Friday, May 25, 2012

ARTIST PROFILE: Sparks Flies as Vancouver Writer, Director, Producer and Filmmaker

Dennis J. Sparks. Source: The Columbian files.
Dennis J. Sparks could be regarded as somewhat of a Renaissance Man. He’s a writer, director, producer, filmmaker, actor, visionary and entrepreneur. The Vancouver man has long been a fixture on the local theater scene.

The 66-year-old Sparks, graying now, but looking at least ten years younger, is a story-teller.

His love for stories and theater began at an early stage, performing in front of the blanket that served as a curtain. He and his friends would put on shows—short plays based on TV programs they watched as kids. Then, as a sophomore at Hudson’s Bay High School he got involved in drama and the fire was ignited.

The Sparks That Ignited It All

“It was sort of on a whim,” said Sparks, “my Mom talked me into it.” And he found that he loved the applause and laughter. He said, “at the time it was [only] acting, but evolved into a whole lot of other things.”

Over time he began directing as well. Then he was starting and running new theater companies. Soon he was writing shows, producing and more. Now he’s ventured into filmmaking.

His new film “Nightbumpers” will premier at Kiggins Theater this June. A year in the making, this feature length movie stars local talent and was shot entirely in Clark County. But that journey began more than 60 years ago.

After high school Sparks went to Clark College and studied under Hermine Decker, performing in nearly every show (up to six per year) for his two-year stint. The theater bug was burning like a fever and, with an internship landed at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, he moved to Ashland to fan the flame.

Fanning the Flames

He recalls that the experience was a great one and even though he played only small roles he got exposed to great talent. After a while, he decided to stay in Ashland to attend Southern Oregon College (now University). Two years in, Uncle Sam came calling him to Vietnam. Registered as a conscientious objector, he “served his time” stateside in Buffalo, NY, working with children.

Sparks stayed in New York nine years and was involved in several theater companies. Finally, in 1977, the bitter winters drove him back home to Vancouver. That year the snow there was so deep the city closed down and declared Marshall Law. Upon return to Vancouver he became involved in community theater.

At first, he worked with Blue Parrot Theater in Camas as their Artistic Director, directing most of their shows for two years. He played Capt. Von Trapp in the Peanut Gallery production of “The Sound of Music” and directed their production of “Oliver!” He was doing a lot of shows as an actor in Portland, as well, and was in the very last show at the Civic Theater there.

Sparks in his film "Nightbumpers"
In the 1980s, he founded On the Edge theater company and then Heartland Theatre Productions. Heartland has created productions for more than 20 years at The Old Church in Portland and at the Columbia Arts Center in Vancouver. The company’s shows and actors have won numerous acting and production awards including the coveted C.A.T.E. Awards for best over-all productions of “West Side Story,” “Sweet Charity” and “Witness For the Prosecution.”

Sparks is the recipient of the Decker Award for “outstanding contribution to Clark County theatre.”

He’s enjoyed playing The Old Shakespearean in “The Fantastics!” which he said he played four or five times, and the role of Starbuck in “The Rainmaker.” Having played more lawyers than anything else, he said his most difficult role was He in the Russian play “He Who Gets Slapped” because he had to do a Russian accent and get slapped so many times.

Stoking the Inferno

He began writing plays while in Buffalo; his first being “Games” an avant-garde piece modeled after shows he liked. The one-act, now a full length play, was nominated for several awards. Sparks has written half a dozen plays and as many screenplays. His short film “Wordspeaker,” was a finalist at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival.

Sparks likes to kindle appreciation in new theater-goers.

“It’s amazing what kinds of minds you can wake up,” he said, “it’s not something you can predict. There’s something that can be said about theater waking up a part of the psyche.” He said to never underestimate people and what you think they may or may not enjoy. He believes in the educational value of theater in the culture, but he also believes in cinema as a great storyteller.

He got into filmmaking when he realized there was "no place to do [original] theater." He could do the writing, but “didn’t have the ‘whatever’ to do the technical” so he gathered others about him to ignite his vision. The first effort was “Wordspeaker” a movie starring KXL’s Clyde Lewis as an end of the world talk show host.

The film "Nightbumpers" premiers at
Kiggins Theater this June.
Soon he produced the first 30 minutes of “Nightbumpers” and showed it at the Battle Ground theater. A year later—slowly funding the effort and shooting around the casts’ busy schedules—the film is complete. It premiers at Kiggins Theater June 9 showing at 8:15 p.m. and again at 2 p.m. on the 10th.

The theme of “Nightbumpers” is the importance of stories and storytellers in our civilization—a theme that burns passionately in the heart of Sparks. The fantasy-thriller tells the tale of Val Corman (John Rowe) a graphics novelist whose stories revolve around creatures of the night. But one of his creations of the Dark doesn’t want to be exposed and it comes after him with a vengeance. Thus begins an epic battle between the Light and Dark for the control of the Stories of the World.

“True, there may be things that go ‘bump in the night’ but, there are also, on occasion, things that…bump back!” says filmmaker, Sparks.

The film was completely shot in Vancouver and all of the actors are from the local area. Sparks not only wrote and produced the film, he stars in a supporting role.

The Blaze Burns On

But it is theater that has always been Sparks’ love. He loves seeing it, doing it and writing about it. He has reviewed shows for this blog as well as the (now defunct) Vancouver Voice and for

So what does the future hold for Mr. Sparks?

“I’m going to write film off after this,” said Sparks with a half chuckle, citing all the work involved. “Well, of course, we learned a lot,” he said, so three months from now, “maybe I’ll change my mind.” He’s ready to direct another play, he said, eager to tinder another story.

“We’re losing our story-telling—our stories,” said the storyteller, “and storytellers are important in our culture” and, that, he adds, is what “Nightbumpers” is all about.

To learn more and see the “Nightbumpers” trailer visit:

By Gregory E. Zschomler

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