For two years now, Greenville-born, Raleigh-based comedian Caroline Monday has been performing stand-up around the Triangle area. She has found the comedy scene here to be alive and kicking, yet not really getting the full-blown, widespread attention that it should.
"There's a really great comedy community here, but I felt that there weren't a lot of outlets for it," says Monday. "Like, there are a few clubs, but I really wanted more opportunities for comics who were, you know, not professionals, but do take it seriously, to perform."
Monday, along with fellow organizer Kathy Higgins, joined me at Café Helios in Raleigh to discuss their roles in this year's SPARKcon, the grassroots, local arts festival held in downtown Raleigh every September.
In February, Monday attended a meeting of prospective SPARKcon organizers. She was looking to see if she could launch a wing of the festival devoted to the Triangle comedy scene. Little did she know, she had a future comrade at the same meeting.
"Actually, I was standing right next to [her]," says Higgins, a public relations worker for the North Carolina Farm Bureau Federation. "We hadn't met, and that's what I had come there for, too."
Higgins feels that with the boom of comedy podcasts online (not to mention the local crowds who attend alt-comedy shows at spots like Cat's Cradle), comedy should be fully represented at SPARKcon. "Comedy is kinda popular right now, and I'm really into it," says Higgins. "And I thought it would be good to have comedy events during SPARKcon in addition to art, music and everything else that they do."
So, thanks to their initiative, comedySPARK will be a reality at this year's SPARKcon. Comedy in both stand-up and improvisation form will be represented at the four-day festival, beginning Thursday. On the first night, local improv teams will have their own showcase at the Berkeley Cafe. The following night, there will be a competitive improv show at Wachovia Plaza, where Raleigh's ComedyWorx and Carrboro's DSI Comedy Theater troupes will square off. Also that night, Monday will host an alt-comedy stand-up showcase at Slim's and will also do stand-up at Morning Times, at another showcase, on Sunday night.
ComedySPARK is the latest addition to the festival, which keeps roping in more people to create new departments every year. Now in its sixth year, SPARKcon has gone from a small gathering where creative locals can show off the fruits of their labor to a free street festival where spectators can join in and come up with their own artwork.
Last year, SPARKcon turned downtown Raleigh's Fayetteville Street into a cornucopia of creative and artistic expression, complete with kids drawing on the street, eccentric art installations, even a traveling circus that paraded down the street and into City Plaza, where participants showed off their tricks and routines on a stage that would also show a short-film festival later in the evening.
"That's what SPARKcon's been about," says Aly Khalifa, who co-founded the festival with his wife, Beth. "It's about making the Triangle the creative hub of the South. It's been our mission."
Virtually every facet of arts and entertainment is represented at SPARKcon: visual art, music, dance, film, fashion, design, poetry—even the culinary arts will get some love during this fest.
But SPARKcon is also out to show that you can even find art in science, as evidenced by the fest's loaded geekSPARK schedule. Originally known as cyberSPARK at previous festivals, geekSPARK was organized this year by tech-savvy locals, several of them regulars at Maker Faire N.C., the yearly DIY science event that's been held at the N.C. State Fairgrounds. They've compiled such activities as a digital motion showcase and a gaming showcase, along with a citywide gun-tag game called "SPARK Wars."
"These guys, I think, are a little bit more into not just talking about the gaming industry, which is what we were before," says Khalifa. "These guys are, like, all about art and fun, using geeky technology. It's really been pretty energizing."
As always, the key to getting a good SPARKcon going is rounding up organizers who will properly organize as well as handle the fundraising and volunteer work for each of their SPARKs. Monday and Higgins started out getting donations for comedySPARK when they held a stand-up show at Kings in July, which brought out a lot of people. (Venue management was so impressed with the turnout that they engaged Monday to book another stand-up show there in October.) As for recruiting comedians, Monday says that was the easy part. "The thing, at least in the stand-up world, about comedians is they just are really hungry to perform all the time," says Monday.
"So you can tell them, 'We're gonna have this show and you're not gonna get paid—and it's gonna be in a public bathroom.' And they'll be like, 'OK, I'll come.'"
SPARKcon organizers have always tried to round up whoever and whatever they could to help get the whole thing off the ground, racking up corporate sponsors, donations and grant money from the city in order to get the estimated $75,000 budget they have this year. Last year, the festival saddled up with the Visual Art Exchange (which produced the artSPARK section in previous years), making the group a full-fledged partner in the presentation of the fest.
SPARKcon will also do some cross-promoting with the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences for its wheelSPARK segment, with rickshaw cyclists dressed up as insects going back and forth to the museum in an effort to promote the museum's annual BugFest (this year: spiders!), which will take place all day Saturday.
"This is one of the years where we're actually able to reconnect with BugFest and do it as sort of a joint event," says Khalifa. "This might bring in 10,000 people or so, too."
Although it's very likely SPARKcon will get a lot of foot traffic in its four days, organizers still have trouble convincing people it's not just a free fluke but an economic boon for the city. "Right now, we don't really qualify for any of the entertainment tax, even though we know we're getting a bunch of people business," says Khalifa, noting how bars and restaurants have told him how well they do when SPARKcon happens.
"We really want to have some diagnostics out there to show that SPARKcon is actually not just a creative entity. There's also an economic power behind it, too, by the people who are really excited about local talent."
Ultimately, SPARKcon seeks to bring out the creative side of everybody involved, from the featured artists to the curious spectators. Hopefully, in the years to come, it will continue to do that.
Says Khalifa, "That's definitely a form of creativity in the Triangle that is not represented, and that's our favorite stuff to get out there. You know, people are putting their heart and soul in a thing that normally doesn't get the time of day from anybody."