The Sparrow's Nathan Allen Talks Joseph Campbell, Mythology, and the Boss

Take Stephen King's Carrie, Edward Scissorhands, and add a dash of ancient mythology, and what you have is one of the more original and unique productions to hit  theatres in some time. The Sparrow, a musical play conceived and originally performed by the House Theatre of Chicago, opens this week at the Arsht Center. 

It tells the story of Emily Book, a young girl who has returned to her hometown ten years after a tragic school bus accident took the lives of her entire second grade class, leaving her as the lone survivor. Looking to spend her senior year attending the town's high school, she must come to grips with not only being the awkward outsider, but also as a constant walking reminder of the dreadful events of a decade ago. Emily is bullied, mistreated, and cast out. But Emily also hides a secret: she has supernatural powers.

In the following Q&A, Nathan Allen, The Sparrow's director and co-author (along with Chris Matthews and Jake Minton),  talks inspiration and bringing the show to Miami.

New Times: The plot and storyline of The Sparrow is somewhat unique to theater. Where did the story come from?

Nathan Allen: Plot and story wise it's almost classical Greek, Shakespearean heroic tragedy. If anything is unique about it -- and I wish it wasn't because I'd like to see more new plays with stories like this -- it's in how that heroic tragedy plays out in our modern popular mythologies. There's a whole lot of early Steven Spielberg in there. Obviously some Smallville. But honestly you'll recognize more Spider-Man, and Carrie too, but plot and story wise; it's almost straight Edward Scissorhands.

How is the story influenced by American/Western mythology?

Well I'm a big nut for Joseph Campbell and have always been interested in the ideas described in "The Power of Myth" and "The Hero with a Thousand Faces." My company is also specifically interested in Aristotle's Poetics and the concept of catharsis as a social service. I find that good myth spoken in a primal -- rather than political -- language really has the ability to get lots of otherwise different people to laugh and cry together at the same time. And that live theatre devoted to that effort makes for the very best kind of community building. That catharsis can be incredibly profound for people. It's good for us to laugh and cry together and when it happens we realize just how rare it is. There are precious few places where that's really possible, certainly out side the arts.

The House is committed to exploring that experience and so most of our plays glean inspiration from our American and Western mythologies.

As for The Sparrow, I also grew up on Star Wars and Indiana Jones and everything Steven Spielberg or Jim Henson ever made. Then MTV happened for me. And Bruce Springsteen and then Nirvana joined the mix. Now my big heroes are the guys at Pixar. All of those storytellers were contributing to the great American mythologies that rose post World War II and now define our pop culture heroic values. Space aliens and superheroes with some rock and roll rebellion thrown in. So I am constantly puzzled at how so many young theatre makers are able to escape those influences. I wouldn't know what else to make.

What are some of the challenges in directing a live play with "supernatural" elements in the plot?

Oh they're so great! You get to play around with your friends like you did when you were a kid shooting flames from your fingertips and flying around the room only now you have a full team of professional designers actually providing the light and sound effects.

Can you tell us a little about the set pieces and how they frame the story?

We came to this master design metaphor of Containers to reflect how Emily is constantly trying to contain her power and the people of Spring Farm are trying to contain their grief. In some places its really clear. There's the chambers of the heart they keep talking about, the lockers, the photographs everyone carries around to capture or contain their memories, or their town and homes. And it gets applied pretty broadly in other places, but its deeply present in the design of the show. 

What, if any, are the challenges of taking the play out of The House in Chicago and hitting the road?

Logistical only and Arsht has made it very easy. For our part, we get to rehearse a play we love and perform it somewhere sunny! It's a dream. Miami has an incredible resource in the wonderful people who work here and in the work they are able to do. I think this will be the finest production of this play we've pulled off yet and that is due directly to the resource and support of all the people at Arsht.

The Sparrow takes flight this Thursday at 7:30 p.m at the Arsht Center's Carnival Studio Theater (1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami) and runs through May 1. Tickets cost $50. Visit or call 305-949-6722.

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Chris Joseph