By Jennifer OReilly
What does one do after being the first African-American woman in history to win Pulitzer Prize in playwriting? Or after being the recipient of the extremely prestigious MacArthur foundation genius grant? Where is there left to go when youre at the absolute top of your game, receiving accolades from virtually every respected artist and critic in your field? If youre Suzan-Lori Parks, you respond by recommitting yourself to your craft with an intensity few people could imagine.
When talking about the genesis of her latest project, 365 Days/365 Plays, Parks exudes a cool nonchalance, as if she had undertaken the project almost on a whim.
It was just a kooky idea I had, she says, with a playful shrug of her shoulders. It sounded like fun and it rhymed and it seemed like a really cool thing to do, so why not?
Yet Parks casual attitude belies a more serious motivation that sprang up in the wake of her massive success in the spring of 2002. That was the year that she won the Pulitzer Prize for her universally acclaimed play Topdog/Underdog, which premiered at The Public and went on to Broadway. Parks explains, You think to yourself, what will I do next? And of course the answer everybody always thinks is another Broadway play. Topdog/Underdog 2: The Trials of Booth, or something. Instead Parks challenged herself to do something which, to her knowledge, no playwright had ever attempted. She decided to write one play every day for one year, no matter what came up.
The process wasnt always easy. When asked if she ever experienced writers block, Parks made it clear that the path was fraught with complications. Sure. One play is called This is Sh*t. One is called Going Through the Motions. There I was one day and I wrote going through the motions
and I thought that could be a play! And The Motions could be a mountain range, and there could be people in the mountain range taking pictures.
Then we did the table read
and this guy David Patrick Kelly, who is a great actor, said This play is so cool. Going Through the Motions. Because some days all you have is your commitment.
If writing a play every day for a year sounds like a difficult undertaking, the task of staging 365 plays was even more daunting. When Parks began to think about how she wanted to produce the project, she began to think about all the companies who had offered to produce her plays. I started in the fall of 2002, the year I won the Pulitzer, she says, So I had many theaters across the country very generously saying Write a laundry list and well produce it! The overwhelming number of open invitations sparked an idea for Parks and her producing partner Bonnie Metzgar. What would happen if everyone who wanted to participate in the staging of the plays was simply allowed to participate?
The result may be the largest theater collaboration in history, with over 600 theaters nationwide debuting portions of Parks 365 plays throughout the year. In each city, there is a hub that is responsible for choosing theater companies to stage the plays. In New York, the hub is the Public Theater, and they way theyve separated it is to assign 52 theater companies seven plays each. These theater companies will stage the plays in parks or under bridges or at their respective theaters over the course of the year and each month the Public will host a showcase of all the work thats been performed. (In the year ahead, we can look forward to plays staged at Downtown venues like the Shooting Star Theater, The Tank, and HERE). The same process is occurring all over the country, where hub theaters dictate the exact mechanics of how the plays will be staged.
The first round of seven plays premiered at The Public on Monday, November 13th, with a running time just over thirty minutes. The plays were short, about three to five minutes each, and ranged in title and subject matter, from Father Comes Home from the Wars to Veuve Cliquot. Theatergoers can catch these marathon roundups of 28 plays at The Public Sunday Series, which will occur one Sunday every month and showcase the works of the theater companies that were involved in that months staging.
Suzan-Lori explains that while the gargantuan premiere may be impressive, her ultimate goal was really much more humble.
The goal is inclusivity. I call it radical inclusivity, especially these days when were all about excluding folks, and building a wall so folks cant come in. Were all about borders, but were practicing radical inclusivity, which is exactly what I had to do every day when I wrote the plays. You cant have a bouncer on the doorway of your mind if youre going to write a play a day. You know those kind of bouncers that say You, you, you, not you. You have to let everyone in, you have to say, Come on in
yeah, you look a little silly with those funny little pants, but you know you might make a great play. Thats same thing were doing with the theaters.
In New York City, where there are an abundance of theater companies itching to have the premiere of a Suzan-Lori Parks original on their resumes, the process of filtration is more difficult than somewhere like Montana, where theater companies are scarcer. But Parks and Metzgar have brainstormed ways to open their doors to those who want to be involved. For example, in New York, if someone other than the 52 theater companies who are working in conjunction with the Public Theater wants to participate, Parks has arranged open mic nights across the city where anyone can come and perform the play of their choice.
Parks said the response has been overwhelming, and some theater companies have expressed disbelief that theyve been included in such a prestigious project. She describes their response as a sort of childish wonder.
We say to them, Come on, youre welcome to the table and they say
Me? I can play? At the same table with the Public Theater in New York? At the same table as Steppenwolf? But were inviting everyone who wants to play.