Tom Parrish

Tom Parrish serves as Executive Director of the MRT.

Tom Parrish serves as Executive Director of Lowell’s Merrimack Repertory Theatre, where he is responsible for providing institutional leadership for the organization, including audience and donor development and financial management. Since joining MRT in 2006, Parrish has been responsible for eliminating the company’s deficit and stimulating audience growth and donor development.

Prior to joining MRT, Parrish served as Associate Managing Director and General Manager of San Diego Repertory Theatre, where he also produced Intimate Apparel (NAACP Theatre Award – Best Producer), a variety of education and outreach initiatives, and the theatre’s annual Kuumba Fest Celebration, the largest African American cultural festival of its kind on the West Coast.

A native of Detroit, Parrish has worked in various capacities at Arena Stage, Dallas Theater Center, The Cleveland Play House, Meadow Brook Theatre, Dobama Theater and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. He holds a MBA/MA in Arts Administration from Southern Methodist University and a BA in Theatre Arts and Economics from Case Western Reserve University, National Theatre Institute. Parrish resides in downtown Lowell, Massachusetts.

Interview How are you overcoming the challenges of raising funds in this difficult
economic climate?

Tom Parrish: Communication with our constituents – donors, patrons, elected officials and the community at large – is key during challenging times like these. It is imperative to be honest about our specific challenges and those of the non-profit arts field, in general. There are basically two types of non-profit charities – those that save lives and those that remind us why life is worth saving. We, naturally, fall mostly in the latter category, although one could make a case for the way our youth education programs create opportunities and provide life changing experiences for young people.

Because we at MRT are committed to making first-rate professional theatre accessible and affordable to everyone in the area, we must raise approximately $1.3 million each year in donations from individuals, businesses, foundations and government agencies to underwrite our tickets and education programs. In this challenging economic environment, the need to maintain affordable access is greatly increased. As an organization whose mission is to advance the cause of human understanding and promote civic engagement, we are most effective when our audience includes a diverse cross section of our community. This can only be achieved if members of our community can afford to participate and join the dialogue.

We also stress the economic impact of our organization, not only directly as one of the largest cultural employers in the area, having employed over 150 people last season, but also in our support of other area businesses from restaurants and hotels to parking garages and media companies. We bring over 40,000 theatergoers to Lowell from September through May. MRT’s direct and indirect economic impact on the region is about $10 million, and according to the New England Foundation for the Arts, our impact on the quality of life in Lowell increases the average home value by $6,000. So not only are we providing entertainment and educational opportunities, we are supporting a vibrant quality of life and economy in downtown Lowell. How does living in downtown Lowell compare to living in San Diego?

Tom Parrish: The most obvious difference between the two is the weather. When I first moved here three years ago, people here thought I was crazy to leave the “perfect” weather of San Diego. I really love living in Lowell, though. It has all the amenities of a big city with the charm and close-knit community of a small town. I like seeing people I know around town. I like being able to walk almost anywhere I need to go.

The people here are also very friendly and, from a business perspective, there is a lot of collaboration and “can do” attitude. Lowell is a city that really comes together to get things done.

Lowell has history, too, whereas San Diego is a newer city with very few people who actually grew up there. Lowell has great historic buildings and an amazing story. The cost of living is also immensely different. Working in a non-profit, I could have never owned my own home in San Diego, whereas here I can. Describe the perfect evening in Lowell.

Tom Parrish: Well this is going to sound a bit self-serving, but for me a perfect evening involves a nice dinner at one of the many great restaurants downtown, a leisurely walk to the theatre along the canals, and a great show at Merrimack Repertory Theatre, followed by drinks at a local bar. It is unusual to be able to see nationally-acclaimed, award-winning theatre in a city the size of Lowell. The artists making our productions are some of the best in the country, and the prices are some of the lowest in the area. What upcoming production are you most excited to present to your audience?

Tom Parrish: I like all of our productions for different reasons, but I have been looking forward to TRANCED all season. It is the East Coast premiere of this psychological thriller. It is written by Bob Clyman, whose last play SECRET ORDER we produced in Lowell two seasons ago and then transferred Off-Broadway last season. It is great, edge-of-your-seat, thought-provoking drama.

I also am looking forward to BAD DATES. I was involved with a production of BAD DATES in San Diego, and it is a very funny comedy where the audience just has a great time. Who doesn’t need a good laugh during times like these? For people who haven’t been to the MRT, what are the greatest reasons they should see a performance?

Tom Parrish: Because we are the only professional theatre serving the Merrimack Valley, we produce a very eclectic repertoire of plays – contemporary comedies, dramas and musicals and the occasional American classic. While every play may not be to each person’s individual taste, I can say that it will be well done.

We are one of the country’s top theatre companies, and we use the best available acting, directing and design talent in the country to create our plays, which are built right here in Lowell from the ground up. Besides being the most affordable professional theatre in the area, our theatre offers a warm, friendly environment in which to enjoy great theatre. We take a lot of effort to make sure our patrons have the best experience possible – from our friendly and accommodating box office staff to the warm reception of our house staff.

Our venue is very intimate and inviting, with only 308 seats and all within 50 feet of the stage. What makes MRT different than other theatres in the area?

Tom Parrish: We are very committed to producing plays by living playwrights, and therefore produce a lot of regional and world premieres. In our 30 year history, we have produced 14 world premieres and 32 regional premieres. We produce what is new and fresh in the American theatre.

We also offer an intimacy and friendly atmosphere that is unique. For instance, we are the only theatre in the area that allows patrons to bring their concessions beverages to their seats. Imagine not having to drink a hot cup of coffee or a nice glass of wine in only a 15 minute intermission. Instead, our patrons can enjoy their drinks casually through the whole play.

Our location is also unique. As I’ve said, a night out in Lowell is great – great food, convenient parking (which is free for our season subscribers), a quaint historic environment, and first-rate professional theatre. Thanks, Tom! We will do what we can to support the arts and theatre in Lowell, and we encourage everyone to check out Merrimack Repertory Theatre and to visit the Merrimack Repertory Theatre’s Blog.