On Monday next, June 20th at 7 pm, a memorial will be held at Source Theatre. 1835 14th St., NW. for Keith Parker. The long-time Literary Manager at Source Theatre Company, Keith became synonymous in many people’s minds with the annual summer Source Festival (officially known then as Washington Theatre Festival).
It would be impossible to calculate how many theatre artists in this city got early opportunities as a result of Keith’s tireless dedication to the Festival.
It would also be impossible to over-estimate the affection which Keith inspired in the people he worked with over those many years at Source.
It took a lot of us by surprise, and saddened us deeply, when we learned recently that Keith had left town and was in hospice. It seemed to many of us that we had, only lately, seen him around town.
Keith was a friend of mine as well as a colleague. Many other people were closer to Keith than I was; saw and spoke with him more frequently than I did. But my professional, as well as personal, relationship with him not only post-dated his Source years, but pre-dated them.
I came to DC theatre in 1979, and Source was the second place I worked. The first was New Playwrights’ Theatre. I did a staged reading of a play by Ernie Joselovitz. Subsequently, Ernie would call me and ask me to act in or direct readings of student plays.
I came in one Saturday morning for a reading in which I was to play a young guy torn between a gay relationship and his desire to be a Marine.
The playwright listened to the cold reading, his muffled chuckles indicating to us that the intended tone might be lighter than we had presumed. After the reading, he motioned me over and confided, “I wrote this to find the new Jan-Michael Vincent.”
I thus was introduced to the unique perspective and the distinctive wit of Keith Parker.
I had acted in and directed for the very first Washington Theatre Festival. (Can’t remember if it was in ’80 or ’81.) After that reading of the play he had written, I didn’t see Keith for a while, but renewed my acquaintance with him later in the decade, once he was Literary Manager at Source.
It is a testament to Keith that, after the leadership upheaval that Source went through in the mid-80s, he not only maintained his job in the new leadership structure led by incoming Artistic Director Pat Murphy Sheehy, but also he maintained a close relationship with the out-going (and founding) Artistic Director of Source Bart Whiteman.
Bart began a successor company, called HBW3 Group. I was involved; we did an evening of Albee one-acts, and another program that involved a few of the ten-minute plays that had been introduced during the Festival. In one, I played a temperamental playwright to Keith’s dictatorial director. Yes, occasionally Keith was seduced out of the offices and onto the stage.
After Source ended as a theatre company, Keith wasn’t involved much in the successor Festival that CulturalDC, the new manager of the Source space, has continued in a tribute to its namesake. By that time, he had retired from his day job at AT&T.
During his retirement, Keith crossed the river to Clark Street Playhouse, where he played the Sexton in WSC’s multi-space production of Much Ado About Nothing in 2003. I was Don Pedro and Don John in that production, so I am honored to say that I worked with Keith on projects that bookended his halcyon Festival years.
As friends, Keith and I would stay in touch. He was always anxious to see the latest show at WSC and to suggest new spots around Dupont Circle for he and I to have our periodic get-togethers.
We would talk about theatre and all about what was going on in the scene in DC; and also always about politics. As regards both subjects, he was, to me, one of those cherished friends with whom I could speak, confident that he knew what he was talking about, and would know what I was referring to.
He spoke carefully, slowly, and in complete sentences. To know Keith was to know that he put the “literate” into Literary Manager.
Some readers will remember a local playwright named Tom Fenton. Tom left town about ten years ago. He relocated somewhere in the South to care for an aging parent. Not long afterward, he died. Keith got in touch with me. He wanted to make a contribution to WSC in Tom’s name. He was insistent that the acknowledgment in the program be “in memory of Tom Fenton” and that there be no indication from whom the contribution came.
Keith wasn’t a wealthy person. Friends occasionally would wonder about how he was getting on. He told me that he would read my DC Theatre Scene articles at the library; he obviously didn’t have the money for a home computer.
Keith was a member of that generation of DC theatre artists who didn’t make a living doing theatre. He was invested in building something, which at that time, on our level, didn’t involve getting paid much.
But he was generous. And his was a generosity that wasn’t always easily afforded.
I remember the calls during the period when WSC had donor categories named after Shakespearean characters. He’d say to me something along the lines of, “I used to be a Portia, but I’ve let it slide. Let’s meet and I’ll bring a check. I think this time I want to be a Cleopatra.”
There’s a lot that has happened, as DC theatre has grown exponentially over the last four decades; a lot that is wonderful and that we should all be proud of and should celebrate. One of the downsides of this growth, though, is that the institutional memory of our community seems to continually shrink, as younger people — or people coming to town from other places — swell our ranks. Sometimes it feels as if five years ago is ancient history and, if you accomplished something in the 80s or 90s, you might as well be a dinosaur skeleton in the Museum of Natural History.
Keith made a difference, and it’s great that he is being remembered so fondly on Facebook. (There’s a group of Keith’s friends that was organized just after he left for hospice.) It’s great that the memorial is happening next week at Source.
If you are a member of our community; if you’ve ever gotten a paycheck for doing theatre; if you are interested in what came before, and how that has paved the way for what is happening now; if Source Festival was an opportunity that helped you break into the DC scene: you should come out on Monday night and hear about, and pay tribute to, one of the pioneers, one of the artists who was in the trenches, one of the people who built this city, and someone who will be deeply missed.
The memorial/celebration for Keith Parker will be held Monday, June 20th at 7:00 PM at the Source, 1835 14th Street NW, Washington, DC 20009. Everyone is welcome to attend.