Kyle Whalen is a Chicago writer and theatremaker. He has written for PerformInk and Chicago Stage Standard. He is a company member of Commission Theatre Co. Follow him on Instagram/Twitter @whalenschmalen.
By Kyle Whalen
A Monday afternoon. I am foolishly running late, stuck in traffic at the time I’m supposed to call director Ron OJ Parson and interview him. At a stoplight, I ring him to confess I’ll be late. He picks up, a laugh already in his voice, and asks me if I can call him back in ten minutes. “I was about to ask you the same thing,” I reply. It sounded like he was in traffic, too.
This small first exchange turned out to be a neat summary of what I learned over the next forty minutes: Parson’s packed calendar seems to boost him, not burden him.
When we each are out of traffic and settled, I ask him about APARTMENT 3A—the play he is directing for Windy City Playhouse. Without pause, he says: “Nowadays, the big thing is new work—but there is fun in the old work.”
There is fun in the old work. From Parson, that’s an unsurprising sentiment. Pinter and Baraka and other twentieth century playwrights populate his resume. He’s worked on every August Wilson Pittsburgh play save KING HEDLEY II. He repeatedly invokes the richness of Tennessee Williams. He has A RAISIN IN THE SUN’s punctuation memorized. “The old work.” When he says it, there is a faint hum of tradition, of art’s ancient nobleness. But it seems the really important word is “fun.”
“It’s fun to do the light stuff,” he says. “It’s good to have versatility as a director.”
Parson’s two current projects certainly afford him the opportunity to be versatile. By day, he’s rehearsing Eugene Lee’s EAST TEXAS HOT LINKS for Writers Theatre, a twenty-five-year-old play dealing with regulars at a local watering hole and Jim Crow. By night, he rehearses APARTMENT 3A, a mid-2000s rom-com by Jeff Daniels about a Midwestern public television employee questioning life and love. EAST TEXAS HOT LINKS opens twelve days after APARTMENT 3A.
“[APARTMENT 3A] is a lot of fun. It’s a love story. Love is always fun to play with. What I try to do, of course, is to have the comedy, but also the seriousness of what they’re talking about. Because it’s about love…it deals with religious arguments, the existence of God, and those kinds of things.” Many directors nod to a need for humor and the melancholy—for balance. But Ron Parson seems to reflect that philosophy when choosing a project. And he’s chosen many.
He’s acted and directed throughout the Midwest, in New York, in Canada. He co-founded two theatre companies, served as artistic director for at least three, is a member of several more, including being a Resident Artist at Court Theatre. He’s directed multiple plays multiple times (e.g., FENCES twice, DAY OF ABSENCE twice, EAST TEXAS HOT LINKS four times, plus the current production.) He once had to put up a production of GEM OF THE OCEAN in seventeen days. Parson goes and goes, does and does, tries new work, revisits old work—curious, always learning, an adventurer charting new territory before returning to a treasure he once buried.
He is readily aware of the value of his time. Describing his early rehearsals, he notes: “We spend a lot of time at the table, if we have the time to spend. A lot of these small theatres don’t value the time and they want you to put it together very quickly. I always try to get them to realize how important those days are, the initial days of work. Going into tech so quickly [is detrimental]. I’m not saying Windy City is like that. Just, economically some places want it done sooner. That hurts them on the back-end, when you’re trying to rush to get something together. It limits you when you’re rehearsing.”
Parson immediately identifies that you don’t deliver a good play on opening night through shortcuts. His steady, full-feeling approach even bleeds into staging. “Blocking blocks creativity,” he says. “I want actors to create along with me. Some of the actors that work with me enjoy it, some don’t. It’s organic. [The staging]’s also structured in the way it has to be for technical aspects, but for the most part the actor gets to create the character they want.” He concludes by saying, “People need to create. I use that with designers as well. The process is all of us creating.” An ecumenical ring is audible in his words.
But Parson clocks specific lacks in the theatrical world. “The process is all of us creating,” maybe, but he describes a community-wide need for more designers of color. For most productions, his design team is mostly or exclusively white. Therefore, with the help of 3Arts, he and others have started Beyond the Stage. It’s a program in which 3-4 young adults of color learn about set design. “Hopefully all aspects of design, someday,” Parson adds. He and other Beyond the Stage founders are involved in the art community on the south side of Chicago. “Lots of these young people don’t know what they want to do yet. So maybe this is a way that they can latch onto something.”
Reading about his previous and upcoming work, his design/outreach program, and from our short conversation about his artistic ethos, Parson comes off as a man invested in the fullness of life—offstage and on. I believe his personal richness, so to speak, will allow him to develop a finely observed version of APARTMENT 3A. As we are wrapping up our conversation, someone enters the room on his end of the phone. The person joyfully calls to Ron, who responds with laughter: “I’ll be ready in just a minute.” He returns to me. “I like the plays to be felt. Let me give you an example: I worked with deaf actors a long time ago in my career. I learned from them so much about body language… You’ve got to feel the emotion and passion besides what you hear. That’s what I hope makes my plays a little different.”
In a broader sense, Ron Parson is always ready, constantly cultivating himself over decades, building up ensembles of people around him, always crediting others, carefully tuning each play so it really resonates with its audience. Both New York Times reviews called APARTMENT 3A “modest.” I bet Parson’s production at Windy City Playhouse will be much fuller than that.