In Raphael Parry’s Life, Theater Always Comes First

This is the part of summer series focusing on the real characters behind Dallas’ theater scene. To read other installments in this series click here.

I sit and wait for theater director and producer Raphael Parry at a round table on the third floor of the renovated Pump Station along Harry Hines. His receptionist speaks softly while the phone rings repeatedly. She smiles, telling me Parry will be right in. Moments later a man with a thick white beard that hides a boyish smile bounds into the room. Parry grabs my hand and gives it a firm but eager shake. He leads me into his office, which is filled with paintings piled up from floor to ceiling. He picks up a 30 oz. “World’s Best Boss” coffee cup given to him by his staff.

“They say I’m like Michael Scott,” he laughs.

And as he begins rattling through his stories, spinning arms backwards at one point, arching his back, raising his voice, and contorting his face – reenacting a recent chair fall during a meeting at the DMA — I begin to see the similarities between the thespian and the odd, animated boss from The Office. As Parry begins to look back on his life, it seems every memory evokes shouting and no story can be told sitting down. Whether it is the avant-garde artists he used to run with or the restricting artistic directors of his past, each has their own caricatured voice. Each victory is narrated with wide, white eyes and a gaping mouth. Each hurdle is told with deepened wrinkles in his forehead and pursed lips. Parry has an insatiable need to perform, not only on stage but with every breath he takes.

In the early eighties Raphael Perry made a pit stop in Dallas, a city known to him as a Broadway tryout town. Thirty years later, he’s still here. Not only has Parry dug his roots into his adopted hometown, he has come to see the city as something other – and more important– than a town of aspiring auditioners.

For one, Parry has been deeply involved in many of this city’s most important theater companies. He co-founded the Undermain Theater with Katherine Owens, directed at the Dallas Theater Center, acted in Kitchen Dog Theater productions, founded the nonprofit organization Project X, and manages Shakespeare Dallas as their Executive & Artistic Director — to name a few of his accomplishments. After listing off his lengthy resume, Parry tuts at the idea that he is climbing the career ladder. Each project is a stepping-stone, he says, part of an ongoing perusal of his art.

“Performance art comes first,” he says, “Even with Connie, my wife. I just said early on, ‘I wanna marry you, but you have to understand this whole obsession – this pursuit I have of theater – is probably going to dominate my life for the rest of my life.’”

Parry puts out his hands and opens his palms: “And I want to partner with you but this thing will carry me all the way to the end.'”

Parry likes throwing around the phrase “avant-garde” as he recalls his past, but adds that even among the other avant-garde artists he surrounded himself with, he was always the one moving away from a bohemian existence. He was the first to get married and have kids, and more importantly, the first to admit he actually did want to become part of society.

“We were all these avant-garde artists that were like, ‘We’re going to defy society,’” he thrusts one fist into the air, “And I was like, you know, that’s cool, but now I want to be part of society. I want to be part of the world.”

Parry describes himself as an “artist, business person slash scientist” and says he enjoys investigating how art works within himself and other artists. He has no sacred cows. After doing a nude scene for Psychos Never Dream at Kitchen Dog, he realized at 50 he was still willing to do anything to push barriers and there was no art he was not willing to explore. Which led him to realize he wanted to be involved in the world in a very specific way: creating, or at least be involved in creating, a theater movement.

“I mean I guess another secret goal of mine would be to have a movement of theater or style — something to point to and say, ‘Oh Parry was involved in that and led to that.'”

The words run out of his mouth. He sits back for a moment, realizing what he just admitted, and pauses before working his way back into his quick cadence rhythm. He says that was the first time he really voiced his ultimate goal, and becomes shy at the admission of what it would truly take to satisfy his appetite for the arts.

But his dream is far from unfathomable. In fact Parry started his pursuit in earnest ten years ago after leaving the Undermain Theater. In 2001, he decided “death to all sit and stare theater” and after a stint at South Side at Lamar, he started Project X. The idea, he explains, was to create a theater space that doubled as an artistic melting pot.

“I wanted to have this group of artists who were all producing independently, and as colleagues, we could interact in different disciplines, blend art forms, break down barriers, and ultimately that’s not working,” he says.

Parry admits that in practice the space hasn’t been everything of what he hoped. The 80-seat black box theater has become more of an incubator for other arts groups, like the new Dallas Actor’s Lab. But that’s no matter. That’s theater; that’s life. Parry still finds excitement in the fact that he hasn’t found his own emotional, psychological, or physical limit yet, and he plans to continue searching for something bigger.

“I want to be that person all the way until I’m dead,” he says.

Photo by Justin Clemmons