Nearly four decades ago, Jeffrey Sparks met Matt Williams and David McFadzean, fellow theater majors, at the University of Evansville. The three roommates kept in touch after graduation. In the 1980s, Sparks learned Williams created TV sitcom Roseanne, and in the 1990s, Williams and McFadzean followed up with TV sitcom Home Improvement.
Sparks went a different route and eventually landed the role as the executive director of an Indianapolis treatment facility for delinquent youth. There, he noticed the boys mimicking the behavior that they were seeing onscreen. With his UE theater connections, Sparks gathered a group of actors, playwrights, and screenwriters to create a two-week program focused on changing the message. Sparks set nearby New Harmony, Ind. — with a history of social and cultural utopia — as the venue to nurture artists who sought to celebrate the human spirit, both its struggles and its joys. Thus, the New Harmony Project was born in 1986.
Today, Joan David, NHP’s administrative director, has the project’s 25th anniversary benefit celebration set for June 4. In addition to the traditional summary readings of this year’s scripts, the benefit dinner will feature the work of acclaimed past participants such as John Pielmeier, whose play Agnes of God starred Jane Fonda and Anne Bancroft in its film adaptation. Here, David speaks on how the project has changed and the impact it has made.
What are some success stories of the project?
Mat Smart wrote a play at the New Harmony Project a few years ago called The 13th of Paris. It was about a young man finding his grandparents’ love letters and going to Paris to feel the atmosphere that they lived in when they wrote the love letters to each other. Those are the kind of plays that we produce, from Theresa Rebeck, who has plays on Broadway and has been written up in The New York Times, to Mat Smart, who is a bright young playwright but just hasn’t made it to Broadway yet — but he will one day.
The project was founded to combat the rise of exploitative and sensational material in the performing arts. What kind of change has the New Harmony Project made?
I think there were a lot of studies that were produced about that time that talked about the affects that violence on the screen and in entertainment in general had on young people. That was the initiative behind the organization.
We’re not just looking for scripts that are not violent. The mission has evolved to support people who write to support the human journey in the broadest sense, helping the audience to look at why this is or why that might be happening, and causing us to think about it and consequently what to do about it.
What impact has the project had?
There are a lot of good scripts that are available that would not have been without the support of the New Harmony Project. Creative people need that space and need to be energized, and that’s what they draw from New Harmony.
We believe that by engaging high school students and college interns, we’re helping to make a difference for the longer term. Some of those young people who have been student interns are now coming back as full-fledged actors on Broadway. It’s even more competitive when you get to New York or Los Angeles, so the contacts they make through the New Harmony Project have been invaluable to them.