Philly Creative Guide

Creative Personality

Richard M. Parison, Jr. | Associate Artistic Director at the Prince Music Theater

Interview :: Richard M. Parison, Jr.
by Ruth Weisberg, 1 Aug 2007

Richard M. Parison, Jr., is the Associate Artistic Director at the Prince Music Theater in Philadelphia. For the Prince Music Theater he has directed the Barrymore-nominated production of Dreamgirls and more recently acclaimed productions of Annie Get Your Gun and HAIR. He has a BFA in Theater Performance with an emphasis in Directing and Arts Administration from Miami University of Ohio and he is a national member of the Lincoln Center Theatre Director's Lab.

He can be reached at [email protected]

The Prince Music Theater is located at 1412 Chestnut Street in Philadelphia. For more information about the Prince Music Theater, programming and ticket purchases:

PCG: Many "creative personality" types knew at an early age that they were destined for a life in the creative and performing arts. Was there a particular or defining moment when you knew you had theater in your blood?

RP: My mother tells me that at 3 years-old, I had memorized and could recite "Twas the Night Before Christmas" by Clement Clarke Moore--which to this day is still one of my favorite stories! As early as age 3, I had developed a love for storytelling in a dramatic way. My only exposure to acting or anything dramatic was on television--which I watched quite a bit. But then came the 3rd grade; I played an 'earth shatteringly' important role in the quintessentially classic dramatic play, STONE SOUP. Critics and audiences alike raved – and by critics and audiences I mean my mother and grandparents!! I grew up in North East Ohio in a typical upper middle class suburb, where attending theater, music or dance was not necessarily part of one's youth – but somehow after that runaway hit in STONE SOUP, I was always able to find the drama in everyday life!

PCG: It's apparent that theater was coursing in your bloodstream, because it clearly wasn't exactly a steady life-force in your hometown. Then what happened to further fuel your desire?

RP: Three years later -- a local theater company called L.E.A.P. (The Lake Erie Performing Arts Program) came to my elementary school performing a very funny show called, "It's Greek To Me." It was a children's outreach production about Greek mythology. After watching that performance, and in that moment, I was transformed. During the post-show Q&A, I remember asking the performers, "How do I become involved in this?" It snowballed from there. While I don't remember exactly what happened that day when I got home, I am positive I begged my mother to allow me to audition for LEAP as soon as I possibly could.

Richard M. Parison, Jr., Associate Artistic Director at the Prince Music Theater

PCG: Like any good and riveting piece of theater, there's always a back-story. Tell me more about yours.

RP: Cleveland was very good to me -- I had gotten my professional start in theater as the assistant to Gerald Freedman, Artistic Director of the Great Lakes Theater Festival. Gerald is an internationally renowned director and was the first Artistic Director of Joe Papp's Public Theater; he would go on to direct the world premiere of HAIR in 1967. You'll see later how lives and coincidences converge over and over...

At Great Lakes Theater Festival, I worked with such luminaries as Hal Holbrook, Bob Foxworth, Elizabeth Franz, Olympia Dukakis and so many others – it was a place where I watched the best talent in the country work on the best plays in the world. If it weren't for my years at GLTF, I would have never been ready to work at the Walnut Street Theatre.

PCG: How exactly did you wind up in the cultural and theatrical Mecca of Philadelphia?

RP: I came to Philadelphia in 1998 to work at the Walnut Street Theatre as the Casting Director and Assistant to the Producing Artistic Director. I spent the next 8 seasons at the Walnut – working with and learning from one of the best producers in our industry, Bernard Havard. Bernard has expanded the legacy of the Walnut Street Theatre from the ground up. The Walnut's imprint on theater -- both locally and nationally -- is unprecedented and undeniable. I was humbled when he asked me to be his assistant. I came to the Walnut at a very formative time in my career. Bernard and his wife Judy took me into their lives as a friend and colleague. They were some of the most fulfilling and rewarding years of life, both personally and professionally.

PCG: You sure hit the ground running when you landed here.

RP: When I came to the Walnut, after a couple years, Bernard gave me the opportunity to direct for the first time in Philadelphia. I directed the Philadelphia premiere of COLLECTED STORIES by Donald Margulies which starred Ellen Tobie and Megan Bellwoar – two of the finest actresses in the city. Ironically, Ellen and I had come from a similar past. She was cast many years ago in a production of 12th Night directed by Gerald Freedman; she learned from him much the same way I did. Fast forward to 1998 and Ellen and I are working together on a show which was the Philadelphia debut for both of us. The show went on to receive several Barrymore Award nominations. It was a blessing to have a production so well received in the city.

Richard M. Parison, Jr., Associate Artistic Director at the Prince Music Theater

PCG: How wonderful for you to have a solid and supportive network of friends and mentors from the Philadelphia creative and performing arts community to encourage and uphold your artistic vision.

RP: When I moved on from the Walnut Street Theater, I had decided to take some time to and travel and work as a freelance director. It felt like the right thing to do. My horizons were expanding and I wanted the time to reflect on my work and my life. But then Marjorie Samoff, the Producing Director of the Prince Music Theater, came into my life. I met Marjorie in her office – I was there to discuss a possible directing opportunity at the Prince Music Theater. What was intended as a 15 minute meeting turned into a 4 hour conversation about life, theater, music and family... the rest is history. From that meeting evolved my friendship and creative partnership with Marjorie and the Prince as the Associate Artistic Director. I feel like I have a home at the Prince where I can produce and create theater for Philadelphia, a place I now call home.

