Robert Parks-Johnson joins Lexington’s Actors’ Guild team

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Ace April 1995
BY CAMPBELL WOOD

Leaving behind lucrative careers in the luminous theater world of New York City wasn’t too hard for Robert and Martha Parks-Johnson. “It is so good to have a back yard and trees,” says Martha.

They moved to Lexington in September 1994 when Robert was hired as Technical Director for Actors Guild of Lexington. Someone to Watch Over Me, opening April 6 1995, is Robert’s first directing project for AGL. Martha is doing set and lighting design for the show. They both were used to bigger things, but are pleased to be settled together in Lexington, living simpler lives.

“My definition of theater in New York City,” says Robert, “is one idiot spending another idiot’s money as fast as he can.” He smiles a big smile and leans back in the folding chair set on one of the tiers in the Actors Guild theater. It’s an unusually beautiful day for mid-March in Kentucky, and he’s wearing khaki shorts and an Hawaiian shirt. He’s got a trucker’s cap on his head, a pony tail hanging out the back and a bushy beard up front. “A typical budget for an AGL show is what I used to spend on dumpsters alone.”

The job he left behind was that of Technical Director for National Actor’s Theater, Tony Randall’s company on Broadway. Each show had a budget that exceeded a million dollars. “It was frightening,” he remarks. Robert got his start in theater as an actor, earning his MFA in theater at Ohio State in ’85. His work led him to New York where he landed a three year touring stint with the National Shakespeare Company. When he returned to New York, he continued acting Off Broadway and Off Off Broadway, but began to find set building paid better. “I got a reputation for being a good carrier,” he jokes. He gained his training in technical theater on the job. When he started carrying a laptop computer around with him, people started giving him supervisory positions. “I swear, that’s what made the difference,” he states matter-of-factly. “Nothing else about me had changed. I was just carrying around this computer, and that seemed to be a sign that I could handle greater things.”

Martha got her start in theater at Western Kentucky University, where she earned an undergraduate degree in theater and accumulated plenty of experience in lighting. “The New York theater world is a lot easier on technical workers than on actors,” she remarks. “An actor, for any given role, may find 500 other actors lined up for the part. But a technical person may find only 20 lined up for the same job. Make no mistake about it, you have to constantly hustle and network to keep working.”

She worked lighting for numerous Off Broadway productions and for shows at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. In 1989, she was master electrician for the Peter Brooks tour of the Chekhov play The Cherry Orchard. She traveled with the show through the former Soviet Union, and then to Japan. “It was exhausting, it was challenging and it was wonderful,” she explains. “The Russians knew Chekhov so well that it didn’t matter that the production was in English. And in Japan, English is widely known.

In its sixth season, she joined the lighting crew for The Cosby Show. After several years of that, she returned to theater, working at the Spoleto Festival for several years, and for the Lincoln Center. “I was so glad to get back to live theater,” she says. “Television work is so static.”

In 1986, Robert and Martha met while they were both working at the Roundabout Theatre. They were married three years later in Glasgow, Kentucky, where Martha grew up. “It sure changed things,” says Robert. “It was no longer living the bohemian life in a loft apartment. When Martha was out there in the city somewhere, there was a part of me with her, concerned about her safety.” In 1994, they began to search for opportunities to move away from New York and get closer to family, either to Pittsburgh, where Robert grew up, or somewhere in Kentucky. They found an ad in Arts Search for the opening of Technical Director at Actors’ Guild.

“Working with Actors’ Guild is great,” says Robert. “The literature is exciting and challenging. We’re telling stories that we feel need to be told.” Someone to Watch Over Me is the story of three western men kidnapped and held captive in the Middle East. “This play is an amazing piece of writing. At first I was worried about being able to find actors that could handle this. I was so relieved when I did find them.”

Marlon Bailey plays Adam, the American; Tom Phillips plays Edward, the Irishman; and David Stamper plays Michael, the Englishman. “We’re taking a very simple approach to the play. Very stark. Martha and I agreed it should be that way at the outset. Minimal set and lighting will let the characters and their words stand out.”

“We hope to take the audience on a journey,” Robert says. “One that will reveal the difficulty of three men trying to find love andhope in the face of constant peril. A journey that affirms the will to survive and to triumph. When all is said and done, it is a very positive play.”

Someone to Watch Over Me plays April 6-April 30, 1995 at Actors’ Guild.



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