Igniting Creativity with CLO’s SPARK Festival

Mention the CLO to most Pittsburghers’, and they think of the series of Broadway Musicals presented during the summer months at the Benedum. Some people will mention the CLO Cabaret at Theatre Square. A few folks who are in the know will speak of its training program, the CLO Academy. Theatre insiders will bring up the CLO’s reputation as an original producer and co-producer of musicals such as An American in Paris, Kinky Boots and On Your Feet. While these are Broadway-sized shows, the CLO is also instrumental in developing small musicals. (CLO Executive Producer Van Kaplan defines a small musical as those that fit in a five-actor niche.)

This CLO’s small musical initiative ratchets up this spring with the SPARK festival that features ten small cast musicals in various stages of development. Designed to cultivate new and innovative work from emerging and established musical theater artists; SPARK takes place in Pittsburgh’s Cultural District during a two-week long event beginning on March 26, and culminating with public performances on April 6th, 7th and, 8th. Kaplan says “Our primary goal is to support up-and-coming book writers, composers, and lyricists who come to Pittsburgh CLO to develop their musicals.” SPARK also affords a great an excellent for talent and creatives to network.

During SPARK, the musicals are seen via “readings” (actors at music stands with piano accompaniment), “staged readings” (script-in-hand readings with piano accompaniment and some movement/choreography) and “workshop productions” (fully staged presentations with minimal set and costume pieces).

I spoke with Mark Fleischer, Producing Director, CLO about the festival. Mark brings his past experiences with festivals focusing on new works to bear on SPARK.  He has been working with Writers, Directors, Actors, Agents & Musical Directors to ensure that first and foremost, “SPARK is an artist-centered collaborative environment with a goal of fostering innovation.”  As the CLO employs actors represented by Equity, their union is on board with the CLO to make this not so typical work environment a creative reality.

All “the creative teams will be in residence in Pittsburgh at the CLO to work in a focused and supportive environment.  Cross-pollination amongst the writers, directors, and actors with the ability to see each other’s work in a key differentiator of SPARK.” Shows will be rehearsing at the CLO Academy with writers staying at a downtown hotel. While none of the writers currently live in Pittsburgh, many have past connections with CMU and the CLO.

In April 2017, the CLO staged a new works festival, a scaled-down precursor version of the upcoming SPARK festival, that featured four shows. After a week of rehearsals and revisions, three brand-new musicals (Up and Away, Pool Boy, Just Between the All of Us) and one reimagined show (Xanadu) debuted to an audience of invited guests. This year the general public can attend all the performances.

Fleisher noted that “This year audiences will be able to see all ten over the last two days – if they are crazy enough to try it.” Presentations will be at the CLO Cabaret, CLO Academy, Benedum Center Rehearsal Halls, Bricolage Theatre and Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company. All are within the Cultural District downtown.

Currently at the CLO Cabaret is the world premiere of Up and Away by Kevin Hammonds (book and lyrics) and Kristin Bair (music) which will be SPARK’s feature presentation. (Check out Brian’s review here) Joining Up and Away will be two projects returning from last year along with seven new works.

