Ivy Leaf - Spring 2007

Ten Minutes with Jonathan O'Harrow

Webmaster by day ... Mr. Sparkle by night

Penn State Altoona webmaster Jonathan O'Harrow talks with Ivy Leaf about his after-hours life in local theatre.

IL: When did you first get the "acting bug"?

JO: I was probably in first or second grade when I did my first show. I guess it's in my blood. Both of my parents have artistic backgrounds. 

IL: What was your first role?

JO: My first show was Hello, Dolly, in 1985 when I was 7. My first role, one that had a name, was a year or two later as Randolph in Bye Bye, Birdie. It didn't take me long to get hooked. Adding it all up, I've probably worked on about 65 productions over the past 21 years. Lately I've been averaging 4 to 6 productions a year. And I'm usually involved in about 2 or 3 shows at any given time. Any less than that and I'd probably get bored.

IL: What is it about the theatre that you love?

JO: It's so creative. And I don't know of a better way to meet people with similar interests. I honestly wouldn't know how to make friends outside of the theater because that's where almost all of my friendships are born. You become part of this big family that's always growing. Every time you do a show, you're meeting new people.

IL: What do you like about being on the stage?

JO: I've always enjoyed pretending to be other people. Whether it was dressing up like a fireman or a cowboy in pre-school or acting out my own little scenes with He-man action figures. It was always fun to pretend to be someone else.

IL: Do you get nervous when you perform on stage?

JO: I definitely still get nervous at auditions, but not necessarily when I perform. It all depends on the role. If I'm playing a crazy character, like the clock in Beauty and the Beast or Captain Hook in Peter Pan, these really wild outlandish characters, I feel very at ease because I know that no matter how crazy I am, it's never going to be too much.

When I have to play a more realistic character, specifically a character that is very similar to myself, then I get nervous because I'm putting myself out there. I'm opening myself up to criticism. People can pick apart those crazy characters and I don't take it personally. But when it's me up there … when the character is closer to home … it can be a scary thing.

IL: Do you prefer acting or directing?

JO: They are different enough that they are hard to compare. With acting, the level of challenge varies with the role you're playing. Directing is always a challenge, regardless of your material. I'm attracted to directing because I enjoy the collaborative nature of it. I also like the "whole picture" aspect of it. It's an awesome feeling to look up on that stage and know that you had a hand in every little piece of a production.

IL: You've gained local notoriety with Blair County children as "Mr. Sparkle." How did that evolve?

JO: The Blair County Arts Foundation used to do a talent show as a fundraiser, which they decided to replace in 2002 with a big musical cabaret show featuring local children. Karen Volpe, the Mishler Theatre manager, wrote the first show and asked me to serve as musical director. We decided that I would play the piano on stage and, rather than having this random guy sitting on stage playing piano, we would give me a name and incorporate me into the show. Basically, I was there as a safety net for the kids so that if they got lost, I could jump in and get things back on track.

Karen asked me what I wanted my name to be and for some reason the first thing that came out of my mouth was "Sparkle", so we invented Mr. Sparkle. Mr. Sparkle was very popular the first year, so Karen has revived his character every year and the show now is known informally as the Sparkle Show. This last year, our sixth show, we had 120 kids audition and we cast 72. It's something that they really look forward to.

IL: Have you had any formal musical or theatrical training?

JO: I've played the piano since I was five or six. I took some lessons initially, but ended up mostly teaching myself. My dad taught me some music theory, so I'm pretty handy at faking my way through a piece of music using chords and melody. I've taken a few voice lessons over the years and learned a lot from my college choir conductor and from some of my friends. I also took some acting and theatre design classes in college, though most of my experience in all of these things -- piano, singing, acting, and directing -- has been hands-on.

IL: Have you ever considered doing this professionally?

JO: Yes, all the time.

IL: What's holding you back?

JO: I think I have concerns about security. The nice thing about Altoona is that, for a smaller community, we have lots of opportunities to perform. I have opportunities here to play roles that I probably would not get to play in a professional setting. You have to be of a certain temperament to be a professional actor. You have to be willing to sacrifice a lot of security and to be able to just pick up and go at any given time; right now I am enjoying the stability and security -- not that if opportunity presented itself, I wouldn't jump on it.

IL: Some people would be surprised to learn that your day job is in such a technical field. Do you feel that your creative side and your technical side complement each other?

JO: I was a computer science major at Susquehanna University and, if I hadn't started learning web design, I probably would have changed my major. The programming aspect of it was just way too left-brained for me.

One summer, on a whim, I began teaching myself web design. I really enjoyed it because it was a combination of those two things – a technical left-brained activity that was also very creative. It was almost a center-brained activity.

As webmaster, I get to be creative and logical at the same time. It's interesting, because I approach directing the same way. While of course directing is creative and artistic, it's also very much about problem solving, and being logical. When you think of it that way, it's not so surprising that I enjoy designing web pages professionally and directing in the theatre on the side.