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A Brief History 1981-2017

Imagine the excitement of stepping into the bustling backstage world of theatre. Dancers are swirling, hammers are banging, costumers are zipping, and directors are shouting, “Take it from the top one more time.”

It’s a storied world that few people experience first-hand. But it is a world that SPARC offers Richmond-area students.


For 36 years, SPARC has been setting the stage for life, serving youth, schools, families and communities throughout Richmond and Virginia. Our mission is to inspire young people, ages 3-18, to reach their full potential through quality training in the performing arts, and SPARC serves the largest and most diverse student population of any performing arts program in the region.

With the help of professional artists presenting a range of classes, workshops, camps, productions and other programs, SPARC provides confidence, creativity, and character to children who participate for the sheer fun of it all.

The result: Young people go on to perform better in school, their careers and their lives.


Founder Jeri Cutler-Voltz with early students

Founder Jeri Cutler-Voltz with early students

Since its founding in 1981 by Richmond actress Jeri Cutler-Voltz, SPARC has grown from a handful of students and teachers to a national player as a provider of community-based theatre arts training for young people. Jeri’s vision was to train young actors to become “triple threats” accomplished in acting, dancing and singing. Today SPARC provides training each year for more than 1,200 young people throughout the region and statewide.

Beginning with a single class of a dozen teen students, SPARC added classes for younger students in 1983, a variety of outreach programs in 1984, and production opportunities in 1985.

Incorporated in 1984 as a 501(c)(3) non-profit, SPARC offers scholarships to students who might not otherwise be able to afford its services. In 1985, SPARC brought training into neighborhoods at youth centers and after-school enrichment programs.

Jennie and Larry Brown, executive/artistic and managing directors, 1998-2009

Jennie and Larry Brown, executive/artistic and managing directors, 1998-2009

Following Jeri’s death in 1998, then-Associate Director Jennie Brown stepped forward to become Executive Director and lead SPARC through a major transition. The Board of Directors hired her husband, Larry Brown, as Managing Director following his 20-year teaching career. For 11 years, Jennie and Larry Brown led SPARC through rapid expansion and achieved outstanding growth in the quality and professionalism of SPARC’s educational offerings and administrative operations.

Ryan Ripperton, who was named executive director in 2010, is SPARC’s third executive director in its history. With his administrative, educational, and performing arts experience, Ripperton is leading SPARC to diversify its programs, solidify its business model, and expand its community presence through collaborations and partnerships. Other staff members are qualified, highly regarded leaders in their field.


From its earliest days, SPARC promised that no child would ever be turned away because of inability to afford tuition. This covenant is still honored 36 years later, with more than 150 children (10% of its student population) annually participating in SPARC’s classes assisted by free or reduced-price tuition.

In 2003, SPARC inherited a nationally renowned high school playwriting program from Theatre Virginia, New Voices for the Theater. Each year, over 150 high school students across Virginia submit original one-act plays for adjudication, and the top eight playwrights are invited to Richmond for two weeks in the summer to reside at VCU, hone their craft under the guidance of a professional playwright-in-residence, and ultimately have their plays staged by professional actors and directors in front of a live and enthusiastic audience.

SPARC’s STAGES program, a vital outreach program in the community’s elementary schools and neighborhood centers, debuted in 2006. STAGES classes are taught to students in grades 2 through 4 during in-school instructional hours for a full school year, with fun-filled lessons focused on oral language skills (confidence, articulation, vocal projection); program assessments show the average student improves oral language Standards of Learning by more than 44% within a single school year. STAGES serves more than 800 students each year, predominantly in low-income schools.

In 2012, SPARC debuted an innovative pilot program, LIVE ART, which brought inclusion to the spectrum of performing arts programs offered by SPARC. Following a wildly successful pilot and a feature-length documentary film, LIVE ART has grown into an annual program serving more than 200 students aged 9-21, half with disabilities and half typically developing. Acceptance, compassion and empathy are core values of the program, and the large audiences and innovative reputation of the program have added significantly to SPARC’s community reputation.


The newly renovated SPARC Center, 2016

The newly renovated SPARC Center, 2016

SPARC fulfilled one of its most urgent goals in 2009, when it purchased the building at 2106 North Hamilton Street in Richmond. The organization transformed the 14,000-square-foot facility into class studios, a black-box theater and administrative offices. Debt-free ownership was achieved in 2013, and fundraising continued toward a final capital campaign goal of $6.0 million. Final renovations have just been completed to add two additional studio teaching spaces, an elevator, and making the facility fully handicap accessible.

With a home of its own, SPARC now builds and stores set designs, rehearses and produces shows, and trains and applauds young actors—all in one place. The purchase of the building has positioned SPARC to fulfill another aggressive goal: becoming a nationally recognized pipeline for new talent in the theatre arts.


SPARC alumni who go on to college have a distinct advantage in self-confidence and social and leadership skills. They frequently cite SPARC training as invaluable preparation for their careers.

As for serious theatre students, SPARC is the provider of choice for young talent among casting agencies for local and regional theatre, screen production, and commercial advertising. Each year SPARC graduates are accepted into top university performance programs such as The Juilliard School; New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts; Carnegie-Mellon University School of the Arts; North Carolina School of the Arts; and the University of the Arts.

SPARC has trained a number of national-level performing artists, including Broadway’s Emily Skinner, Mary Page Nance, Zak Resnick, and Bud Weber; international pop star Jason Mraz; NY Drama Desk Award recipient Jack Cummings III; actor and screenwriter Adrian Rieder; writer Clay McLeod Chapman; and others working throughout the nation.

While many alumni have gone on to successful careers in the theatre, the vast majority use the valuable skills they learn — especially confidence, creativity, and character — in their business and professional careers.

From its modest but impassioned beginnings, SPARC has emerged as a leader in performing arts education.

With the help of foundations, individual contributors and corporate sponsors who believe in its record of accomplishment, SPARC is fulfilling its vision of profoundly influencing the lives of the young people of our region and beyond.

Emily Skinner
SPARC was a wonderful, nourishing training ground for me as a young performer in Richmond. I looked forward with huge anticipation to my weekly class, where I received encouragement and enthusiasm as well as useful, detailed, caring instruction from the passionate teachers. I’m truly proud to be associated with this lovely school and am grateful to this day for my experience as a student within it. I look forward to seeing SPARC blossom even further in the future!
Emily Skinner

Tony-nominated Broadway actor