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.
There is a lot to say about this show, and I wish time had allowed me to write while we created it. Two new jobs that immediately decided to increase my hours made an already tight schedule even tighter!
First, I need to thank all the people that made it happen. The nine actors in the cast were phenomenal. Not only did they co-create the show and contribute many ideas that went into it, they brought tons of energy and comedy to a very demanding evening of entertainment.
Loren, Jeff, Patrick, Matt, Matthew, Joanna, Diana, Stephen and Cassie are amazing people. They took this odd little idea I had and ran with it. What’s remarkable to me is that each of them said yes to the project in the beginning without really knowing what it would be! That level of trust is pretty humbling.
I tend to ask a lot of my casts. I push them. With THE LEADER, I pushed them in a lot of different ways. For some, they had to overcome clown phobias. Many of them had to learn a lot of lines very quickly as scripts developed. Loren even had to learn a monologue in French!
Others found the challenge to be improv and devising. Working with no script is a tough task! To take it even further, the core group that performed at SPARKcon had to go through a series of street performing exercises right on Fayetteville St. downtown, without costumes or makeup or any other way to indicate they were performing. There was no script – they had to create on the spot and interact with passerby in a variety of ways that can only be described as insane.
Not only did the cast bring their talents, but they also served as their own set and running crew. Almost every night they performed at Visual Art Exchange, they had to convert an art gallery into a theatre – and then convert it back.
I want to commend Emily, who performed the role of stage manager for the first time in her life. None of us could tell she hadn’t done it before, she was so good! Despite a rather deep clown phobia, she stayed with us even though THE LEADER was chocked full of clowns. She was also the person I knew I could count on when I couldn’t be at the shows because of day jobs. I am tremendously grateful to her for all her hard work and dedication.
The creative team also included some very important individuals. Chuck Keith is a great friend and a hilarious writer, and I love his contributions to this show. I knew I wanted to include “Cult Layoff” – the only piece that existed in addition to Ionesco’s “The Leader” when we started. The pieces Chuck wrote for the show, “Lemmings” and “Excuse Me” in particular absolutely killed us in rehearsal from laughing so hard.
The climax of the show was the big fight in the end. All along I knew I wanted to end with a game of “king of the mountain” that spins out of control and gets horribly violent. I knew that Heather was going to bring her excellent fight choreography as she always does, but I think she topped herself this time. She also gave me some really valuable feedback on some of the short plays and bits that made up the rest of the show. I wish she hadn’t had a real campaign going on to get a leader re-elected – otherwise I would have picked her brain more!
I also want to mention Olivia and Jason for their valuable ideas and feedback early on in the process. When you create a show from scratch, it’s hard to tell which concepts and bits are going to be good in the end, but they helped me shape the overall show and get some perspective on certain bits. In addition, Jason singlehandedly shot THE LEADER video trailer and video of our security clowns at SPARKcon 2012, both of which look fantastic. I’m always impressed with his camera work.
Also want to give a shout out to Mollie, who did not shy away from the challenge of creating sperm tails for “Excuse Me!” Her artistry and ideas are always very exciting.
I have to give Katie a big thanks for stepping in as part of the cast that went to SPARKcon – she also overcame a deep clown phobia and even donned the makeup herself to join us in the streets downtown! She did this on top of having a new teaching gig, two young children, a rock band touring its new album, and weekends away doing Nickel Shakespeare Girls at the Carolina Renaissance Festival (still two more weekends, if you haven’t been yet)!
As with every show, I need to thank my parents for indulging me and helping me do completely silly things. This time around, they helped me build a fake metal detector, lemming ears and a weasel tail, cult uniforms, and they created the look of The Leader himself, in all his headless glory.
We absolutely must thank Common Ground Theatre and Visual Art Exchange for having us and giving us such great places to play! Also, I want to thank the Universalist Unitarian Fellowship of Raleigh for allowing us to rehearse there for this show and several others. THE LEADER was our final show to rehearsal there, and we cannot thank them enough for the time and space they have given us.
I love this show. I love what this group created together and I had a great time with these people. I hope we were able to present our audiences with something different and enjoyable, and I think we all needed a break from the election!
Now, just repeat after me and keep chanting, “Father is all, all is father…”