"Philadelphia is a city of firsts – they are now and always have been a daring and adventurous citizenry."

PCG: The Prince Music Theater, much like the cultural landscape of Philadelphia, has certainly grown and morphed through the years. What's your take on how Philly audiences have responded to the kinds of cutting-edge theater you've presented?

RP: Philadelphia audiences are yearning for new music theater. Philadelphia is a city of firsts – they are now and always have been a daring and adventurous citizenry. I think that from the moment that the Prince was founded as the American Music Theater Festival, Marjorie Samoff and Eric Salzman (co-founders) keyed into that very notion. They knew Philadelphia could be a home for national music theater – a place for daring artists to forge new musical territory. They knew that Philadelphia audiences would support this type of artistry. And now – nearly 25 years later – the Prince Music Theater stands as proof of that passion and belief.

PCG: Yes, and what better proof of those tenets of daring and passion than in the Prince Music Theater's recent presentation of the classic hit musical, HAIR.

RP: As a director, once I agree to work on piece of theater – whether it's a musical or play, a revival or a new work – I know that I am going to be spending days, weeks months and maybe years with this piece. So frankly, you must love it.

Richard M. Parison, Jr., Associate Artistic Director at the Prince Music Theater

PCG: What was it about HAIR that fueled you to take on such a theatrically bold production?

RP: For me, whether I am directing a play or a musical—and yes, I still direct plays and love them as much as musicals--the story is paramount. Not just the plot line and the characters – but what is the piece really about: What light does it shed on our humanity? Does the story have a universality that will affect a diverse audience? With HAIR, I felt that the authors had created something that spoke to the diversity of an entire generation. They had composed and written something which explored the potential and possibility that existed in the 1960s. When one listens to and reads HAIR now, it is impossible not to see the similarities to our current political and social climate. In 1967 we had a stubborn President who hailed from Texas (with declining approval ratings) who had the country embroiled in an unpopular war abroad – and in 2007 we have a stubborn President who hails from Texas (with declining approval ratings) who has the country embroiled in an unpopular war abroad. The more things change the more things stay the same. So it was important to tell this story again. Once I have keyed into that – once I know in my bones what the story is about -- then the next key for is collaboration.

PCG: Theater is by its very nature a team effort, so it's critical to surround yourself with others who share your artistic vision, especially with a landmark production like this one.

RP: Theater is a collaborative art form, and for me, as a director, my relationships to the creators, choreographer, music director, designers and actors are paramount. What these artists bring to a project will inform not just the text, music and lyrics but the look, feel and sound of the physical environment. Collaboration with my creative team energizes me. For this reason I tend to work with the same designers on projects. Developing a common artistic aesthetic and vocabulary is so important in the tech and design phase.

"Ultimately, it is the idea of collaboration and partnerships in the arts that fuels me."

PCG: And what a dream team you had for HAIR, too.

RP: And how. This was a celebration of the 40th Anniversary of HAIR. I knew the importance of the piece and was emphatic in my desire to make the piece imperative, not nostalgic. My primary partners were choreographer Karen Getz, and music director Eric Ebbenga. These two 'partners in crime', as it were, brought such unique degrees of specialty and passion to this project. From the moment I started working with them to the closing performance, I didn't want the collaboration to end. To add to this embarrassment of riches, we had a dream team of designers: Todd Edward Ivins was my scenic designer. Our professional relationship dates back to my college days. It was his input that really brought us to the place where we set the show in Philadelphia's Rittenhouse Square. Shelley Hicklin, my lighting designer, is such a gifted artist with light. She has the ability to tell a story or to enhance a story with light or with the absence of light. Mary Folino was the costume designer. I have known Mary for years during my days at the Walnut Street Theatre, but this was the first time we worked together. Her gift comes in the assessment of these characters and making costume choices that not only work in a pragmatic sense but in an emotional and spiritual sense. And then there is Otts Munderloh, who has worked on over 40 Broadway shows – he was the sound designer for HAIR. His expertise, friendship and artistry not only made the show better but lifted my direction.

PCG: You personify my own credo that you've gotta do what you love, and love what you do. And then team up with others who are positive, motivating forces in your life.

RP: Ultimately, it is the idea of collaboration and partnerships in the arts that fuels me. That is the key, I think, if I have any success as a director or an artist.

PCG: So ahem, what are you doing for an encore?

RP: I'm looking forward to this season at the Prince; we have an amazing line up of new work and brilliant revivals. I am looking forward to directing a new production of STRIKING 12, a small intimate musical version of The Little Match Girl with music by Groovelily. We produced the world premiere in 2002 which was performed by the band itself – this new version is slightly expanded to include additional actors and new musicians. I'm very excited about that; I think it's sure to become a new holiday classic here in the city.

I am also honored to be participating as member of the PEW Charitable Trusts Leadership Project. I was selected as one of 14 up-and-coming arts and culture leaders to participate in this pilot program which will include participation in Leadership Philadelphia. That's a huge honor.

I feel energized to start this new season, because it holds the promise of new journeys and exciting challenges!

PCG: Bravo!

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