The South Philly actor was in the midst of a successful acting run in commercials and in theater, filled with plenty of voiceover work to keep her days busy. Then, about six years ago, she had her first seizure. And then another. She was up to about nine a day before she encountered her first of four brain surgeries to treat temporal lobe epilepsy.
“In the first two (surgeries), they cut 28 holes in my head and put wires down in there to watch me seize during a month-long hospital stay,” Parke recalled. “During the second two surgeries, they put in a machine called an RNS (Responsive Neurostimulation), which is like a pacemaker for your brain. They took away a big chunk of my skull and put that bad boy in.”
Parke, 30, now talks about her traumatic experiences with ease, but it wasn’t always that way. A young actor originally from Eastern Tennessee was hitting her stride after moving to Philadelphia and graduating from the University of the Arts. She called the seizures “hiccups” but feared that they could affect her acting career.
“I kept a lot of my time in the hospital on the down low because I didn’t want anyone to know because I didn’t think they would continue to cast me,” she said. “I’m an equity actor that has worked a lot of places and I’m like who’s going to want to work with me? I had to realize you gotta go hard or go home. I figured if my story was going to be told, I wanted it to be told the way I wanted it to be told.”
Now she’s telling it on the big stage in a 60-minute solo show called “Birth. Sparkle. Death.” as part of the Cannonball Festival. Parke will perform five shows between Sept. 2-18. Opening performance is Sept. 2 at 2 p.m. at The Fidget Space, 1714 N. Mascher St. Tickets are $25 at https://phillyfringe.org/events/birth-sparkle-death/.
Prior to her newest offering, Parke had created a 25-minute short film with 10 cast members in 2021 based on her experience with epilepsy. It was created before her surgeries as part of 2021 Philly Theatre Week. This new live version is more raw with Parke on a single microphone telling her story via monologue, stand-up and a few musical numbers.
“I just kind of felt like I had it all steamed up inside of me and I really needed to come out and I thought what better way than with a darkly, gruesome musical?” Parke said. “After I put the short film out in 2021, I put the idea to rest mainly because of the surgeries.
“But Birth. Sparkle. Death. is different. I got to hide behind the 2021 version. It was a character. It wasn’t really me. And it was mostly songs; there wasn’t a lot of talking. This version is very monologue stand-up heavy with songs mixed in. It’s a re-telling of this whole experience. There are days where I feel like, wow, I’m giving it all away. But at the same time, I think the show is through the lens of the stages of grief. People know that experience, maybe through something other than epilepsy.”
The project reunites Parke with director Shamus McCarty as the duo worked together on their original musical, Close Your Legs, Honey, which debuted locally at the Fringe Festival in 2018 before touring.
“When we did our Fringe show, it was a really awesome success,” Parke said. “It sold out a lot and got some great reviews. Shamus looks at things very similar to how I do. Even in horrible times, you have to find the humor in it in order to move forward. His specialty is dark comedy and mine is, too. He had just graduated from Boston University and was coming back to Philly so the timing was perfect.”
Parke has amassed an impressive list of local credits including Media Theatre, Act II Playhouse and weekly performances with GayBill. She has been seen in commercials with Angry Orchard, Coca-Cola, Regal Cinemas and GoPuff and she has performed voiceover work for Pfizer, BetMGM, NFL, Nectar and even Pokemon.
“Hannah has always had an incredible voice, both as a singer and writer,” McCarty said. “This work is next level and promises to challenge the audience’s notions and assumptions around disability.”
Those assumptions include misconceptions about what frontal lobe epilepsy actually is.
“With epilepsy, people have seen an episode of ER in the eighth grade about it and it’s different for everyone,” Parke said. “It is not what you would think about a full foaming of the mouth, rolling on the floor seizure. They are called focal or absence seizures and they kind of look like a robot that just kind of shuts down for a few seconds. I could be mid-sentence or mid-walking and just stop and be unconscious, unable to react.”
Parke has been feeling healthy of late and has been inspired by the science behind her treatment.
“I’ve been really, really lucky,” she said. “As terrible as the surgeries are, I have a machine in my head that very few people have. And mine is working. It has to be slowly turned up and it learns. It’s AI, which is a huge part of the musical, as I now have AI in my life as an artist and I have AI in my life as an epilepsy patient.”