Volume 19 | Issue 28 | November 24 - 30, 2006

The ex-presidents’ club

Eileen Barroso, courtesy of Columbia University
Playwright/ex-Czech Republic president Vaclav Havel and former president Bill Clinton in a discussion at Columbia University last week

By Jennifer O’Reilly

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 you’re at the absolute top of your game, receiving accolades from virtually every respected artist and critic in your field? If you’re 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 wasn’t 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 we’ll 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 they’ve 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 that’s 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 we’re all about excluding folks, and building a wall so folks can’t come in. We’re all about borders, but we’re practicing radical inclusivity, which is exactly what I had to do every day when I wrote the plays. You can’t have a bouncer on the doorway of your mind if you’re 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.  That’s same thing we’re 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 they’ve been included in such a prestigious project. She describes their response as a sort of childish wonder.

“We say to them, ‘Come on, you’re 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 we’re inviting everyone who wants to play.”

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