After two-plus years and 51 posts, we are moving the Hark, Villains blog to baretheatre.org. All new posts from here on out will be located there.
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.
THIS. This is why I can’t get any sleep.
No, not the photo. It’s the month or two before a show opens up. The first few weeks aren’t so rough, things seem to go very well and very easy. Everything is clicking along. There’s always that honeymoon period where it seems like the show will go off without a hitch.
Then you get to that hump. It’s usually around the time of getting everyone off script. I dread this from the actor’s perspective – I hate learning lines and I’m terrible at it. Blocking does not stay in my head. So I feel their pain when it’s time to put the book down, but it has to happen.
I get frustrated for them just as I get frustrated myself when I have to get off book. As director I start to feel it pile up because there’s twenty people trying to remember their lines and their blocking, and did we add them to that scene? The pace of rehearsals slows. We simply can’t get through as much as when everyone was reading from their scripts. Only now they have to start grabbing each other, smacking each other, and fighting with weapons.
It’s at this point in the process that Time turns against us. Rehearsals fly by, and sometimes we don’t get as far as I’d like. Sometimes we don’t get to people’s scenes, and they wonder why they were called that night. With an outdoor show that rehearses outdoors, you lose time when you have to go inside – your building closes a half hour before your outdoor rehearsal would have.
All of that is normal. This time, we’re adding Circus to the mix.
Don’t get me wrong – I live for rehearsal. Rehearsal is therapy. Rehearsal is social time. Rehearsal is time for honesty with people who won’t judge. Rehearsal is tradition, it’s ritual, it’s sacrifice (of time and energy), and it cleanses the soul. I am fully aware of how pompous all of that sounds, but it’s true.
Even during the rough period of getting off book, rehearsal makes me feel whole because I can see the final piece coming together. Whether it’s by small steps or big steps on a given night, there is always some progress toward showtime.
So even with a thousand details and things I want to work with 20-some actors, I live for it. But I can’t sleep because I’m thinking about it. Planning, strategizing, trying to figure out how weather works and if I can predict it or not. Trying to figure out what certain actors understand and what other don’t based on different backgrounds and experiences. Trying to remember to email someone about tiny hats, or flags, or what is that shirt made out of, or when can we work that one fight scene?
Last night I really couldn’t sleep because the Circus was coming.
I have to admit that knowing that we would have our first rehearsal actually working circus artists into scenes kept me up. They have a different process. They train alone or with tight partnered units usually. They’re not used to a long rehearsal process because they’re always performing and training. Would they have patience for our process? Would they understand what the hell we were saying? Would they think it was funny? Would they be bored? Would they care?
Would it be distracting to have people performing circus stunts onstage while actors are performing the play?
It was the not knowing. The first-timedness of it all. The part that excited me so much about undertaking Errors, and the part that I’ve secretly feared this whole time. We built it up quite a bit, after all! We’ve almost raised $3,000 in two weeks. If this didn’t work, where would we be?
Tonight we got our first glimpse. We got to run a full scene with a snake dancer, a poi spinner, and a fan-dancing bearded lady. And it exceeded my expectations massively. We got to talk with aerialists and plan, and imagine.
I now know that it will work.
Circus actually adds to the comedy and the story. The concept crystalizes. Ideas that the actors and I would not have had presented themselves easily once circus artists took the stage with us.
The fear is now entirely gone. But now I’m going to lose sleep because of all the new ideas that are presenting themselves.
There is already a certain electricity I can feel out at the Stephenson Amphitheatre at Raleigh Little Theatre. The place has atmosphere, and as more than one cast member has already remarked, it feels like a place in which someone should do Shakespeare. The stonework walls and benches, the raked wooden stage floor that feels like an old ship run aground…it feels like a set even with no actual set pieces in it.
The open air is inviting. Now that North Carolina Spring is (finally!) in effect, the warm air and cool breeze makes for perfect weather. There is a serenity to the place, and a strong sense of time. The amphitheatre has, after all, been there for over seven decades.
Raleigh Little Theatre is the granddaddy of this collaborative effort. As one of the oldest community theatres in the nation, they have a ton of history. Formed during the Great Depression, they’ve seen ups and downs – but they have lasted through good and bad and continued to entertain and educate the Raleigh community for a long time.
