows ever, by all measurement.
You never know what can happen at SPARKcon. You may be inspired. You may find a great piece of art or jewelry to take home. You may even find yourself dancing in the street.
What you do is up to you. Just make sure that you take advantage of the creative explosion.