  • Pool Boy by Niko Tsakalakos (music and lyrics) and Janet Allard (book and lyrics). Nick came to Los Angeles with dreams of making it in music and gets a job at the Hotel Bel-Air. What ensues is the best/worst summer ever, as Nick gets a taste of fame and finds unlikely soul connections. It is inspired by the true story of composer Niko’s tenure as a pool boy at the Hotel Bel-Air. Reading on Saturday, April 7, 12:30 pm, and Sunday, April 8, 12:30 pm | 937 Liberty Avenue, 3rd Floor
  • Just Between the All of Us by Kellen Blair and Sarah Ziegler Blair (book and lyrics) and David Christensen (music). This interactive musical comedy follows Madeline Owens, an ER doctor who suddenly finds herself interested in four different men from the online dating site Alrighty Aphrodite. She calls upon members of the audience to play the various advice-givers in her life (mom, therapist, barista, etc.) and eventually narrows down her prospects. Readings on Friday, April 6, 4:30 pm | 719 Liberty Avenue, 4th Floor, and Sunday, April 8, 10:00 am | 719 Liberty Avenue, 2nd Floor
  • The Double Threat Trio by Adam Overett (book, music and lyrics- NY based, previous My Life as a Musical). Workshop Presentation. An actor who can’t dance, a dancer who can’t sing, and a singer who can’t act, join forces with Millicent, an eccentric writer-director-producer-designer-choreographer-stage manager who has been waiting to vault her once-storied career back onto Broadway. She creates a three-character musical adaptation of Oedipus Rex, “Oed!,” to highlight the cast’s talents while hiding their flaws. What could go wrong? Workshop Presentation on Saturday, April 7, and Sunday, April 8 at 12:30 pm, | 937 Liberty Avenue, 1st Floor
  • These Girls Have Demons by Meghan Brown (book and lyrics) and Sarah Taylor Ellis (music). After an ill-advised slumber party ventures into the dark arts, teenagers Daisy, Hayley, Sophie, and Morgan find themselves possessed by demons. As the demons grow more powerful, the girls must decide — will they give in to the anger that might destroy them, or fight to become somehow good again? Reading on Saturday, April 7, 3:00 pm, and Sunday, April 8th at 4:00 pm| 719 Liberty Avenue, 4th Floor
  • SKiNFoLK: An American Show Jillian Walker (writer and performer). Jillian Walker blends music, history and live storytelling into a cabaret experience. The big-hearted and imaginative concert-play is a sensuous celebration of our bodies and the stories they carry. Through a mix of memoir, movement, and song, Walker asks: How well do we know the skin we live in? “SKiNFoLK” appeared in the 2017 ANT Fest at Ars Nova. Reading on Saturday, April 7, and Sunday April 8 at 3:00 pm and | 719 Liberty Avenue, 2nd Floor
  • Game On by Marcus Stevens (book and lyrics) and David Dabbon (music). Contestants compete to win it all on the TV show “Game On!,” and at today’s taping, two exes face off as contestants. Cheer the players on from the audience – or, if you’re lucky, play against them onstage – in a high-stakes musical comedy. Reading on Friday, April 6, 4:30 pm, and Saturday, April 7, 10:00 am | 719 Liberty Avenue, 2nd Floor
  • Beyond the Moon by Joseph Domencic and Christina McCann (book, music, and lyrics). Through dramatic sketches and musical vignettes, Pittsburgh CLO’s Gallery of Heroes program takes its 50-minute mini-musicals to schools to highlight the lives and accomplishments of significant historical figures. “Beyond the Moon” is the story of Jeanette Epps, the first African-American crew member on the International Space Station. Reading on Saturday, April 7, 5:30 pm | 937 Liberty Avenue, 1st Floor
  • An Untitled New Play by Justin Timberlake by Matt Schatz. Beth, an ambitious literary manager at a prestigious nonprofit theater, is poised to promote the voice of a brilliant unknown playwright until a certain superstar performer writes a play that changes the course of her career. The musical satire features the politics of celebrity, storytelling and fighting for one’s ideas, and ideals. This show is presented in collaboration with City Theatre. Reading on Saturday, April 7 and 8, 10:00 am | 719 Liberty Avenue, 4th Floor

SPARK also seeks to engage members of the public interested in sharing their opinions in moderated Post-Show Discussions, a New Musicals Boot Camp, Master Classes led by invited guests, and social events such as a Songwriters’ Cabaret Night, a Musical Theater Improvisation Night and more.

SPARK Writing Residencies featuring Matt Schatz’s Where Ever It May Be and David Rossmer and Dan Lipton’s The Perfect Mate is showcased during a Late-Night Event at 10:30 pm, April 7 at the CLO Cabaret.

For the first year’s effort, Fleischer indicates a lot of his energy went into setting common “goals and structure for each of the weeks of the festival.” The long-term plan is to hold the New Works Festival and SPARK on alternating years.

‘Getting up a show’ in front of an audience and seeing a professional production of one’s work can be game-changing, and SPARK gives us the resources to help nurture this process,” said Kaplan.

SPARK’s weekend of public performances will coincide with the Spring 2018 Conference of the National Alliance for Musical Theatre (NAMT), of which Pittsburgh CLO is a founding member. NAMT’s presence broadens the audience and opportunities for these new small musicals.

SPARK is a great opportunity for theatre fans to be the first to see new shows and learn how new musicals are developed.

SPARK festival passes will be available for purchase in March. For more information, please visit http://www.pittsburghclo.org/spark

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