Richmond's performing arts powerhouse.
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Jason Mraz performs with SPARC students at the new building dedication ceremony.
Photos by Tom Topinka
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Jazon Mraz at the SPARC building dedication.
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Jason Mraz speaks at the SPARC building dedication.
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SPARC summer camp.
Used to playing before packed houses for thousands of die-hard fans, Grammy award-winning singer and songwriter Jason Mraz stepped up to the microphone last October in Richmond for a different type of performance. An alum and longstanding supporter of the School of the Performing Arts in the Richmond Community (SPARC), Mraz was back in town for the renaming of SPARC’s building to the John Robert Powell Center in honor of his late grandfather, a longtime supporter of the organization.
Like the estimated 25,000 kids who have participated in SPARC’s programs, Mraz’s several years at SPARC helped nurture his creativity and taught him about acceptance. And that’s what SPARC sets out to do. “We train young people not just to be great performers, but to also be creative, confident, empathetic and accepting of others,” says Ryan Ripperton, the organization’s executive director since 2010.
Founded in 1981, SPARC is the largest community-based arts education organization in Virginia. Last year it completed an eight-year capital campaign, raising more than $6 million to help fund three phases of renovations to its 15,000-square-foot building on North Hamilton Street. The latest renovation, celebrated at last year’s building renaming, enhanced the 50-year-old building’s accessibility and tripled the amount of instructional studio space.
One of the ways SPARC sets itself apart from other arts organizations in Virginia is through its annual LIVE ART production. The performance is the culmination of a yearlong program that brings together students with disabilities and those without; LIVE ART, now in its fifth year, was the first large-scale inclusive arts education program in Richmond.
“The impact that LIVE ART is having on the students and teachers involved is astounding in ways we truly didn’t even predict when it all began,” says Erin Thomas-Foley, senior director of education. “We see all students gaining new awareness of the people around them by learning how to celebrate our differences and how to support each other instead of judging each other or competing with each other.”
This year’s event will feature Mraz, who has performed at all of the previous LIVE ART shows and serves as its artistic advisor, as well as Oscar, Grammy and Golden Globe Award-winning singer, songwriter and composer Paul Williams; singer Colbie Caillat; magician and comedian Justin Willman; pianist Daniel Clarke and Virginia singer/songwriter Steve Bassett.
Bassett says he had no idea what he was getting into when he first heard about the show a few years ago. “After my participation the first time it became my favorite show to be a part of,” he explains. On two occasions for LIVE ART Bassett performed a duet with a student named Ross, 27, who is enrolled in an adults with disabilities program. “The first time we sang together I told him I was a little nervous and hoped I could remember my lyrics,” says Bassett. “His reply was ‘I’ve got your back.’ The second time we performed together I dropped a line and he picked it up.”
The show includes about 250 students as well as 20 guest artists and 45 teachers and volunteers. “We haven’t found anything in the country on the scale of LIVE ART and never with the same life-changing experience at the end,” notes Ripperton. The cost for the program and final production is around $450,000, and is funded through ticket sales and donations.
Bridget Phipps’ 13-year-old daughter, Grace, who does not have a disability, will be participating in the show for the second year. She has been a SPARC student since the age of seven. “SPARC has been an anchor for Grace when she needed it,” says Phipps. “If you asked Grace about SPARC, she would say that it is the place where she can truly be herself without someone judging her or being critical of her. It’s just a magical thing.”
A pianist and composer from Henrico County, Ajay Reddy has apraxia, a motor speech disorder, as well as some learning disabilities. The 23-year-old has played keyboard in all of the LIVE ART productions and also composed the score for an introduction to a film about the event, which will air nationwide on PBS stations later this year.
“He has been given so many opportunities through SPARC,” says his mother, Tina Reddy. “This is truly one bright spot for him. They give the kids confidence to take on new activities. They bring out the best in every student.”
Additionally, SPARC provides arts education to third-grade students in six schools in Richmond and Henrico County through its STAGES outreach program. One of its core teachings is the LIVE ART acceptance, compassion and empathy curriculum (ACE). “Our goal is to use this combined curriculum to teach social and emotional learning,” explains Thomas-Foley.
She is grateful that Mraz continues to be an ambassador for both SPARC and LIVE ART, encouraging participation from artists across the nation: “He is helping us spread the magic.”
SPARC Live Art, June 11, 2017 Altria Theatre, Richmond, SPARCOnline.org