Jay Paul photo
Jennie and Larry Brown
The selectors said: Since 1981, the School of the Performing Arts in the Richmond Community has ignited an artistic fire in the hearts and minds of children. When its founder and driving force, Jeri Cutler-Voltz, died in 1998, Jennie and Larry Brown kept the flame burning. The couple retired in June, but their leadership and guidance of SPARC have had a tremendous impact on children, their parents and this community.
The Browns met at VCU in 1974, when Jennie was studying acting performance and Larry was in playwriting/directing. They shared graduate-school offices, but it took a year for them to even look at each other. Larry directed Jennie in the titular role in a school production of Miss Julie. Then came the bicentennial West Side Story that Larry directed in Shafer Court. They soon married and then took a four-month road trip in a Volkswagen bus.
In L.A., Jennie's family friend and Oscar-wining producer Frank McCarthy (Patton) told them they needed New York stage credits. But in Richmond, the American Revels Theater Company sprang up at the Empire Theatre. Jennie got cast in The Club, and Larry was hired as house manager. The company folded, but Jennie became a working actor and voice-over artist.
Larry first went into advertising, then taught creative writing at Lloyd C. Bird High School in Chesterfield County. He kept his hand in theater, too, writing marketing material for SPARC. "I was a SPARC husband," he chuckles.
Jennie, with Jeri Cutler-Voltz, was one of the four founding teachers at SPARC, beginning in an upstairs room in the 1300 block of West Main Street. One class led to two, and movements to spare rooms and basements of various churches.
By 1998, SPARC taught 200 young people annually under the management of two part-time administrators. The organization conducted seven after-school programs and two summer musicals. Then, tragedy struck: Cutler-Voltz's suicide shocked the community. At the funeral, Jennie declared that SPARC would continue and grow. She became director, and to fill her vacant position, the SPARC board made the somewhat unusual decision of hiring Larry as associate director, at least on a trial basis.
The trial period turned into 11 years. Larry became the company's strategic planner and Jennie its "up-close-and-personal quality control," she says. SPARC grew, and a number of graduates achieved recognition on stage and off: singer-songwriter Jason Mraz; Broadway performer Emily Skinner and her sister, writer and entertainer Eliza; playwright/performer Clay McLeod Chapman; director Jack Cummings III; and a New York City policymaker, the late Patty Noonan.
Many more alumni who aren't necessarily famous are using the self-confidence and presentation skills learned in SPARC in their daily lives.
The Browns' career capstone was Larry's finding and SPARC's acquisition of its space at 2106 N. Hamilton St., providing the organization with 14,000 square feet of offices, studios and workshops. In 2009, SPARC counted 2,200 students regionally and 10,000 statewide.