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And Now For 365 Plays


January 15, 2006

What's harder than writing a play a day for a year? Putting them all on stage. Chloe Veltman on a mind-boggling project

One November morning in 2002, the American playwright Suzan-Lori Parks told her husband she was going to write a play a day for a whole year. "Yeah, baby," said her husband from the couch. "That sounds cool."

Parks' notion might have sounded cool, but it was hardly practical. Since becoming the first black woman to win a Pulitzer prize, for her play Topdog/Underdog, the LA-based dramatist's life had lurched into top gear. Between embarking upon a lengthy book tour for her debut novel, Getting Mother's Body, preparing for the Royal Court transfer of Topdog, and working on screenplays for Oprah Winfrey and Brad Pitt, Parks' schedule didn't leave room for hugely ambitious schemes.

Nevertheless, she stuck to her plan, beginning on November 13 2002 with a piece entitled Start Here (a Waiting for Godot-esque conversation between the Hindu god Krishna and the hero Arjuna), and finishing on November 12 2003 with a dialogue-free, meta-theatrical work which featured lights shining on a manuscript containing all the plays. She filled a series of notebooks with 365 short dramas, from a paragraph to several pages in length, dealing with everything from the war in Iraq, to the death of playwright Sarah Kane, to a lost sweater.

There they stayed until one day in 2005, when Parks' friend, director and producer Bonnie Metzgar, suggested bringing them to life. This evolved into 365 Days/365 Plays, a year-long festival involving almost 700 groups from the US and beyond. The biggest theatrical endeavour ever attempted in the US in terms of people and geographical spread, it began this week.

In the course of the coming year, major theatres such as the Public Theater in New York, Chicago's Goodman, and Seattle's Repertory will mount productions, as well as public libraries, churches, museums, schools and universities. The festival is also going international, with groups in Canada and the UK, such as the Pleasance in London, signed up. "Parks is huge in the States and deserves to have as great a reputation over here," says Emma Bettridge, programme coordinator at the Pleasance, which is devoting a week to the project in January. "As a company specialising in new plays, we're interested in giving great American writers more exposure."

While some plays will be staged behind proscenium arches with costumes and props, Metzgar and Parks are encouraging unconventional approaches, from mounting pieces as curtain-raisers before full-length plays, to ad hoc "happenings" in stations. One group intends to drive around New York in a van, performing plays in random locations. San Francisco's Cutting Ball company is toying with turning one piece into an opera, while another San Francisco group, Z Space, will stage its plays with four dancers, a saxophone and a didgeridoo. "Participants are worried about producing the plays the right way," says Parks. "But there is no wrong way."

Metzgar and Parks have made the work as accessible as possible. The performance rights cost just $1 a play and all shows must be free to the public, with most of the cost of mounting a production falling to the performers. The two appear to have tapped into a great need in US theatre: participants seem to value the collaborative aspect above anything else. "I've been working in theatre in San Francisco for 16 years and I'm discovering companies I hadn't heard of," says Lisa Steindler of Z Space.

But in spite of the group-hug dynamic, doubts about the artistic coherence of the whole project have crept in. With low or non-existent production budgets and truncated rehearsal times, there's no guarantee that every production will be as good as the next, or that it will be what Parks intended. "I'm still scared the plays will be badly directed," says Steindler.

Then there's the issue of how audiences will perceive the playwright's work. Parks is known as much for her postmodern approach to language (one play called 9-11 features two characters on stilts saying the German word "nein" 11 times), as she is for her caustic commentary on race, history and myth. As such, while she is often extremely funny, Parks' work is hardly easy viewing - and the 365 plays, with their references to Chekhov, politics and the dramatist's previous work, are no exception.

Still, no matter how haphazardly the plays are staged and how baffled they leave their audiences, Parks' imprimatur gets them serious attention. "I would be a lot more suspicious of the project if a less gifted and important playwright were involved," says Alisa Solomon, arts journalism professor at Columbia University and former theatre critic for the Village Voice. Plus, there's something rather moving - sacred even - about Parks' year-long play-writing quest. "I would sit down at my desk," she says, "raise my arms in the air, wiggle my fingers in a gesture I like to call 'tickling the balls of God', and ask myself, 'What is the play today?' And out something would come."

Rustling up a drama every 24 hours wasn't always easy. Parks frequently found herself writing in hotel rooms at 2am, and even penned one play in the security line at Heathrow. At times, the ideas just didn't flow. You can tell the playwright was having a bad day when you come across titles such as Going Through the Motions, Empty, and, most emphatically, This Is Shit. But she kept going. "There were days when I just wasn't feeling it. I'd question my motives, but I'd still do it anyway," she says. "Writing is a spiritual practice. It's only by sticking with it that you get to the good stuff."



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