The first time Richard Parison Jr. saw the Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe on stage he was enthralled. The energy was electric. The word Parison likes to use is “effervescent.” It was this past July, and Parison was in the crowd for “Marvin Gaye: Prince of Soul,” an original piece of theater WBTT’s founding artistic director, Nate Jacobs, created.
An earlier version of the production played to sold-out audiences during the troupe’s 2011 main season. A regional theater veteran from Ohio, Parison immediately understood why there was so much buzz about this 15-year-old black theater company.
“It wasn’t just what was happening on stage,” Parison says. “It was what the audience was giving back. People were not sitting back and letting the show wash over them. They were leaning forward, fully engaged. We often describe theater as a place where magic happens, and it happened that night.”
The 45-year-old is stepping into the role of executive director at an especially magical time for WBTT. Hired this summer to fill the giant shoes of former Executive Director Christine Jennings, Parison will lead the troupe into its 15th season this fall.
“The theater is on the precipice of such possibility,” Parison says. “They’ve come through years of change, growth and evolution thanks to Christine’s herculean efforts.”
In 2009, WBTT was steeped in debt, bouncing between pop-up performance venues and at the mercy of a mostly disorganized board of directors. Without an executive director, the organization owed much of its staying power to the persistence of one man: Jacobs, whose vision and gift for nurturing raw talent kept the ragtag troupe afloat for a decade.
When Jennings, a retired banker and two-time congressional candidate, stepped in five years ago, she restructured WBTT’s board, began fundraising and secured a permanent theater in a 15,000-square-foot warehouse in Gillespie Park.
While Jacobs enjoyed back-to-back years of sold-out performances and an outpouring of community support, Jennings raised the funds to pay off the organization’s bills and purchase its theater.
“The organization is really set up to allow its mission to flourish in a way it hasn’t before,” Parison says. “All of the artistic, administrative, educational and financial tenets are lined up.”
Parison is well aware of the troupe’s Cinderella story. He knows he brings the kind of regional-theater experience that wasn’t necessarily in Jennings’ wheelhouse. He knows that Jennings advised the board to find someone with both artistic and administrative theater experience and that he –– an arts administrator with dozens of regional directing credits to his name –– fit the bill perfectly.
He also knows he was meant to be in the Sunshine State.
“I have always felt this sense that I was going to find myself in Florida,” Parison says. “And then it happened.”
For four years he served as the executive director of CenterStage Foundation at Richmond CenterStage in Virginia. He cut his teeth at Cleveland’s Great Lakes Theater Festival, where he served as artistic associate to Obie Award-winning director Gerald Freedman. He later moved to Philadelphia, where he worked as assistant producing artistic director at the revered Walnut Street Theatre and associate producing director at the Prince Music Theatre.
When WBTT’s search committee sat down with Parison over the summer, it knew it had found the troupe’s new executive director.
“As a committee we formulated some standard questions,” says board President Julie Leach. “Richard answered all of them in his introductory remarks before we even had a chance to ask them. When you come across a candidate like that, it’s very exciting.”
Parison is the quintessential theater buff. Specific performances he saw as a kid are as fresh today as they were then. He remembers sitting in his school gymnasium as a sixth-grader, watching the Lake Erie Performing Arts Center present a touring production of a Greek mythology. He remembers shooting his hand up during the question-and-answer segment at the end of the program. He asked the director one question: “How do I get to do this?”
During his freshman year at Miami University of Ohio, his acting aspirations were cast aside when one of his directing professors took him aside and said he had a “director’s mind” and that he should really pursue directing and arts administration.
“I innately understood the process,” Parison says.
He made his directorial debut in a little-known Timothy Mason play called “Bearclaw.” He staged the show in a black-box classroom in front of an audience of 35 people. Always an overachiever, he hired set, sound and costume designers in an effort to make the college production look more like a professional show.
“In college everything became a Cecil B. DeMille production to me,” Parison says. “I kind of had the attitude that if I was going to do it, I was going to do it right.”
Parison is a planner. He showed up to his WBTT interview with as much knowledge of the troupe as a longtime Sarasota resident. According to Leach, he requested materials from the board before he even sat down with the committee.
“It was obvious he knew the theater business, and it was obvious he was looking for a place where he could be engaged with his heart,” says Leach.
Regarding the next phase of WBTT’s development, Parison says the organization is still in the early phases of hatching a capital campaign to finance theater renovations. When the troupe’s vision is complete, the WBTT campus will be spread across two buildings and include an education department, administrative offices, designated rehearsal space, permanent dressing rooms, a renovated lobby, better seating, an actual box office … the list goes on.
These changes will take time, so Parison –– an inherently big-picture thinker –– must be patient.
“Really, all you need is an empty space, an actor and a place for an audience to gather,” he says. “That’s the beauty of theater. It can happen almost anywhere.”
WBTT KICKS OFF 15TH ANNIVERSARY AT THE VAN WEZEL
The Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe is celebrating its 15th year with a bigger-than-ever kickoff party at 8 p.m. Monday, Oct. 6, at Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall. The troupe will perform its crowd-pleasing ’60s medleys and a one-night-only performance of “The Eve of Jackie,” a musical tribute to entertainer Jackie Wilson written and performed by Broadway performer Chester Gregory. To purchase tickets, call the Van Wezel box office at 953-3368 or visit vanwezel.org.