A long lifespan by no means indicates that RLT has grown tired. I have to say that this organization, especially with the new leadership of Executive Director Charles Phaneuf, is doing a great job of producing theatre that attracts and engages its audiences.
By contrast, with only eight full seasons under our belt, Bare Theatre is relatively new. We don’t have anywhere near the resources of RLT. We don’t even usually use scenery, much less have a scene shop. Heck, we don’t even have a theater. RLT has three!
However, the fact that we don’t have much if any overhead allows us some flexibility and agility. We can sometimes take some risks. As much as that can sometimes drive me bonkers, it also provides some freedom for us to dream.
Cirque de Vol is the newest entity in our little trifecta, and they’ve generated a lot of interest in their first year of operation. The high ceilings of the colorful and welcoming studios downtown have become a sort of home base to a community of circus performers in the Triangle. Not only does the physical space in the Hue building provide these talented artists with a space to congregate and practice, but they are now instructing a new generation of children and adults in trapeze, aerial silks, acrobatics, lyra, hooping, and yoga (just to name a few).
Sara Phoenix and her sister, Sheryl Howell, have created a strong atmosphere of positivity – it washes over you when you walk through the door. Sara’s sunny can-do attitude is so reassuring when we talk about things that make me somewhat nervous – aerial silk rigs, trapeze hanging from towers, and flamethrowers shooting fireballs off of said towers.
I’d also like to mention Greg Whitt of Drum for Change, who has agreed to head up our percussion ensemble that will accompany the madness. Sound has always been important to me in theatre (that’s how I got started with Bare), and drums provide energy and pulse to help keep driving the action.
So here we are. And we now have a complete cast! After auditioning via Skype from London, Brian Fisher will now be playing the part of Antipholus of Syracuse, and we are glad to have him.
The pace quickens. The show gets louder.
We are constantly looking for and inviting people to join the ride that is Bare Theatre.
It’s been quite a ride. In the last seven years, we’ve performed 15 of Shakespeare’s plays, four collections of one-acts, and 2 SPARKcons. We’ve performed in at least eight different venues around the Triangle, in Durham, Raleigh, Cary and Holly Springs. We’ve performed outdoors, in an art gallery, and in an original slave quarters cabin. There has been a lot of stage blood and no less than two inflatable, um…creatures.
This past year, we took a break from Shakespeare, which we used to perform almost exclusively. I think this was necessary – it was time to get out of what was becoming a comfort zone. That’s not to say we had mastered his work by any means, but we were getting very familiar with it and in such cases it can be easy to form habits.
We embarked on a series of projects that took us from Christopher Durang to Eugene Ionesco, from “Hot Greek Porn” to “Hitler Youth Knife.” We also delved into the Works Progress Administration’s Slave Narrative Project with Let Them Be Heard – a project for that appears to just now be beginning (more on that to come)!
These have been incredible experiences that had us exploring clowning in the streets of downtown Raleigh and digging down deep into the roots of racism in America. I know I personally have learned a lot about theatre, and audiences, and about putting on a show in general.
This year, we want to go big.
For our return to the works of Master Shakespeare, we will be performing two comedies that Bare Theatre has not done before. The first – coming this May – is The Comedy of Errors, an early screwball comedy of mistaken identities. The second – slated for September – will be As You Like It, an epic love romp through the forest of Arden.
For these two shows, we knew we wanted to experiment with a different venue and we wanted somewhere in Raleigh, where most of us live. We had an incredible time doing The Winter’s Tale at Sertoma Amphitheater in Bond Park a few years back, and it seemed like booking shows in Spring and Fall would be great times for outdoor theatre.
And we’ve wanted to perform at Raleigh Little Theatre’s Stephenson Amphitheatre for a while, too – ever since a group of folks who would later form much of the core of Bare Theatre performed As You Like It on that very stage in 2005.
This is a big venue. Research tells us this place holds somewhere between 1,000 and 2,000 audience members – a far cry from the intimate black box of Common Ground Theatre, a space we love and call home. The stone walls and raked wooden stage are perfect for Shakespeare but the question becomes, how do we fill it?
