Charles Parker tried to give up theater, but it was not meant to be. He recently retired from teaching drama, spending 28 years of his career at Friends University in Wichita.
Parker's passion for the stage began in Newton, where his family moved when he was in the third grade.
"I always enjoyed plays – watching plays and being in them," Parker said.
In holiday pageants at school, he took learning lines and playing a character seriously. In sixth grade, he was the emcee for the variety show at McKinley Elementary.
"I made people laugh and I really liked that," Parker said.
In ninth grade at Chisholm Middle School, a friend encouraged him to audition for a school play.
"It was really enjoyable, so that kind of got me in and I was in several plays in high school," Parker said. "It started out working with the guy we called Mr. E. — Eldon Evans, who went on to teach at (Wichita) East High."
Parker said Evans gave his students free rein to take ownership of their productions. When a grass hut was needed to serve as the background for a song from "South Pacific," Parker and other students went out to gather the tallest grass they could find.
"Anything we needed, we jumped in and did it," Parker said.
Later in his high school years, Parker served as president of the thespian society.
"I was in the first musical that Newton ever did," Parker recalled. "We did 'Brigadoon.'"
Parker decided he wanted to become a choral conductor when he started college at Harding University. Six weeks into the semester, he found himself at a theater club meeting and ended up changing his major to speech with a focus on drama
"(Harding University) had a really long, excellent tradition of productions and people who had gone on to do professional work," Parker said. "I had some good training and teachers."
Along the way, he married his wife, Patty, and the couple welcomed children to the family.
"All of the talk of going to New York and becoming an actor sort of went by the wayside," Parker said.
It was the early 1970s and times were tough. Parker applied for many different jobs, but eventually found himself back in school. As he finished up his thesis for a masters degree in New Testament studies, he learned of a drama position open at David Lipscomb University.
"Two weeks later, I'm signing a contract to teach," Parker chuckled.
Parker then earned his masters degree in theater from the University of Memphis.
Becoming a professor of theater required long hours and was a continual challenge for Parker.
"My principal focus was to be a servant to students interested in theater," Parker said. "I had some really good students when I first started, and that made all the difference. They were willing to do anything. We had some really terrific productions."
Parker moved to teach at his alma mater, Harding University and went on to obtain a doctorate in theater from Southern Illinois University.
Though his roles were mainly offstage, he found several opportunities to stand in the spotlight.
"Once in the while, along the way, I took a small part," Parker said. "I played the Duke of Venice in 'Othello.'"
Parker heard that Friends University had a position open and joined its faculty to be closer to his family.
He often chose classic plays that were not well known to teach his students.
"I just tried to challenge them," Parker said.
Pride fills Parker's voice as he speaks of students who have gone on to teach theater or perform professionally. Seeing their success makes the struggles of teaching and directing college students at Friends University as Director of Theatre and Speech worth the effort, he said.
"All in all, it's been the best and the worst," Parker said. "If I didn't have a really supportive spouse, none of this would have taken place. She was my costumer for many years."
He found the city of Wichita had plenty to offer and directed plays for Wichita Community Theatre and Center for the Arts.
"The thing I like about Wichita is that I had a lot of performing opportunities here, especially with Music Theatre Wichita," Parker said.
Parker has portrayed around 50 characters for the professional company, from Colonel Pickering in "My Fair Lady" to General Waverly in "White Christmas."
"Anytime they need a butler or a grandfather," Parker joked. "I'm sort of one of those supporting players."
Parker will lead the cast of Wichita Scottish Rite Signature Theatre's production of "The Little Foxes."
"I play an abuser and you get a picture of that in the first five minutes of the play," Parker said. "It's been a long time since I've played a bad guy. It is kind of a challenge to do that part."
"The Little Foxes" uses the setting of a small Alabama town in the 19th century to deal with 20th century issues such as greed, racism and misogyny.
"They have wealth and they want to use other people to maintain power. There are some very strong characters," Parker said. "It is a classic of 20th century realistic American theater."
The suspense of the show lies in the unfolding revelation of who will get away with what.
"As with any drama, it has the power to draw you in," Parker said.
Performances of "The Little Foxes" will begin at 8 p.m. Sept. 15 and 16 and at 7 p.m Sept. 17. at Wichita Scottish Rite Center Theatre, 332 E. First St. in Wichita. Tickets are $10-$18, with discounts for students, military and senior adults. Tickets are available at the door or by calling 316-648-9043.