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Will Her Works Play at Home?

L.A. audiences may not know the plays of Suzan-Lori Parks, but she lives in Venice and has ties to CalArts and Hollywood.


Suzan-Lori Parks is very much the top dog of Southern California playwrights at the moment, even though her work has hardly been seen in the Southland.

Parks, 38, who lives in Venice, won the Pulitzer Prize on Monday for "Topdog/Underdog," a day after the play opened on Broadway to positive reviews. Her Pulitzer triumph followed an announcement last fall that she won one of the annual $500,000 fellowships from the MacArthur Foundation, commonly referred to as "genius" grants.

Yet her only play to receive a professional production in L.A. was an early work, "Imperceptible Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom," staged at the 99-seat Odyssey Theatre in West L.A. in 1993.

"I've only lived [in Venice] about a year and a half. I haven't had time to call myself a California writer. I'm not a New York writer either. I'm just a writer," Parks said. "I wouldn't claim to know California very well at all. I just write."

Los Angeles Times Thursday April 11, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 1 inches; 19 words Type of Material: Correction
Writer's name--The name of writer Reg E. Gaines was misspelled in an article about playwright Suzan-Lori Parks in Wednesday's Calendar.

Nonetheless, her L.A. ties are several: Parks heads the Writing for Performance Program at CalArts in Valencia, funded by A.S.K. Theater Projects, and she is working on a film script and on a script for a new stage musical, "Hoopz," about the Harlem Globetrotters, being developed by Disney Theatricals.

Susan Solt, dean of theater at CalArts, explained Tuesday how Parks became associated with the school. "One of the missing components of our program when I arrived seven years ago was playwriting." Solt resolved to bring a professional playwright to CalArts.

Fran Bennett, head of the school's performance program, introduced Solt to the work of Parks, who was then living in New York. Solt soon decided that Parks "was the one playwright who could be emblematic of our mission."

Independently, Parks had been named a recipient of a 1996 Alpert Award, a $50,000 prize for mid-career artists that brings the winners to the CalArts campus for a week. "We made an aggressive approach to her" that week, Solt recalled.

It finally bore fruit four years later in a meeting at a New York cafe near the theater where Parks' "In the Blood" was being presented. "We told her we wanted her to create a new approach to teaching writing. She believes in empowering the playwright. With her, we knew we'd get someone who didn't want to make every student writer a clone of herself."

Parks was attracted by the possibility of having access to Hollywood work without detaching herself from her playwriting, Solt said. Parks wrote the Spike Lee film "Girl 6" and is adapting Toni Morrison's novel "Paradise" for Oprah Winfrey's film production company.

Meanwhile, one of the biggest Hollywood powers--Disney--hired Parks about 18 months ago to work on "Hoopz," which had been under development with another writer, Reggie Gaines, whom Parks replaced.

Stuart Oken, Disney Theatrical executive vice president, brought Parks into the project, which will feature music by Jeanine Tesori and will be staged by Marion McClinton. Disney's plan is to produce a workshop of "Hoopz" in New York next year, followed by a premiere at Trinity Repertory company in Providence, R.I., in the 2003-2004 season. Trinity's artistic director is Oskar Eustis, former associate artistic director of L.A.'s Mark Taper Forum.

Last summer, Taper dramaturge John Glore commented on the lack of Parks productions in L.A. and specifically at the Taper: "It's silly that we're so close, and we haven't been able to hook up with her yet." However, he said that Taper artistic director Gordon Davidson likes Parks' work and speculated that a Parks play might be a good candidate for the Taper's new Culver City space, now called the Kirk Douglas Theatre, when it opens in 2004.

L.A. producer Susan Dietz, who runs Canon Theatrical out of the Canon Theatre in Beverly Hills and is a co-producer of "Topdog/Underdog," said Tuesday that she hopes the play will appear at a nonprofit theater in L.A. such as the Taper, the Geffen Playhouse, Pasadena Playhouse or at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa.

But "we have to watch what kind of audience it's attracting on Broadway first," she said.

In the meantime, Parks' works haven't even been presented in student productions at CalArts. The playwright wants to be directly involved in any CalArts production of her work, Solt said, but it has been difficult to schedule such a production around the playwright's own busy schedule.


Diane Haithman contributed to this report.

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