Collaboration is the answer we came up with. Many months ago I conceived Errors as a circus show, but I knew that to really pull it off we would need actual jugglers, hoop dancers, acrobats, and the like. Luckily, sharing the streets of SPARKcon with circus artists has introduced us to the amazing talent involved with Cirque de Vol Studios. Enter Sara Phoenix and the crew at Cirque de Vol.
How to fill a huge stage? Take an already big cast and add circus. We’re now exploring having a silk aerial rig onstage, as well as lyra and possibly a slack rope. Throw in a few fireballs. Make the city of Ephesus, the sole location of Errors, a circus town with a marketplace filled with tricks, stunts and artistry.
This is an ambitious project. Certainly it’s the biggest show I’ve ever attempted. I already need to thank Sara and Cirque de Vol as well as Charles Phaneuf and Raleigh Little Theatre. Without their help this wouldn’t be happening.
It is happening, and it’s going to be one crazy show. Stay tuned!
It has been over a year and half since I have directed or acted. The birth of my lovely baby girl took me off the stage for a little bit and I was glad to have the opportunity to delve back in slowly with this year’s Winter Acts.
I was also a little nervous. Becoming a mom changed the whole world for me — it became a lot more colorful, but also a lot scarier. I had no idea how this would come through in my art.
What I have come to realize over the past couple weeks of rehearsal is that experience only makes us better. It does not matter what kind of experience — as we layer on personal perspective, as our knowledge base grows, we only benefit from understanding a bit more about this beautiful, wonderful world and why it goes round.
And so I came to be the Director of Fun House with a whole new appreciation for everything around me and was thrilled with the challenge I found myself in.
The cast and I started the process figuring out what was going on. The world of this play did not have clear rules and so we set out to define them. What were the parameters for the science experiement that Larue and Atlas found themselves a part of? We picked out all the facts from the sciprt and built the experiment from there. We also had to make a few of our own choice about these characters. Where were they going before they found themselves in the fun house? What were the promises that were broken?
As we continued on this journey, we all came to realize that it was not the setting that we needed to focus on, but the relationships of these three characters. The interactions were defining the place, the Fun House, for us. Once the severity of responsibility to others was added, the play became much scarier and the motivation to figure out what was going on became more intense.
Mary, Jeff, and Loren have discovered incredibly rich characters with so much history to each of them. All of that experience, that knowledge base, is brought to this 15 minute window of their lives to tell a thrilling, moving story.
And for me personally, that brought it back to my new role as Mommy. My new base of understanding has absolutely created fear and uncertainty of the things that I cannot control, but I have never been more grateful for the experience of a new perspective than that of being mom to my stunning daughter.
-Heather J. Strickland, Bare Theatre Artistic Director
Yesterday was a special day for us. The cast and crew of LET THEM BE HEARD took a tour of Historic Stagville. For many in the group it was their first time at the site, the remnants of a plantation that used to be one of the largest in the South.
At the start of The Civil War, Stagville covered 30,000 acres (about 47 square miles) and stretched across what is now northern Durham County. At this time there were over 900 enslaved African-Americans living and working on the plantation.
Our tour was led by my father, Gil, who is a retired high school English teacher and a docent for Historic Stagville. Originally, he was going to give the group our own tour, but at the last minute we were joined by a large group that was touring historic sites in Durham.
Gil is a natural educator, and Stagville and the history of slavery in America are subjects he is passionate about. He first led us to the Bennehan House near the visitor’s center, which was built by Richard Bennehan in 1787.
The Bennehan House is not what most people think about when they imagine a southern slaveowner’s household. It is not the vast manor of Gone With the Wind. Instead, it is a simple 2-story house not too different in outward appearance from houses of today. However, this house was typical of its time and thus was not as large and ornate as the later estates of the deep south.
More remarkable is what is inside – pieces of original furniture and even a Thomas Day dresser, a rope bed with canopy, and even exposed wall showing original mortar with visible pig’s hair in it. Walking through the small food preparation room, we could see where slaves would have served meals that had been cooked in a separate structure. In the dining room, the table was set as it would have been in the 19th century.
