The Power of Theatre: From Entertaining to ‘Inspiring Radical Change’

Long before he was selected as this year’s Monan Professor in Theatre Arts at Boston College, 9-year-old Maurice Emmanuel Parent walked into his K-8 Catholic school auditorium to see a performance by the drama club. The production was The Music Man, and he had secured front row seats. Little did he know, he would soon discover an all-consuming passion for musical theatre that would shape the trajectory of his education for the rest of his life. Once the curtains were raised and the lights dimmed, Parent thought, I don’t know what this is, but I want to be in it. And that was that.

The following year, Parent joined the very same drama club. He was eager not only to become a part of the program that made him fall in love with theatre, but to become the kind of actor that would make someone in the audience feel the same way he did the year before. As Parent continued his education, however, it became evident that he excelled in the math and science disciplines. Although he was still acting in school-affiliated clubs, Parent had not yet gotten a chance to explore theatre in a classroom setting.

When it came time to apply for college, his mother looked him square in the face and said, “You’re not going to major in theatre, right?” Parent had attended an engineering magnet public high school, and his mother had always dreamed of him becoming an engineer. And so, Parent entered Carnegie Mellon not as a theatre major, but with a focus in engineering and business.

Carnegie Mellon houses one of the most prestigious voice conservatories, which catered directly to Parent’s passion for music and theatre. The conservatory professors, however, don’t normally accept students who aren’t in theatre majors. By chance, Parent met one of the professors through another connection, not knowing he taught in the conservatory. The professor decided to take Parent on as his only non-major student.

Once Parent began taking voice lessons and dancing classes, the fire of his passion for musical theatre was reignited. His acting professor told him, “You never stop learning and should always push yourself to grow.” This guidance rang true for Parent, as he said he didn’t truly get a sense of himself as an actor until graduate school.

After Parent graduated from Carnegie Mellon, his voice instructor was asked to produce a small musical with Gardner and Wife Productions that he could bring to Malaysia, for which he hired Parent and five of his peers. Although the 24-hour time difference made it difficult to contact his family—Parent had never been that far away from home before—the distance was instrumental in figuring himself out as an actor in a professional setting.

In contrast to his undergraduate experience of text-based introductory acting classes, in graduate school, Parent focused on discovering his style of acting and finding the humanity within the characters he played. Now, one of the first questions Parent asks himself when looking at a play is “What are they fighting for and how can I relate to it?

“I have to brute my imagination and find true things to connect to the imagined circumstances of the character I’m taking on,” he said.

Parent moved to New York City after graduate school, where he worked anywhere from three to five jobs at a time, varying from working in box offices, cater waitering, dancing in star promos, and even portraying a singing carrot on a children’s television show. Pursuing a career in theatre, Parent had to be ready to drop everything at any point for a role that could be miles away.

Parent reached an age where he was beginning to tire of the hustle-bustle of New York and craved a sense of stability. Upon getting a chance to join the Boston Theatre Works, Parent eagerly accepted. There he starred in the play Angels in America, a performance he later won an award for.

“The theatre company was nonprofit arts, meaning that the budget was slashed,” he said. “They were almost on the edge of closing despite the show selling out like hot cakes every night.”

To rectify this, the actors had to perform tasks beyond their payroll. They assumed roles apart from the characters they were assigned, such as launderers who washed costumes and stage managers who positioned props.

“It was a mess but it was amazing,” said Parent. “You do it purely for the love of theatre.”

Parent’s favorite role, however, was his time spent as Donkey in Shrek at Wheelock Family Theatre. At the time, he was teaching young children at the Martin Luther King Jr. School, one of whom had gone through tragedy in his family. Parent started a GoFundMe and raised enough money to pay for the classes’ bus and tickets to come see the show.

After they got back, the children’s school teacher had them write thank you cards—the same child drew a picture of Parent as Donkey, surrounded by colored-in stars, portraying a clear love for the production.

“I framed it, and I put it on my desk ’til this day,” he said. “That was my favorite part of acting—knowing I could be apart of that experience for him and the other kids.”

Expanding his theatrical pursuits in Boston, Parent combined his passion for theatre with his pursuit of racial equality. He founded The Front Porch Arts Collective, a theatre company led by people of color, and now works as its executive director. The inspiration behind the theater company came when Parent saw the production Saturday Night Sunday Morning, featuring an all-black, mainly female cast. It made him wonder what could be possible with a theatre company similarly dedicated to diversity that ran all-year long.

