Coming from a film-industry family, Los Angeles–born actor/director Rick Sparks apparently has creativity in his blood. From a very young age, he demonstrated his abilities as an impresario, organizing sheet-in-the-barn ventures, à la Mickey and Judy. "My earliest memories," he says, "include corralling kids together to put on puppet shows or selling tickets all around the neighborhood and then figuring out what the show would be. I guess this is where my producing and directing roots originated." He read short stories and turned them into plays; he persuaded a teacher to allow him to do a stage version of Ken Russell's musical film The Boy Friend. He recalls the uproar that resulted when he staged a raunchy rendition of the sexy Cy Coleman number "Big Spender" for a parent-teacher event. "They didn't have the foresight to view the product before it went on," he says, chuckling. "I was put on detention, and after that [I] wasn't a favorite student to that principal."
Sparks' maverick ways are behind him these days, but his aggressive nature as a self-starter is still very evident as he racks up accolades for increasingly challenging freelance directorial projects. His latest gig is the world premiere of Mark Saltzman's darkly comic murder mystery Clutter at Burbank's Colony Theatre. In recent years his career highlights have included Down South, a ribald satire that was launched here and moved to Off Broadway; a critically lauded and multiply awarded environmental stage adaptation of the novel They Shoot Horses Don't They?, and a dazzling rendition of the sci-fi morality tale Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange. In his early years as a director, he found success with a string of campy comedies with high gay appeal, such as the local premiere of Charles Busch's Psycho Beach Party and the hit musical spoof Highballs Ahoy.
Sparks spent many years as an actor before deciding that he preferred directing. He received his Equity card in 1980 in a Florida production of West Side Story after he went AWOL from the cruise ship tour with which he was performing. He explains, "We happened to be docked in Fort Lauderdale, and I heard that the Burt Reynolds Dinner Theatre was having auditions. I had about four hours off the show, and I rented a car and drove to the audition. I was hired on the spot." What followed sounds like an episode of I Love Lucy: "I drove like hell to the ship, just in time to see it leaving. This girl aboard the ship had my bag packed. To this day, I never knew how she had the foresight to do that. She threw the bag out to me just in time, and I stayed on to appear in the show."
But seaside slapstick episodes soon gave way to serious hard work, as Sparks took steps to fulfill his dreams of directing by aggressively pursuing opportunities. When he wanted to mount the L.A. premiere of Psycho Beach Party in 1993, he went right up to playwright Charles Busch's door in New York and knocked on it. With this inexperienced director at his doorstep, trying to make a case for obtaining the show rights, Busch laughed at first, according to Sparks. But the shrewd and persistent director-to-be persuaded Busch to grant permission for him to stage and tape a workshop version. The playwright liked what he eventually saw on tape and gave his approval for what became a long-running smash production.
Sparks has worked exclusively as a director since then, except for an acting stint in the L.A. and Broadway productions of Sunset Boulevard, starring Glenn Close. He feels that his experience as an actor has been invaluable in understanding the problems and challenges that actors face as he nurtures them and hones their performances. His early experience with smaller casts was followed by ensemble work in shows such as They Shoot Horses and Clockwork. He indicates that a primary ingredient in shaping an ensemble production is making sure that the actors know they are working in a safe, judgment-free environment. He accomplishes this through improvisation and other games that allow the actors to form a communal bond. "I learned these techniques from the wonderful Trevor Nunn, who directed Sunset Boulevard," Sparks says. "The key is to form a family unity in the company. The actors need to be willing to try different things and be bad in front of one another. They need that safety net. In these large casts, you are usually working with different levels of experience and talent, and they have to feel comfortable working together. So you have to play and be silly and foolish in front of each other to get that out of the way, then get down to work. I've been used to working with casts of about 24 lately. In Clutter there are only six people, so this is going to be an interesting change. I look at every project as a new challenge."
Sparks also believes that his knack for selecting and recording music to underscore scenes benefits his actors. His shows have been set in distinct periods and places—the repressed 1960s suburbia of Down South, the frenzied '30s dance halls of They Shoot Horses, and the futuristic punk-rock milieu of Clockwork. Sparks has created brilliantly atmospheric soundtracks to bring these stories to life. Though this technique has worked well for him, he says that sometimes there is an initial resistance: "Actors—or writers for that matter—might say, 'You can't underscore my scene.' In fact, when it is done correctly, it can lift the scene and make what is good about the author's words all the more pronounced. It's a style of sorts—my style, I guess—and it has often worked for me. I recently had a conversation with an actor in Clutter who had never worked with me before, and [he] thanked me for the music. He said some things that I had tried to explain to him hadn't made sense, and that the music had opened doors, giving him an indication of where the character needed to go. It helped bring out the darkness of a particular moment. The music can be a tool for the actors, not something they need to fight against."
Sparks is loyal to actors who have worked well for him in the past, but he says he is always open to finding talented new performers during auditions. He confirms that all of the expected things go through his mind during casting—physical characteristics, temperament, stage presence—but that his gut instinct is often the most reliable yardstick. "I try to spend a lot of time with everyone who auditions," he says. "With almost every applicant, I make some adjustments in their readings. I want to see how they take direction. I remember as an actor I would be furious if I left an audition not knowing what they wanted, then getting dismissed. I would think that if they had only given me some options I could try, I would do well. I vowed to myself I would do my best to give every actor an opportunity for an ample audition. Sometimes producers are sitting there watching the clock, but I usually tell them ahead that I need enough time with each actor. I go through the session; then I go home and collapse, feeling as if I had just auditioned as well."
Amid his string of serious dramatic projects, Sparks also helmed the nostalgic musical revue There's No Place Like Hollywood, followed by the heartwarming confection A Charlie Brown Commercial Christmas. As an artist, Sparks admits to having two sides: adept director of campy spoofs and lighthearted fluff and creative guru behind edgy, challenging ensemble pieces. "I worked for years with, as you say, lighter fare. You could call it camp—high camp, actually, since 'camp' sometimes has a bad connotation—but if it's done well, I adore it. It's how I got started. It wasn't until They Shoot Horses when I turned a new corner and people began to take notice of me. But in its own way, I think Psycho Beach was every bit as good as Horses. It's hard to do effective light entertainment—much tougher than people think. I have no problem with doing a show in that vein if the material is good and the timing is right. I also am taking steps to get into filmmaking, which seems a natural evolution, as my plays often incorporate a cinematic feel. The important thing is, I want to continue to grow creatively, whatever that means. Maybe I need to do a show with no soundtrack and five actors. But chances are, after about the fifth week I'll look at it and say, 'Where the hell is the music?'" BSW