One of Artistic Director Derek Ritschel’s most important jobs is choosing which actors will appear on the Lighthouse stage every summer. Since in many ways casting can make or break a show, Ritschel and the guest director will often see dozens of hopefuls vying for the same role and debate their relative merits for weeks before making a final decision.
But there’s one actor Ritschel does not hesitate to cast if the part is right – Stephen Sparks.
“Stephen is the everyman,” Ritschel said. “It doesn’t matter what generation you are, when you’re in the audience you can connect with Stephen very easily.”
The Edmonton-born, Toronto-based actor goes back a long time with Lighthouse. He was introduced to Port Dover audiences in 2010 in Race Day, during Chris McHarge’s final season as artistic director.
The following year, Ritschel was deciding who to cast in When the Reaper Calls, the first show he would direct as the new AD, and thought of Sparks, who he knew as a fellow Toronto actor but had never performed with.
“When I worked with him for the first time, it was like a dream,” Ritschel said. “Literally from my first day as artistic director, I said, ‘This is a Lighthouse guy.’”
Sparks says that from his very first visit, he considered himself a Dover kind of guy.
“The sense of community is so strong in Port Dover,” he said. “I’ve got to spend a bunch of Canada Days in Port Dover, which I love. The whole town is out on Main Street and St. George, and there’s a family feel. It’s a real joyful day.”
That sense of joy extends throughout the entire season and keeps him coming back summer after summer.
“The people, the town, the work,” Sparks said. “The people at Lighthouse – Derek in particular, and everyone – are always so welcoming and supportive.”
During his first season, Sparks and his Race Day castmates practiced their dance steps on the unforgiving cement floor of the Masonic Lodge. Reminiscing about what he calls “a moveable feast” of rehearsal spaces – including the community centre and the Anglican church hall – Sparks is grateful that the theatre has since invested in a dedicated rehearsal hall.
“That was a big, welcome change,” he said.
Now in his tenth season in Port Dover, Sparks trails only Ritschel himself for the title of most performances on the Lighthouse stage. The reason for that, Ritschel said, goes beyond Sparks’ brilliance in comedic and dramatic roles alike.
“He’s down to earth and so easy to work with, because he’s a super nice guy,” Ritschel said, adding that Sparks’ dedication rubs off on his castmates.
“He raises the game. There’s lots of fun with it, but he’s here to work. There’s total focus.”
“I take the craft real seriously,” Sparks said, whether he’s taking a pratfall, landing a biting zinger, delivering a poignant monologue as a widowed car salesman in Test Drive, or donning Sherlock Holmes’ famed deerstalker cap in Baskerville.
“I’ve played a lot of big roles here, so that brings a lot of responsibility when you have a leading role,” Sparks said, explaining that with top billing comes the obligation to show up early and encourage the other actors, while keeping the mood in the rehearsal hall “convivial” yet disciplined.
Sparks says his favourite Lighthouse shows – if he were forced to choose – are the ones that combine humour and heart.
“I love telling stories. Just making people laugh is fun, but when you do a show that is entertaining but also has a beautiful message and leaves you thinking, that’s so gratifying,” he said.
“And Lunenburg has that.”
Sparks brings his everyman quality to his role as Charlie, the charming neighbour in Norm Foster’s Lunenburg, a Maritime tale about a widow (played by Sharon Heldt) and her best friend (Melanie Janzen) who unearth world-changing surprises on the shores of the Atlantic.
“It’s real people being superhumanly funny,” Sparks said. “It’s about people connecting and losing connections and finding new ones. It’s got a masterful playwright, masterful women – and I’m in it too,” he laughed.
Having a cast of seasoned actors who know each other well, combined with Lighthouse’s experienced team of designers, tech crew and stage managers, means everyone could immediately get down to the business of making Lunenburg sparkle.
“Everyone in that room is a veteran, and Derek’s a great leader,” Sparks said. “I adore everybody in this company. You know you’re in good hands.”
He can’t wait to bring this show before a packed Lighthouse audience.
“There’s nothing like it to have 400 people laughing in concert,” he said. “You can go to the movies and there are giggles. In theatres, especially in a big theatre, it’s a wave that is palpable.”
Foster’s script certainly brings the humour, Sparks added.
“It’s impeccable. He’s a craftsman,” he said. “If you paraphrase a Norm line, it doesn’t work. If you say it his way, it’s always funnier. He’s got a musical ear for comedy. And it’s not just about the jokes – it’s about the rhythm and what comes before the setup and punchline.”
But like the best Foster scripts, Lunenburg goes from punchlines to emotional gut punches in a matter of moments.
“Stuff matters,” Sparks said. “It’s funny, you can really laugh to it, but there are moments where you go, ohh, that’s real. I prefer to have audiences going away thinking.”