By this time next year, 365 of Suzan-Lori Parks’ new playlets will have received about 5,000 premieres at theaters across the United States alone, and will likely have appeared at theaters in several more countries including Britain, New Zealand and China. In case you missed the voluminous national publicity on Parks’ and Bonnie Metzger’s amazing traveling novelty act called 365 Days/365 Plays, let me explain.
A couple of years ago, for reasons having to do with Parks’ particular blend of whimsy and self-discipline, the Venice, California–based novelist-songwriter-playwright committed to writing one play every day for a year. It took her exactly 365 days to write 365 plays. Some are only a few pages long, playing for a minute or two. Some are merely stage directions. They sat in a drawer for months.
It was Metzger, associate artistic director of Denver’s Curious Theatre Company, who came up with a notion of how to produce the plays simultaneously in various cities across the country.
The idea was to start with a “hub” theater in one city that would assume responsibility for recruiting 51 other theaters in the area willing to participate in the project. Each of the theaters makes a commitment to produce seven of the plays over a seven-day period, before passing the project’s torch on to the next theater. In this way, the 365 plays are produced in the same sequence they were written, yet they travel around the city (or region) for an entire year. The concept makes the theater community the producing entity, rather than any single theater. How each venue stages its seven playlets, whether on a single night or over a weekend, as staged readings or as lavish, costumed spectacles, is entirely up to the local staff. However, the theaters must commit to scripts that are assigned to them (by the hub theater) based on their place in the 52-week rotation. And that’s just one community. Metzger’s plan was to have the same process going on simultaneously in several cities and/or regions.
The first step was to persuade the Big Boys, the likes of Oskar Eustis, who runs New York’s Public Theater, and Michael Ritchie, head of our own Center Theatre Group, to offer up their theaters as hubs. Even with her distinguished reputation and Pulitzer Prize, Parks says that convincing Eustis was not easy. (Though a couple weeks back at the New York project launch, Eustis was almost weeping with enthusiasm upon seeing representatives from 51 other NYC theaters gathered in the lobby of the Public for a “meet and greet.”) Parks said that Ritchie never hesitated to sign on CTG, but that’s not surprising from our city’s most daredevil producer.
Metzger and Parks were banking on what could be called a credibility flow: That Parks would be one of the few playwrights in the country capable of enlisting the support of Eustis and Ritchie, that the involvement of the Public and CTG as hub theaters would attract Chicago’s Goodman and Steppenwolf theaters to the project, and that with this chain of prestige, local theaters would join in, under the umbrella (or participation) of their cities’ leading lights.
Fifteen cities or regions are now involved, and it keeps growing.
Prior to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, an international Internet-based movement called The Lysistrata Project spread swiftly around the world, encouraging thousands of simultaneous readings and performances of Aristophanes’ anti-war comedy in an attempt to have collective energy influence national policy.
While the Internet fear of the pending war galvanized The Lysistrata Project, Parks’ 365 Days/365 Plays spins around the writings and the ego of a single playwright. Skeptics argue that this is the largest self-promotion gimmick in the history of the American theater, but that’s a reductive view containing a mere nugget of truth. It also misses the larger point.
“You see all those people,” Parks explained in the lobby of the Public during the recent meet and greet. “Usually there’s the ‘in crowd’ and everyone else leaning back against the walls, wishing they were ‘in’, but here, everybody’s in, and nothing is diminished by it!”
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Parks’ jubilant words cut to the heart of what 365 Days/365 Plays represents — an experiment in populism that runs counter to almost every organizational and financial impulse in an art form that’s historically elitist and exclusive. Parks says that whether or not the plays are done well is beside the point, which is that a tiny theater in the San Fernando Valley has a spotlight shined on it for a week while it stages the same plays as theaters in Chicago and Montana. One nation, undivided, onstage at least. Paradoxically, these democratic impulses are centrally coordinated by the hub theaters that, outside this project, are administrative models of autocracy. In some ways, it’s the theatrical equivalent of Chinese communism, of the central government leasing slices of farmland to the people.
In New York, Michael Greif staged the first seven playlets at the Public’s large Newman Theatre. An actress told me she’d received the script on Thursday for a first rehearsal on Saturday. The performances were Monday, staged around Brechtian curtains draped on clotheslines across the stage (set by Chad McArver). Pianist Michael Friedman sat at a spinet stage right providing carnival-style accompaniment. For the accelerated rehearsal schedule, however, the 35-minute presentation of all seven plays, ranging in themes from a soldier returning home to a convict ordering his last meal, was a remarkably pristine and well-acted string of Parks’ Buddhist sketches. In one playlet, a uniformed gendarme (Joan MacIntosh) licked her finger to check the weather before pompously opening a small, freestanding kitchen window decorated with frilly pink curtains. “The window of opportunity is now open,” she announced before reciting a very abbreviated history of the world, leading to modern times in the United States, whereupon she closed the window with a similarly self-important ritual. The One That Got Away (André Holland) arrived breathless, hoping to climb through the window, but, recognizing the harsh reality of the new situation, left embittered. After hearing the tinkling of the piano, we were on to the next playlet.
L.A.’s alfresco launch was staged two nights later, on and around the Music Center plaza in CTG’s site-specific presentation, which was directed by Bart DeLorenzo. In L.A., the quality of acting didn’t compare to that of New York, while the huge outdoor settings and the requirement of having several hundred viewers trudge to various locales trumped delicacy of interpretation. This was a carnival mostly about the atmosphere. Some audience members complained about not being able to see, and therefore having no idea what these plays were about. The larger question is whether the energy of the launch is enough to sustain the event for a year. Much will depend on how the next few theaters handle their seven plays — such are the gambles of democracy in action.
365 DAYS/365 PLAYS | By SUZAN-LORI PARKS | Week Two presented by OPEN FIST THEATRE, 6209 Santa Monica Blvd., Hlywd. | Nov. 21-25 | (323) 882-6912 | Week Three presented by PLAYWRIGHTS’ ARENA at LUTHERAN CHURCH OF THE MASTER, 10931 Santa Monica Blvd., W.L.A. | Wed., Nov. 29, 8 p.m. | (213) 627-4437 | Week Four presented by ELEPHANT ASYLUM THEATRE, 6320 Santa Monica Blvd., Hlywd. | Dec. 5-9 | (323) 962-0046. For further information on local productions, visit www.365inla.com. For national information, visit www.365Days365Plays.com.