Gilbert Parker ’49: The “Finest Compass”

Gilbert Parker and Thomas Kail

Thomas Kail ’99 writes a tribute to Gilbert Parker ’49, who passed away on October 29, 2019. (Photo courtesy Jody Parsons)

I met Gilbert Parker on December 3, 2001, at the re-opening of The Drama Book Shop in its new location at 250 West 40th Street in New York City.

I graduated from Wesleyan in 1999, and started a small theater company, Back House Productions, with John Buffalo Mailer ’00, Neil Patrick Stewart ’00, and Anthony Veneziale ’98. Our young company was enormously grateful to have
been given a home, and what we gained that night in meeting Gilbert was akin to a group of eager travelers who stumbled upon the finest compass imaginable.

Gilbert was a true gentleman. It was the word I most often heard associated with him. He was a theater agent, representing writers and directors for over 50 years when he retired from a 20-year run at William Morris in 2000. While there, his clients won 12 Tony Awards and three Pulitzer Prizes.

Gilbert was also the first theater major at Wesleyan, Class of 1949. He went to Wesleyan after attending the Germantown Friends School, and he had a passion for theater that had been sparked from seeing—and then reading—the great playwright Anton Chekhov as a boy when he was growing up in Germantown, a neighborhood in Philadelphia.

Gilbert and I met outside our small basement theater that could hold (legally) about 55 people. Gilbert had watched a presentation my company put together that featured three short plays. We stood outside the theater for a few moments talking about what he had just seen, but mostly about Wesleyan. He invited me to continue the conversation, and I happily accepted the offer to join him one afternoon at his apartment a few weeks later.

When I walked into his apartment, I was struck by his show posters on the wall. It is challenging now, even in an age of technology, to know what agent worked on what shows—back then it was basically impossible, unless they told you. Gilbert would not have to tell me: his wall did. I saw dozens of shows I knew, had heard of, or had read about, including Company, Crimes of the Heart, Children of a Lesser God, Love Letters, Master Class, The Grapes of Wrath, Kiss of the Spider Woman, and Ragtime.
We spoke about how we got from Wesleyan to this point, and I appreciated how intently he listened to me—fresh out of school with little other than my short biography to share. The hours flew by as he began to tell me his story. When it was time to go, he asked me if I saw much theater in New York, and when he heard it was infrequent, his eyes lit up. He was kind enough to invite me to see shows with him.

Gilbert was a Tony nominator at the time, which meant he had to see every show that opened on Broadway. When I was lucky enough to get the call, I made sure I was available. We would have dinner before the show and I would pepper him with more questions about his career and what Wesleyan was like over 50 years ago. I was always so proud to walk into a theater with Gilbert. He introduced me to everyone who would come up to greet him—and tell them I was a director. When he said it, it reminded me that I was. It made it feel real.

Gilbert came to see everything I directed. In basements. Second-floor theaters. In places downtown that he certainly had not been to prior—or since. He was always there. Always 15 minutes early, and would call me the next day with his affirmations promptly at 9 a.m. He was consistently kind. And encouraging. He gave me confidence to keep going.

We made trips to Wesleyan together, to talk to the students, to tour campus, and for me to watch him receive a Distinguished Alumnus award. His fondness for the school deepened when we walked its grounds, pointing out where he used to live, study, and roam. He was profoundly happy when he was on campus. His time at Wesleyan was a revelation of self, and he never forgot how fertile and essential that time was in his life.

We held an event for Wesleyan at my first Broadway show, In the Heights, in 2008. And I remember the moment before Lin-Manuel [’02] and I brought Gilbert on stage in front of 1,300 electric Wesleyanites in the crowd. I looked over and saw him standing just offstage-left, in the wing—straightening his tie. Getting ready for his entrance. Taking a quiet moment for himself. He rarely took a bow, despite how often he deserved one. That night, as he walked on stage, he heard the thundering applause of the crowd and he smiled. —THOMAS KAIL ’99

NOTE: The Drama Book Shop is moving to a new location this year, and Gilbert asked that I take his show posters after he passed. They will hang in the new shop.

Those who would like more information, or would like to make a gift to the Gilbert Parker Endowed Scholarship Fund at Wesleyan University in celebration of his life, please contact Marcy Herlihy at; 860/685-2523; or in care of the Wesleyan University Office of Advancement, 291 Main Street, Middletown, CT 06457.