“Our mission is to create a home for black and brown artists and increase the representation of people of color in leadership roles,” Parent said. “Theatre on stage is becoming more diverse, but who is running it? Who owns the company? Who is on the board? The diversity of culture needs to be reflected in the diversity of leadership of these things.”

Parent has been working with Dawn Meredith Simmons, the artistic director for the Porch, from the beginning. Simmons first met Parent 13 years ago while he was working on Ragtime at New Repertory Theatre. Over the past decade, Simmons has seen a myriad of his performances—ranging from dramatic roles such as King Edward to musical and comedical works on the stages of Huntington. A few weeks ago, the Actor Shakespeare Project opened Macbeth for its fall 2018 season, which marked the first time Simmons and Parent would be working together as director and actor.

Since opening the Porch, Simmons has noticed Parent’s passionate dedication to its mission to increase representation on stage and behind the scenes. She has seen his strong work ethic, as he takes on multiple projects at one time, and finds him to be a driving force at the Porch.

“He has a big heart and a great business mind,” Simmons said. “Because so many people love, respect, and admire him as an actor and thinker—someone whose voice matters and that you want at the table while making decisions—it lends wonderful credibility to our organization and the work that we’re trying to do.”

Parent will now be making his directorial debut in a coproduction that Lyric Stage and the Porch are putting on called Breath and Imagination.

“I can’t think of anyone better to tackle this piece,” she said. “He’s one of our premier musical theatre actors. To have him helm this project is a no brainer.”

The experience he gained from the Porch helped Parent realize his dual interest in teaching and acting. Parent became a professor at Boston University and Tufts University, and more recently has found a home at BC. In order to submit his name to become a Monan professor in theatre arts, he had to establish what he would be concentrating on during the year: musical theatre and professional development. After arriving at BC and meeting with the students, Parent discovered the range of projects he could take on with the Monan budget. He soon tripled the number of things he had originally planned to do.

Parent is using part of the funds to schedule headshots for students to use once they graduate, preparing them for auditions.

“There’s a lot of resources right around here,” Parent said. “I’m not going to dictate what future Monans will do, but you got this pot of money and kids that could be more fit for the opportunities around them. BC does a great job of accessing alumni. We need to take it one step further by looking at the resources around us and seeing how can we tailor it to fit the students needs.”

Parent believes that for any future actor, it’s important to know what kind of artist he or she wants to be. There are students that want to hit New York City after graduation and others that want to make art in Venezuela. The question Parent believes an actor should ask oneself is: Do you want to be the kind of artist that will land yourself on Broadway, study theatre for social change in activist theatre, write your own [work], or something else?”

Reflecting on his experience in auditions, Parent has come to understand that so much of the theatre business makes it seem like the choice isn’t in the actor’s hands. While actors can’t choose to be cast in a production, they can choose to show up, be prepared, work hard, and structure their lives to make connections and secure auditions.

“I wish I knew that the people behind the table want you to be good,” he said. “I would walk into the space thinking, ‘I have to impress them.’ You have to be you—one that’s practiced, warmed up, and is professional—but that’s all you can do. Have fun and don’t forget that you love it and you do it because you love it.”

Although it’s only been six weeks, Parent is already enjoying teaching his musical theatre class, open to sophomores, juniors, and seniors. The students are assigned different songs and roles, which they perform and receive feedback on, working toward a big performance at the end of the semester. Parent is finding BC students to be intellectually curious and ready for dialogue.

Parent hopes to eliminate the stigma put on musical theatre as an unprofessional form. Instead, he feels that musical theatre actors have more tools at their disposal to manage.

“You just have to be in the room,” he said. “You can hear about these amazing performances but you will never have the same experience as someone in that space.”

With his experience teaching in a K-8 school and college setting, Parent has met students who wish to pursue theatre, and those that have no interest. Whatever your ambitions are, Parent encourages everyone to take an acting class at some point.

“To me, theatre is a conversational time where you’re in a space together with an actor and audience and you’re sharing the same breath—that’s what makes it more powerful than a movie or TV,” Parent said. “You’re actually seeing people go through something in front of you. Theatre can do anything from entertain to inspiring radical change. That is the power of the craft.”

Featured Image by Sam Zhai / Heights Staff

October 15, 2018