I noticed that Kyma seemed lost in thought, taking in these rooms. I asked what she was thinking and she said, “I can see it.” She was referring to one of the stories her character, Fanny Cannady, tells in which see saw her mother slapped for spilling some coffee as she served it to the master and his wife. Fanny did not live at Stagville, but the empty table with its china all set out gave us a clear picture of what that scene might have looked like.
The second half of the tour covered Horton Grove, where LET THEM BE HEARD will take place. Horton Grove is about a half mile away from the Bennehan House, and we had to drive to it. Horton Grove is where a large group of slaves were housed, and the buildings remain today.
We began the Horton Grove portion at the slave quarters, where the first half of LET THEM BE HEARD will be performed. To me, this is the most amazing part of the tour. First, it is remarkable that these cabins still stand – most slave quarters on plantation historic sites are long gone. This is partially a testament to Paul Cameron, the subsequent heir of the Bennehan and Cameron fortunes and the man who brought Stagville to its peak in 1860.
Cameron realized that the typical slave huts of the time were unhealthy to the workforce. Those houses tended to have dirt floors, no ventilation, and thatched roofs that leaked, creating damp, insect and varmint-ridden conditions that would alternate between freezing cold in the winter and stiflingly hot in the summer.
Paul Cameron had these cabins built with raised floors, wood shingles, and windows, allowing better protection from the elements. While these were vast improvement over slave dwellings on other sites, they are still austere and crowded living conditions. Each building like the one pictured above housed four slave families, each with one room only, and families would usually number around 8-10 people.
Gil noted that Cameron’s improvements to the living conditions were not necessarily benevolent in nature – this was a way of safeguarding his investment, and by keeping his workforce healthy, he was able to maintain a highly productive plantation.
One of the most human and amazing sights at Stagville is the chimney on the first slave cabin. The bricks are original, and were made of North Carolina clay that would be cut into blocks and set in the sun to dry before they were fired. Occasionally the bricks would be grabbed too early, and finger imprints would be made in the still-drying clay. These imprints, and even a foot imprint can be seen today in the chimney at Horton Grove.
Inside the cabin, we were able to verify that groups slightly larger than we calculated could fit into the rooms and still give the actors room. This is great because we will be able to accommodate a few more people per group on the night of the show.
The atmosphere in that cabin is amazing. You really feel that you have been transported in time there. For me, imaging the crowded conditions with children sleeping on the wooden floors gets to me. It will make for an extremely intimate first half of the show.
Moving on, we walked down the gravel dirt road known as Jock Road to The Great Barn, where LET THEM BE HEARD will conclude. This mule barn, hand-built by slaves, was the culminating point of Paul Cameron’s dream. It is a massive structure that was constructed without mortar foundation, and it was built with shipbuilding techniques, which may help explain how the building has lasted for over 150 years.
When the folks who were touring historic sites realized they were on this tour with the cast, they asked to see a bit of the performance. Warren treated them to the beginning of Andrew Boone’s monologue when we got inside The Great Barn! Several of their group will be joining us I think for June 9th, so thanks, Warren!
The four men who will be performing in the barn will have much more room to play in, and with lantern light only, the atmosphere will be intense. I can already see the shadows flickering on the huge hand-hewn wooden beams, and I think the guys really enjoyed being able to walk that space.
Some of the cast and crew had to leave after seeing the barn, but the rest of us stayed and looked at the other slave cabins and Horton House, which was built in 1770 by a previous landowner.
The fact that these structures still stand after all this time astounds me. Driving to and from Stagville, I’ll notice old barns and wooden buildings collapsing off in the woods, and I can’t help but wonder if these were originally part of Stagville as well, lost to time and nature because they were not maintained.
That such history could be and has been lost so easily over the years is sad to me. This is why it is so important to me to tell the slave narratives and to encourage people to see Stagville. The more awareness of this resource, the more difficult it will be for state legislators to slash funding for the site.
It is my hope that LET THEM BE HEARD helps to preserve the stories and the site for many more people to see and learn from. I think cast and crew agree that this will be a truly memorable experience for us and for our audiences.