Her favorite day of the year is April 13. It’s not her birthday. It’s not the first day of spring. It’s the day Allison Gillman saw her cousin in a live production of Little Shop of Horrors in Baltimore. That day changed her life.
“It was awesome. I thought, ‘This is the coolest job in the world.’” She was 11 then, homeschooled and in ninth grade. Today at 17, Allison’s life revolves around school, drama classes, auditions, and various productions.
After attending that show, Allison asked, How can I do this? A friend told her mother about the School of the Performing Arts in the Richmond Community, (SPARC). Soon after, she tried out for SPARC’s cabaret with a song from Oklahoma, and Debra Clinton, SPARC instructor and production director, told her she had potential. Taking SPARC classes in singing, dance, and drama prepared Allison to audition for and secure a part in Barksdale Theatre’s production of Grapes of Wrath. Her mother says, “She has gotten so much self-esteem from this…so much confidence.”
SPARC was founded by professional actress Jeri Cutler-Voltz in 1981. The Richmond-born Broadway performer realized that professional training in song and dance, as well as acting, is needed to pursue a career in theater. Today, SPARC offers singing, dance, and drama classes – molding young performers into what the industry calls “the triple threat” – at its Hamilton Street location and at satellite locations throughout the community. New Voices for the Theater is an annual playwriting contest for high school age students, and a summer program called SummerStarz is also part of SPARC’s lineup for kids of all ages. Allison says: “For the summer show we all worked on the set design, costumes, lighting and sound. We learned everything about putting together a play!” Training in the arts from SPARC is also offered as an in-school program consistent with SOL goals. The school’s mission has always been to provide classes for all children who want to participate regardless of ability to pay, so financial aid and scholarships are available.
Eric Pastore, age 14, is another SPARC product. “When I was ten, my friend was in SPARC and I decided to do it too,” says Eric. “Then my SPARC teacher asked me to audition for a Busch Gardens commercial, which I got.” Later, a SPARC instructor connected him to VCU’s theater department and then to Barksdale, where he won the role of the nephew in Mame. He recently starred in Barksdale’s production of On Golden Pond. Now, Eric is on the lookout for his own New York agent. His mother says of him, “He was an easygoing baby, but sooooo loud. After seeing him perform, I knew what he was meant for.”
While SPARC prepares youngsters for the stage, Theatre IV and Barksdale Theater provide a platform to showcase their talents. Founded in 1975, Phil Whiteway and Bruce Miller, two University of Richmond theater grads who wanted to bring theater arts to schools, used a beat-up old van, a collection of part-time actors, a minuscule federal grant, and “quantities of unfounded optimism” to plunge into the world of live theater.
Today, Richmond’s Theatre IV produces four plays per year and has one of the largest school-touring, dramatic arts companies in the country.
One ingénue who got her start at Theatre IV is Ellie Wilson, age 7. Katie Wilson says her daughter Ellie was always singing and dancing around the house.
So, when she saw a flyer announcing auditions for tryouts for The Sound of Music at Empire Theatre, she asked Ellie if she wanted to try out. Ellie was nervous, her mother says. “I could see they really took good care of the kids. I did not know if she would do it; I was leaving it up to her.” Afterwards, according to mom, Ellie said, “That was fun – let’s do that again!” She got the part of Gretl, the youngest of the Von Trapp children. Coveted role first, training later – now Ellie is enrolled in SPARC classes.
So what does it take? While the kids I talked to love their performing arts classes, productions, and even the auditions, they all agree it takes a lot of effort. Allison says: “I have no free time at all. My friends have to understand that. With my two current shows, I am rehearsing six times a week, plus a play at school. But I love it.”
How does the teen feel about auditioning, and what if an audition doesn’t pan out? “I don’t get nervous for auditions, except for the singing part,” Allison says, “and I don’t take it personally if I don’t get chosen for a part.”
Will this be her career? She is trying to choose a college with a strong theater department and is planning a dual major in journalism and drama. Allison’s mom says, “Let your child chase their dreams. Give it the full effort – one hundred percent!”
Eric’s mom, Mary Anne Pastore, says, “Theater is a huge time commitment. Rehearsal nights can run till ten o’clock or later.” Still, she adds, “Never think your child doesn’t have the right look. There are all kinds of actors and actresses playing many character roles.”
When it comes to budgeting time and looking at acting realistically, Eric has wise words for young performers who may be reading this article. “Have a purpose in life, other than performing – so you will feel valuable when the applause stops. It is part of your identity, of course, but you do other things, too.”
Many Richmonders have made it big after SPARC and Theatre IV training.Cooper Timberline, (Theatre IV and SPARC) is now with the national touring company of the Radio City Music Hall Christmas Spectacular. Jason Mraz, a former student of SPARC, had his hit song “I’m Yours” on the Billboard charts for 100 weeks. He now tours internationally. Emily Skinner (SPARC) is now in the Broadway production of Billy Elliott. Jason Marks, who worked for SPARC, won the Big Broadway Break Contest for aspiring actors and has a six-week free ride in Manhattan to work on play production there. Many other SPARC grads are seen in commercials on national TV. Since her debut in The Sound of Music, Ellie Wilson got a short role in the movie Lake Effects, starring Jane Seymour, which was filmed in Virginia.