Wild About Harry

No acting please

by Andrew Marton

If athletics and academics make up much of the house of TCU,   I think the arts are the front porch.” 
                       Harry Parker 

Theatre professor Harry Parker stood in front of about 40 students on stage, in the theatrically swooping Room 164. He was in front of a screen, as if his pedagogy were offered as academic performance art with him as the main character.  
To Parker’s audience of students, he was inclusion personified. The professor led his Art of the Theatre class’ high-wattage discussion of the recently closed production of Chekhov’s Three Sisters.
“When you are engaging in artistic criticism, nobody is right or wrong, but you only have to make sure that you present evidence to support your position,” said. Parker.
During the animated give-and-take discussion, when a student pointed out something compelling, Parker didn’t hesitate to respond. 
“You’re right on that,” Parker said to a student’s comment. And to another student, he replied: “I do know what you’re saying, and that is the essence of Chekhov.”
Parker, chair of the theatre deparment, managing director of the Trinity Shakespeare Festival and host of the Curtain Up on KTCU radio, was the 2013 recipient of the TCU Chancellor’s Award for Distinguished Achievement as Creative Teacher and Scholar, which included a $20,000 prize. 
“It’s an award to a faculty member, out of the 600 or so at TCU, for his or her outstanding work as a teacher and a professional – in this case a creative scholar and an artist,” said Scott Sullivan, dean of the College of Fine Arts.
 “I honestly don’t know where he finds the time,” said Sullivan. “He seems to live and breathe theatre from eight in the morning till midnight – every day.”

Parker received his undergraduate degree from TCU and returned to teach in 2003. As the department’s chair, he has presided over the program’s growth from nine to 13 teachers. 
“What I am most responsible for is begging for those positions to be added,” said Parker. “I’d still like two more faculty positions and two more staff. But I realize that theatre is expensive as an academic discipline with tons of one-on-one teaching. And productions cost money.”
While the average cost of a dramatic play is between $8,000 and $10,000, a musical production costs twice that amount.

Before Parker’s arrival, the theatre program did not conduct auditions for prospective students. Now more than 300 applicants audition each year for the coveted 35 spots.
“Professor Parker was my favorite person to audition for,” said Samantha McHenry, a fresman theatre major from Friendswood, Texas. “He was so warm and welcoming. While I was singing, he was just sitting there smiling. The whole thing was more like a conversation, not an interrogation.”
McHenry said that other schools painted a bleak picture of professional careers in the theater– bereft of much life outside the program’s tight-knit bubble. But, “professor Parker wanted me to gain lots of life experiences,” she said. “He was adamant about us going out and joining the school newspaper, student government, or becoming cheerleaders -- in short doing things, along with my theater work, to become a well-rounded person.”
Theatre alum Alison Whitehurst ‘12 starred in New York’s Public Theater production of The Fortress of Solitude in October. She remembered Parker from her first audition.
“He made the choice to go to TCU so easy,” said Whitehurst. “When I auditioned, I was not much of a dancer, and professor Parker could sense I was tentative. He looked at me just to remind me that if I sell it from the neck up that is what really matters. That was all the encouragement I needed. He could see that I wasn’t a finished product and yet he still believed in me.”
Last March, Parker – along with fellow faculty members Penny Maas, Alan Shorter, and Michael James -- accompanied 16 theatre students to New York for a special showcase for 30 representatives of talent agencies. The result: Numerous requests for callbacks and even future agent-representation.
“Before Harry’s arrival, that sort of trip, and that kind response from talent agencies, simply would not have happened,” said Sullivan. 
 However, Parker’s most famous on-campus creation, so far, is the Trinity Shakespeare Festival, where professional Actors Equity performers work alongside TCU students.
“My idea was very simple,” said Parker, who started the festival with artistic director T.J. Walsh in 2009. “Let’s do professional Shakespeare in June, but let’s do it indoors, as I really detest outdoor theater, especially in Texas where it can be so hot. Outdoor theatre, for audiences, is rarely about the play and usually about the Frisbee and the bucket of chicken.”
Parker’s mission with the festival is not to re-invent the Bard’s wheel, but rather to re-tell the playwright’s classic tales as faithfully as possible.
“In the last two years, we have played to 90 percent capacity -- have been spectacular, with the primary credit going to this guy named Shakespeare,” said Parker. “These are the best plays ever written. Shakespeare was never intended to be read in a high school English class. Rather it is about excellent actors, in a beautiful production, in a live performance.”
“I remember professor Parker’s instilling in us the importance of being artistically self-sufficient,” said Whitehurst. “The directors I’ve come in contact with won’t spoon feed me information, and professor Parker did a great job preparing me for that.”
But Whitehurst is not the only theater alum, who is a working professional in the theater world. The list is expansive and growing. 
“As an actor Harry informs everything I do, directly or indirectly,” Daniel Fredrick ‘09 wrote in an email. “It’s the business things I think of most, of Harry teaching his students to have the right mindset, to be unfailingly prepared.
“If anyone ever asked me how to treat people, how to pursue the things you love, how to make your way in the world, I’d probably just say ‘Do it the way Harry does and you’ll be fine,” said Fredrick who works in Philadelphia.

