Smile Politely

Normal and special at the same time

A small community has been rocked by a tragedy: a school bus carrying an entire class crashes, and there is only one survivor. The Sparrow concerns what happens ten years later when Emily Book, that survivor, returns to her hometown.

Intriguing and poignant, this coming-of-age tale is sure to dazzle audiences with its portrayal of relationships and plot twists. Director Gary Ambler spoke to Smile Politely about his production of The Sparrow, premiering this week at Parkland College’s new Black Box theatre, The Second Stage.


Smile Politely: What drew you to the script?

Gary Ambler: Parkland Theatre chooses its season, and then assigns directors, so credit for choosing the play must go to Artistic Director Joi Hoffsommer and her committee. When it was presented to me to consider, I was very interested in the project. I’d not seen or read the play, but had been aware of its success for the House Theatre in Chicago. They are a rather young company which creates and produces their own material. More than anything else, I think, I was drawn to the process of interpreting a play that had been owned and identified by one company.

SP: How have the actors responded to the play? What have they seemed to enjoy about the production?

Ambler: The play calls for a cast that can create a whole town, with many actors doubling roles, playing students at the local high school, as well as townspeople at least a generation older. We have a diverse cast of 16 actors, including a number of great Parkland theatre students, a couple U of I students, some local high school students, and several local actors as well. It’s a good group: they’ve taken the work seriously and have been open and willing to try anything we (including Alicia Cross Engelhardt, our choreographer) have thrown at them. I hope they’re enjoying the challenge of creating singular characters from little cues and their own imaginations; as well as working as a group to create the larger character of the Community.

SP: What are the challenges and benefits of staging the production at Parkland’s new black box theater, the Second Stage?

Ambler: We are very fortunate to be working in this wonderful new space! It continues to show us possibilities for its use. It’s a great size, very flexible, and the acoustics are lively. I wish we were able to take advantage of all its tricks, but we’ll leave some of them to future productions. Its a very handsome design. And, it’s a special honor to be the first performance in a new theatre; that doesn’t happen very often, I think. As far as challenges, well, we take them as they come. The play itself offers its own set of impossible demands, but, as the playwrights advise, we still have to tell the story. Lastly, we’ve been lucky that the theatre was finished in time for us to have most of our rehearsal in the space, a huge luxury.

SP: The Sparrow is a coming-of-age story set in a high school. Inquiring minds what to know: what were you like in high school?

Ambler: Ah, inquiring minds… In my mind, I was radical and intellectual and daring (this was the late 60s after all), but in reality I imagine I was a giant nerd. My high school could have been the setting for The Sparrow: a small school in a small farm town in Illinois. There were 26 students in my graduating class.

SP: The play has several fantastical elements. How do you manage these elements in your production?

Ambler: We have tried to stay true to the aesthetic established by House Theatre, which has its roots in Story Theatre (another Chicago innovation), which calls on the actors to create environment, effect, and character using little more than their own bodies and imagination. That being said, the show also relies heavily on very strong design and technical elements: sound, lighting, setting, costumes, and properties. We’re very lucky to have a top-notch design staff. There is magic in the play.


Even if your schooling is a distant memory, The Sparrow is sure to resonate with all audience members. Make sure to flutter into Parkland’s new Second Stage to experience this gem.

The Sparrow was written by Chris Mathews, Jake Minton, and Nathan Allen and is directed by Gary Ambler. The production runs February 19th to March 1st. Ticket prices range from $9 to $15, and can be reserved on the Parkland Theatre website.

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