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Reflection on Spark in Nacogdoches, TX

Stephen F. Austin State University Dept. of Theatre, Nacogdoches, TX

November 26, 2012

Directed by  Jason Davids Scott

                                               by Jason Davids Scott 

What appealed to you about the SPARK reading scheme? Why did you join in?

The purposes were both practical and personal.  On a practical level, our school has made a commitment to get involved in more production activity outside of our mainstage season and student-directed plays.  A relatively low-impact event like a play reading is perfect for that mandate – especially when it allows us the opportunity to share the work of a well-known playwright and feature a new play.  Feeling “connected” to all of the other schools and companies producing the play this month was a very nice bonus.

On a more personal level, I share Caridad’s concern about the way our nation understands and discusses veteran’s issues.  My stepfather was a Vietnam veteran and former POW:  he committed suicide in our home in 2008, and my final, desperate conversation with him included many references to the nearly four decades of PTSD he suffered as a result of his ordeal (not so much as a victim of violence, but as one who killed “enemy” civilians).  Recovering from the trauma of his suicide is an ongoing issue for me and my mother (who is a social worker and psychologist), so this was some way to bring that very personal issue to the forefront and connect me to the material.

Tell us about your reading – the key players, your space, anything you think will give people an idea about what you’re doing. 

We performed the play in our “Downstage” theatre, our “black box” space, to an audience of about 30.  A thunderstorm warning (and the remnants of the Thanksgiving Holiday) may have kept our numbers down, but several professors from our department came, as well as many interested students.  One of the advantages of our production was that we got to enlist the talent of our new professor of acting, Laura Rikard, a South Carolina native who instantly connected to the character of Evelyn (“She’s my sister,” says Laura), and was able to coach the rest of our cast on accents.  We also are blessed at this school to have actor Brad Maule (who was on “General Hospital” for several years) as an instructor, and he had the perfect voice and persona for the character of Vaughn.  This allowed four students (one reading the narration) the opportunity to work closely with two established professionals. 

Our production was very low-key; we had simple lighting changes between the scenes.  Until the scene with Vaughn, the four main characters (the sisters and Hector) all sat on stage reading from the script on music stands; during scene two, Ingunn Kristjansdottir (an Icelandic native on exchange through a drama program in England, who was cast as Lexie) got up and acted out the shadowboxing.  For scene seven, the three actors besides Ingunn retreated to the background and Brad Maule came forward for the Lexie-Vaughn scene.  In scene 8, the two sisters returned to the lighted space as Brad retreated.

What themes or aspect of SPARK most excite you or connect with the work that you do?

As mentioned, it is always thrilling to present new work.  Our school hosts a Festival of New American Plays every other Spring (the next will be Spring 2014), curated by playwright-in-residence Jack Heifner, who has previously debuted works-in-progress by writers such as John Cariani, Constance Congdon, Barbara Lebow, David Ives, and others.  While the time frame for SPARK was out of synch with that festival, it was nice to be able to “cash in” a bit on that culture.  More than one audience member came to me and said how “special” they felt to be hearing a completely new work right here in small town East Texas.

But as mentioned, on a personal level, I connect deeply to the themes of how returning soldiers process their lives in service once they are at home.  The scene between Vaughn and Lexie rings so true for me, particularly Vaughn’s mention of “dead babies” and the litany of “relations” he has left in battle sites all over the world.  His final speech, explaining his prayer to the gods for the strength to keep living, hits particularly hard:  that prayer is one I know that my stepfather made hundreds if not thousands of times, until the day when finally the gods didn’t answer him.  I witnessed the final hour of his life up close, pleading with him to reconsider, and Vaughn’s words echo the intensity and desperation of John’s final moments.  I made that same prayer, sadly to no avail, which makes it even more important that I was able to help  (in this very small way) remind a few people in our community about how important it is to hear that prayer.

At the conclusion of the reading, I reminded the audience of a line from Saul Bellow’s “Seize the Day,” drawn from a very different context, but relevant.  At a moment where the conversation between two people drops off, the narrator remarks about all of the secrets that the two men knew about each other but could not say.  “None of this could be mentioned, and the great weight of the unspoken left them with little to talk about.”  The weight of the unspoken in SPARK – the sisters’ avoidance of discussing any details, Vaughn’s admonition to “never give the full run-down,” the discussion about hiding away the memories, the ways in which unseen characters like Barry ignore the war and its implications – is what gives the play its life and meaning.  I hope that I would have been able to recognize it even if I had not necessarily lived it with my stepfather, but having been there next to someone who is being crushed by the weight of the unspoken, I can testify to its terrible power.

The SPARK scheme is a community building (in a worldwide sense) set of readings. What is one place, organization or person in your city or town that supports your theatre work? And what makes that place, organization or person special? This could be a bar or restaurant that supports your theatre patrons, a local community group that supports your work or a volunteer who is invaluable to your organization.

We get okay local support but this is not a theatre town.  We are fortunate to have a Dean (A.C. “Buddy” Himes) who is supportive of theatre in general, and good relationships with our provost (Richard Barry, who has appeared as an actor in some of our productions) and other departments in the University.  Our local Ford dealership (Tipton Ford) helps sponsor some of our events, but by and large we are here to serve our student community (including about 140 undergraduate majors and 20 minors in theatre). 

What’s next for your company this season?

The week after SPARK went up was busy for me, as I directed (and helped the students write) an original Christmas show for the local holiday festival.  Next semester, our mainstage shows as “Stage Door” (which will be directed by Jack Heifner) and Charles Mee’s “bobrauschenbergamerica” (which I will direct).  We are also scheduled to put on 9 or 10 student-directed shows; another show from the Fredonia Players (which produces original work by students, the same group that did the Xmas show); and possibly a show featuring faculty talent.  We like to keep busy. 

Jason Davids Scott is an assistant professor in the School of Theatre at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas, where he teaches courses in film history, play analysis, and acting.  He received his BFA in Cinema Studies from New York University and his MA and Ph.D. in Theatre from the University of California Santa Barbara.  His scholarly work includes reviews in the Journal of Popular Culture and contributions to the Mid-Atlantic Almanack, and he has written several entries for the upcoming Cambridge Encyclopedia of Stage Actors and Acting.  His directing credits include “Steel Magnolias” and “bobrauschenbergamerica” at Stephen F. Austin State University, and several original productions with the UCSB New Plays Festival and the SFA comedy/variety troupe the (New) Original Cast.  He is past president of the Mid-Atlantic Popular/American Culture Association, where he has served as an area chair and on the executive board for six years.