SPARKLER (2019) / Industry Reading / by Erik Champney

To begin with, there’s no way to describe how it feels when Alan Cumming, Christy Altomare, Garrett Clayton, and Erich Clayton sign on to do your play. But first! The backstory!

Sparkler was originally conceived in 2016, specifically for Blankets and Bedtime: 3 Restless Plays, an anthology production of my one-acts, which would run in the Planet Connections Theatre Festivity. At first inspired by the closet modern actors continue to live in, everything changed when my friend, Dylan Goodwin, asked, “Is it a period piece?” Suddenly, the stars aligned and I realized the answer had to be “YES.” So, you see, this is all Dylan’s fault.

Off I went to write the story of Clayton Boyd, closeted superstar of 1964, who was in a marriage of convenience with television star Carol Hayes, while having a torrid love affair with former Mouseketeer Jack Halpon. The piece was thirty minutes, and it was blood thirsty, hilarious, bitchy, and violent. Janet Bentley broke new ground as a director, really finding the guts of the play — but never neglecting its heart. It was the star of Blankets and Bedtime and ultimately, it became a workshop for what was to become a full-length play. Many people had asked and/or persuaded me to turn it into a full-length.

Sparkler workshop trailer.

At our final performance, Rachel Klein came to champion her friend and cast member, Erik Ransom. Accompanying her was Broadway producer, Jim Kierstead. He fell so in love with Sparkler, he asked to be introduced to me after the performance. As was the trend, he asked if I’d thought about turning it into a full-length. I had and told him so. “Well, if you do,” he said, “I’ll help you.”

This is like dreams-come-true-Peggy-Sawyer-in-42nd-Street shit, right?!?!

A couple months later, in August of 2016, our meetings began. And I got to work on developing that sucker. Henry Willson, the manipulative, sex-hungry representative of countless beautiful men-turned-actors (including Rock Hudson) was introduced as a new character. He is the only character in the play who was a living person. Clayton, Carol, and Jack are my way of telling this story without being bound to the autobiographical details that would come with writing about, say, Tab Hunter specifically. By entwining truth with fiction, I was allowed to cover everything.

The first draft was finished November 7, 2016. We were off and running. So much work needed to be done, but the foundation was solid and, with Jim’s support, I felt like I could do anything. “Support” isn’t the right word. Jim had become a friend, a mentor, and a hero. His belief in me and this play was so palpable, it inspired me to gleefully work my ass off.

Jim and I held a number of readings as Sparkler grew, populated by magnificent actors. Among them were Lowell Byers, Brooke Garfunkel, Dylan Goodwin, Ellie Gossage, Bob Jaffe, Craig MacArthur, Misha Osherovich, David Pittu, Charity Schubert, Marrick Smith, Frank Vlastnik, and Alan Wager.

That’s a lot of talent. We were fortunate to have them come into our world and play.

Fast Forward to March of 2019. Tony nominee Sheryl Kaller was on board to direct, Tara Rubin was our casting director, and we were at last putting together the cast for our industry reading.

Garrett Clayton hopped onto the train first and would play Jack. This was especially fantastic for me. After seeing Garrett in the film, King Cobra, my creation of Jack gradually transformed into a gift for him. Let me tell you something, he hit it out of the park. On instinct alone, he had Jack figured out. Hearing him speak the language was indescribable. All the better since it was written for him.

Alan Cumming signed on next. He would embody Henry Willson. Alan has a powerful presence. Even the most subtle of glances would propel an avalanche to fall. Being in a room with him was bloody magical.

Erich Bergen was next. Clayton was all his. A dashing, intriguing man, who is always comfortable asking questions to help propel his performance further. He has a gentle strength about him, and it’s wonderful to watch him work. He reaches for the stars.

Finally, there was Christy Altomare as Carol. She of Anastasia, who had been carrying that show for two years. The reading and surrounding rehearsals came just before Anastasia’s closing weekend. Yet she joined us, her heart firmly planted on her sleeve. If ever you’ve heard about Christy’s kindness, unyielding generosity, and open spirit, it’s all true. She’s a mesmerizing person.

The industry reading was March 29, 2019. The attendance was massive. They applauded when my name was introduced. It was surreal but so exciting. So fulfilling, and I kept thinking about my four-year-old self, dictating plays to my father, who dutifully wrote them down. I wondered if that little boy ever imagined this was possible. The answer was “YES.”

Through it all was Jim Kierstead, by my side, Sparkler’s biggest fan. We had made it this far. Nearly three years of development, labor, praying, hoping, believing, not knowing. Not knowing. But we made it.

I’m elated to take the next step and bring Sparkler closer to its destiny.

Sparkler , a new play by Erik Champney.

Sparkler, a new play by Erik Champney.