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.
I’ll start this entry with a disclaimer. I love Netflix, watch it all the time. I hardly ever go to the movie theater anymore, and I don’t see nearly as many live shows as I want to. There, I said it. I don’t get out enough.
However, I don’t think I’m alone in this respect, and that is a little sad to me. I think live entertainment used to bring people together more.
Obviously back in Shakespeare’s time people had to see entertainment live because they couldn’t get it any other way. I think it’s kind of neat to imagine the crowds that gathered at The Globe – up to 3,000 people attending one show. People from all walks of life, rich and poor, all gathered to see plays that are still being performed today.
The actors and the audience members who could afford better admission got sheltered seats with a roof over them. Those who couldn’t, “the groundlings,” had to stand at the bottom. If it was raining, they stood watching for about four hours…in the rain.
Not many people would watch a play in the rain today (although Heather did – at The Globe!). Sure, we don’t have to, but the shift in attitude towards live theatre is pretty striking.
This got me thinking: what events bring people together like this nowadays? Pop music concerts and sporting events, right? I once stood in pouring rain with thousands of other people at Raleigh Amphitheater to see Fleet Foxes (totally worth it!), but that’s a pretty rare thing these days.
Could drama bring members of the community in Raleigh and the Triangle together? I’d like to think so, especially after seeing the crowds at Shakespeare productions at Koka Booth Amphitheatre the last three years.
The folks who built the outdoor stage at Raleigh Little Theatre back in the late 1930’s must have been dreamers. The formation of RLT and its construction during the depths of the Depression are testaments to the power of people whose imaginations conquered harsh financial and practical realities. They succeeded in building an amphitheater at one end of the old State Fairgrounds race track – and now that space stands ready for our imaginations.
My goal is pretty simple. I want people to give Shakespeare a try because I think many of them will like it, just like we do. Errors is the shortest play we have from Shakespeare (a mere 1,787 lines compared with Hamlet’s 3,800+ lines). It is not a heady play by any stretch. It’s a broad farce with a ridiculous premise (what are the odds of two sets of twins both having the same name?). It’s accessible.
Does this mean it’s not worthwhile to perform? I say no, because it’s still a fun play. It’s funny today because we all understand the humor. Errors is a situation comedy and we can all enjoy watching the chaos that unfolds.
With circus added in, I’m hoping to make this more than a play. I’ll defend spectacle in addition to broad comedy because I think it does have its place. From what I’ve seen of Cirque de Vol and their surrounding circus collective, these performers are artists and they spend a lot of time working on their craft. What we will create with them over the next two months will hopefully be a fresh and rollicking rendition of this early Shakespeare text.
I’m taking for granted that it will rain at least a couple of the performance nights. If we can get a night or two without rain, the North Carolina weather in late May should be warm and inviting. People can bring their children to this show, pack a picnic or grab some concessions or food truck treats.
There will be comedy and there will be spectacle. Hopefully, this will be a dream that we can share together.
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!
Happy New Year! Hope you kicked off this year of the snake with a bang.
We are gearing up for what will be an ambitious year. It will involve collaboration with some amazing artists and organizations in the Triangle and it will be a ton of fun.
We will be returning to our roots and mounting TWO Shakespeare productions this year…but first we will explore short works that have not been previously seen in the area. Our fourth annual installment of Winter One-Acts at Common Ground Theatre runs February 21-24, and it will be funny and creepy! More on that to come.
This Spring, mistakes will be made. We perform Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors at Raleigh Little Theatre’s amphitheater May 24 – June 1. We are looking to collaborate with Cirque De Vol and local circus artists to turn the town of Ephesus into a vintage circus! Bring a picnic or grab some grub from a tasty food truck and enjoy amazing feats and mistaken identities under the stars!
Bare Theatre is also in talks with Historic Stagville to remount Let Them Be Heard. If last year you did not get a chance to see this show, taken from the testimony of former slaves in North Carolina, this is a powerful experience not to be missed. More details will follow.
This Fall, Artistic Director Heather J. Strickland will return from baby-break to direct Shakespeare’s comedy As You Like It at the RLT Amphitheater. This show is shaping up to be incredible already. We are partnering with Pinecone – the Piedmont Council of Traditional Music – to create a bluegrass version of the show with live music!
All in all, it’s going to be a good year. Stay tuned!