Parker openly hankers for TCU to build a bigger theatre venue. He reasons that if the festival averages 90 percent on seat sales in the Buschman Theatre (capacity: 175) and the Hays Theatre (capacity: 199), he is convinced the festival could sell more tickets with more seating. 
“Of course I could add more performances,” said Parker. “But I would have to keep paying people, cutting into the production’s profit. With a bigger theater – on the order of a 500 seat one -- I could stick with the same number of performances and gross that much more.”  

As for his students, Parker deems theatre degrees as one of the most practical offerings at TCU. “These students are learning a phenomenally marketable skill,” he said. “They are learning how to be creative. They are learning how to come in on budget and on schedule. But perhaps the most transferable skill they learn is to work cooperatively and creatively with a group of people. 
“Theater may be the most important thing we teach at the university because it moves the students to tell the truth,” said Parker. “Very few things change people’s minds and make the world a better place than theater – which makes it a pretty high calling.

Harry Parker
Born Jan. 30, 1958 in Oklahoma City. His father: a veterinarian. His mother: an elementary school teacher-turned-stay-at-home-mom. 1973: First acting role was in Thornton Wilder’s The Matchmaker at Northwest Classen High School in Oklahoma City. “At first I was a sax player in the school band, but I remember noticing that every cute girl was going into that drama room,” he said. “I thought to myself: ‘I think I’ll take drama.’”

Parker meets one of his earliest mentors, Lyle Dye, at the Oklahoma Theater Center, a community venue. “What Dye impressed upon
me was the importance of having a strong work ethic.”  

With an intention to attend Brown University, Parker visits TCU. “After 15 minutes touring the campus, I decided I was coming to TCU.” 1976-80: Parker meets Karen Turley in a freshman religion class at TCU. In later years, she becomes his wife and the mother of their two children.  

During Parker’s junior year at TCU, he realizes that least three-dozen other actors are more talented than him. His epiphany: He is better at directing than he will ever be at acting. 1979:   Parker develops his directing chops as an assistant to his old acting mentor, Lyle Dye, artistic director of Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma. “By the end of my time there, I was coaching actors and earning co-directing credits,” said Parker. “What I learned ultimately is that you learn how to do theater by doing theater.”

Parker enrolls at the University of Kansas where he receives a master’s degree in theatre as well as a doctorate, with an emphasis on 20th century American drama. “What I learned…is there is more than one right way to do theater,” he said. “I also came away with the notion that the best idea in the room wins.”  

Parker taught theater at Westmar College, a small Methodist school in Le Mars, Iowa.  

At Westmar, Parker directed Extremities, a taut thriller about a sexual assault by William Mastrosimone. “It’s not at all unusual for high school and universities to put on plays that raise the social consciousness,” he said. “Art is not always there to entertain us. It exists to challenge us.”  

Parker taught theater at Emporia State University in Emporia, Kansas for 11 years.

During a regional theater festival Parker received a call from his former TCU professor LaLonnie Lehman. She told him to think about applying for the chair position in TCU’s theatre department.

Parker returned to TCU in the fall, bringing his academic career cirlcle.

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