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Reflection on Spark at Florida Gulf Coast University

Florida Gulf Coast University Dept of Theatre, Fort Myers, FL

November 26, 2012

Directed by Armando Rivera 

                                                     by Dr. Michelle Hayford

FGCU’s TheatreLab hosted a staged reading of Caridad Svich’s SPARK on November 26, 2012.  This event brought together two student organizations that had not worked together previously: Eagle Theatre and Students Who Served. Also present were community members who were drawn to our theatre for the first time due to their interest in veterans’ issues or because they themselves were veterans.  The student actors felt a significant responsibility to do the script and the characters justice as they were representing experiences that veterans in the audience could relate to first-hand. 

Theatre major Armando Rivera directed the staged reading of SPARK, injecting startling staging to highlight moments of connection and violence.  Student actors were Rachel Bennett (Evelyn), Jackie DeGraaff (Lexie), Hanny Zuniga (Ali), Adrian Serrano (Hector), Jake Scott-Hodes (Vaughn), and Clare Edlund (reader).  Rachel Bennett (Evelyn) appreciated Svich’s “fresh take on the language of the south,” while Jackie DeGraaff (Lexie) thought it was “interesting to find similarities in my life to a veteran’s life.”  Michael Bridges, an FGCU theatre major in audience was inspired by the event, saying “this play was a great example of how theatre can bring people together on social issues.”  Armando Rivera was able to illuminate the beauty of the language and the subtle intimacies between the characters of SPARK, making bold choices that served the play well.  The unfolding romance between “Evelyn” and “Hector” was a joyful release and Jake Scott-Hodes’s interpretation of “Vaughn” was haunting for its deity-like rousing delivery of the “spectre’s” monologue.

The post-performance panel discussion featured five panelists, four of whom were veterans (2 men and 2 women) and Dr. Christine Wright-Isak, the faculty advisor of the Students Who Served organization for student veterans.  Two of the veterans were FGCU students, one was an FGCU staff member and another was a community member who works for the Red Cross’s Service to Armed Forces.  I developed the panel discussion questions with my colleague Brandon Kliewer, whose expertise in civic engagement theory contributed to the success of the panel discussion.  The panel began by reflecting on “Lexie’s” welcome-back dinner failure and the difficulty of coming home, after which each veteran was asked what kind of support they needed when returning from war.  The questions continually used SPARK as the jumping off point for discussion and context to data we provided regarding the economics of recruitment, poverty, mental health, and gender roles in the military. 

Happily, the panel discussion lasted the same length of time as the play itself, and audience, panelists and actors lingered even after the panel was over to make personal introductions and share stories more intimately.  I knew the night was a success when at 11:30pm, as I walked to the parking lot with Dr. Wright-Isak, she shared with me that the young woman veteran who had served in Afghanistan had in no small way been opened up and heard that night.  It is clear that the theatre had been host to a collective journey that evening, as audience members who knew little of veterans’ experiences at the start of the performance walked away enlightened by the panelists’ sharing of how best the community can support them.  Most importantly, the student veterans let the other students in audience know how to interact with veterans in their classes and on campus, revealing vulnerabilities that many had overlooked.  And I was moved by a veteran seated next to me throughout the play and in the front row during the panel who eagerly nodded his head as the characters’ experiences and panelists’ comments resonated with him.  He was one of the last to leave the theatre that night. 

I thank Caridad Svich and No Passport theatre alliance for sharing this compelling new play with communities to honor veterans locally and allow for the theatre to function as the democratic space it is in a vital and moving way.  The actors’ faithful portrayal of SPARK’s characters “set the stage” for the panelists’ open hearts and willingness to share—it was a beautiful event that benefitted all in attendance and will have a further reach as those of us who were there share what we learned.

Michelle Hayford is the Theatre Program Leader and Assistant Professor of Theatre in FGCU’s Department of Theatre and Visual Arts. She primarily teaches performance theory courses using performance as a methodology. Professor Hayford’s research interests include applied theatre, ethnodrama, performativity in everyday life and identity, gender, and embodied ways of knowing. Professor Hayford is committed to interdisciplinary inquiry and bringing theory into practice through performance. Dr. Hayford directs the Performance Constellation series of original ensemble productions based on interview narratives. The Constellation ethnodramas combine her passions of creating live plays with utilizing the craft of theatre as a necessary response to community and civic engagement.