After 20 years in charge, Raphael Parry is retiring from Shakespeare Dallas
Co-founder of the Undermain Theatre, Parry was an unusual choice to head the classic theater in 2003. But he's led it through freezes and financial setbacks.
Raphael Parry likes to point to his accomplishments, the improvements he's brought to Shakespeare Dallasthe past 20 years. After all, he's the oldest-serving director of the outdoor theater in East Dallas' Samuell Grand Park.
Parry set up tours to Addison — where Shakespeare Dallas basically built its own outdoor stage. He added a fall season to the company's traditional summer one. He had the theater expand its offerings with its first non-Shakespeare plays (including "Pride and Prejudice" and a commissioned, stage adaptation of "Cyrano de Bergerac"). Parry produced an all-female version of "Hamlet," starring Jenny Ledel as the dour Dane. Shakespeare Dallas even completed a full cycle of staged readings of everything the playwright wrote.
But those accomplishments have to be set in context of the number of near-disasters Parry has had to lead the company through, beginning with the half-million-dollar debt Shakespeare Dallas was carrying when Parry started.
And this was when it was a part-time company that didn't charge for tickets. The board was determined not to fold — like Fort Worth's summer Shakespeare company did. But it took years to retire that debt.
"I think we made our last debt payment in the middle of the recession in 2008," Parry said. "It was a miracle to be able to pay off that incredible amount of money. I think it was opening night of the 2008 season, and embedded in that $500,000 was something like $200,000 in bank loans. I literally was going to the park and stopped at the bank to pay the loan. And I was like, 'Okay, we're done. Let's go open the show!'"
But to do that — and to keep Shakespeare Dallas afloat in the following years — Parry and the board decided they had to stop offering some of the performers Actors Equity union contracts (which typically pay more than the usual stipends). Those summer contracts had traditionally helped area actors get through the summer, typically the slowest season for theater work. And Shakespeare Dallas also began charging for attendance — starting at $5 on Friday and Saturday nights. That soon expanded and increased.
But perhaps the worst crisis Parry and Shakespeare Dallas weathered came during the pandemic. In 2020, the company cancelled its entire summer season. It was the first time it had done that, and at the time, Parry said he was haunted for months by the decision: The state's workforce commission continually sent him notices that another actor, another staff member had to file for unemployment.
Then, the following February came the deadly freeze in Texas. It caused pipes to burst in the company's facilties in Samuell Grand Park, flooding the buildings.
"The devastation from that winter storm was unbelievable," he said.
But in part, that catastrophe led to serious and necessary upgrades to the Samuell Grand venue. Parry cites those improvements as another of his signature accomplishments.
"It's the kind of things people often can't see," he said. "We invested about $1,000,000 in redoing all of the electrical elements for the stage lighting because it was so outdated and dangerous. And also a whole ton of work — certainly the renovation of our bathrooms and our dressing rooms because of the flood. That was almost a million by itself."
When it comes to future physical improvements, Parry said, before he officially steps down at the end of March, he's hoping to present the city an enhancement plan for Shakespeare Dallas that will be included in Dallas' upcoming bond election.
In addition to upgrading its park venue, Shakespeare Dallas is working to prove itself attractive enough to hold staff. Last October, five of the company's eight full-time staff members left — including managers of education, development and marketing. The primary reason, Parry said at the time, was higher-paying jobs at other non-profits.
"But hopefully," Parry said, "I am leaving the company in a strong financial situation. And that was a goal of mine — to retire once we were financially stable and I could pass the torch on to somebody else who did not have to have some of the burdens I did."
Currently at Shakespeare Dallas, there are two, full-time jobs — instead of the single, part-time position Parry started with. Karen Raehpour is executive director while Jenni Stewart is interim artistic director — at least through 2024 when the board will search for a long-term appointment as artistic director.
As for Parry's own future, he said he's looking forward to returning to "my roots, directing and acting with other theater companies. Certainly in the last ten years it's been really difficult to work with anybody else."
More than a decade ago, in fact — while he worked at Shakespeare Dallas — Parry had a side gig with a Design District company he created, called Project X.
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