AMY J. BARRY, Special to the Day
What sparks the act of theater making? This question ignited SPARK, an audience engagement program back for its third year at New Haven's Long Wharf Theatre.
In conjunction with one production in each season, SPARK participants, led by Long Wharf's associate artistic director Eric Ting, are given an insider's perspective on the process of bringing a play to fruition from first rehearsal through first performance via a series of four 90-minute discussions with the artists. Attendees also have access to the rehearsal process and receive a copy of the script.
This year's play is the Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize winning "Clybourne Park" by Bruce Norris (on the mainstage from May 8 to June 2).
Ting says the impulse behind SPARK came from programs theaters across the country were offering to engage audiences, as well as Long Wharf's popular post show talk-backs with the director and cast, which he says have become an essential component of the Long Wharf experience.
"I've always been so struck by the passion of our audience members' participation and genuine interest in how the work was made. So many patrons would come up to me after the talk-back and say, 'We'd love to learn more.' SPARK was (created) in response to that."
Participants all have in common their love of theater, although the demographic changes with each season, Ting says.
"We have regulars who come back every year - they love the experience of it, feeling invested in the work in a way that's more meaningful than to your average audience member," he says. "It's a fairly broad age range from high school students to retired teachers to everyone in between.
"We wanted to limit the group to 50 or we would lose the ability to dialogue with them," he adds.
Ting describes the program as "Reality Theater."
"The act of making art - whether someone is painting a painting or writing a book, or composing a piece of music or in our case making theater - is always about personalities and frailties and insecurities and that is definitely in the mix. SPARK is most effective when we let it all hang out. If we're going to be genuine about it, we're going to show you the process warts and all, so you have a sense of the blood, sweat and tears. Audience members normally see the final product and are not privy to the effort of getting it on the stage.
Why 'Clybourne Park'?
Written by Bruce Norris and inspired by the classic "A Raisin in the Sun," the satirical comedy set in Chicago starts out in 1959. The action centers on a group of neighbors, who are trying to talk their friends out of selling their home to a black family. Sixty years later, racism rears its head again when a white family attempts to move into the now predominantly African-American neighborhood.
Broadway actor Alice Ripley will be featured in the ensemble in the roles of Bev and Kathy. Ripley won the 2009 Tony Award for Best Actress in a musical for her role in "Next to Normal."
"She's an amazing actor," says Ting, who is directing "Clybourne Park."
"The heart of SPARK is the idea of transparency - letting the participant into the process as fully as possible," he stresses. 'Clybourne Park,' more than any other play this season speaks not just to our audiences, but the communities in which our audiences live. There is so much opportunity for genuine conversation."
Ting points out that the issues in the play affect the shoreline communities that Long Wharf serves.
"It takes place in Chicago, but it's really amazing when we speak with our community partners, how it captures their experiences as well-and will be a tool for deeper debate," he says.
Underneath the themes of gentrification and property ownership, Ting believes there is "a more consistent and insistent conversation about race in America that's constantly nipping at our heals.
"I feel like theater, when it's really effective, doesn't offer answers, but sparks questions," he adds. "There's an environment around 'Clybourne Park' where genuine conversations can really happen, and among people that normally wouldn't be talking to each other."