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A steady diet of plot luck

Suzan-Lori Parks wrote a daily playlet for a year. Now she and her producer just ask theaters to trust them.

July 23, 2006|Mike Boehm | Times Staff Writer

IF Suzan-Lori Parks and Bonnie Metzgar could sell Chevys the way they're selling plays -- without a test drive, without even a peek under the hood -- they'd be rescuing General Motors instead of Pied Pipering several hundred American theater companies toward destinations unknown.

Parks is the livewire MacArthur "genius" grantee and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright of "Topdog/Underdog." Metzgar, her low-key friend of 20 years, is producer, artistic confidante and, for this mission, her prod.

What they're up to, as they settle into a conference room in Center Theatre Group's downtown L.A. headquarters, is rallying theater's varied and divided multitudes, each company forever doing its own thing, to create strength in numbers for a common cause. Namely, the yearlong, simultaneous nationwide staging of a daily cycle of short performance pieces that Parks has dubbed "365 Days/365 Plays." She and Metzgar are asking, and receiving, blind commitment: Sign up now to do a week's worth of plays, find out later what they are.

From Nov. 13, 2002, to Nov. 12, 2003, Parks bore at least one brainchild a day, naming each a play whether it measured several pages or was a single-paragraph runt. When finished, she had 582 typed sheets that would take more than 24 hours to perform. Discussions with a couple of interested producers didn't pan out, so she set aside the opus. Parks moved on to other projects, adapting Zora Neale Hurston's novel "Their Eyes Were Watching God" for a 2005 ABC telecast produced by Oprah Winfrey and, more recently, writing the book for a planned stage musical adapted from "Ray," the hit film biography of Ray Charles.

Two years had passed when Metzgar, the former associate producer at New York's Public Theater and now associate artistic director of Curious Theatre Company in Denver, asked what had become of the 365. To her, Parks' feat embodied both the intense discipline and the freewheeling spontaneity that give rise to the creative act. The two began to conspire and think big. Starting on Nov. 13 and continuing through Nov. 12, 2007, hundreds of theaters making up more than a dozen regional tag teams plan to take weeklong turns staging the plays, on or around the day each one was born.

All of which has prompted this first of two afternoons of networking with interested L.A. theaters. Parks, whose hallmarks are big rainbow brows, waist-length dreadlocks and enough cheerful, apple-cheeked enthusiasm to eclipse a high school pep squad, joins Metzgar for five sessions over 4 1/2 hours, in which they give a spiel and answer questions from leaders of more than 20 local companies. Those range from host Center Theatre Group, the $40-million-a-year giant that is coordinating L.A.'s "365 Days" effort, to Fulcrum Theater Works, a fledgling troupe from East L.A. Others at the table include such staples of the local small-theater scene as Cornerstone Theatre Company, Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, Playwrights Arena, Zoo District and Los Angeles Women's Shakespeare Company.

The agenda is more to inform than to recruit and persuade. After all, how many small theaters wouldn't want to work with L.A.'s flagship company and a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright -- especially since Parks, 43, is a local herself? She settled in Venice in 2000, at the start of a four-year hitch as director of the dramatic writing program at the California Institute of the Arts, and the beach community remains her home.

While the "365 Days" project aims for unity among theaters, Metzgar emphasizes that it's not about marching in lock-step. She wants each company to stamp the work with its own personality. Should the plays be done as simple, script-in-hand readings, or do they deserve more elaborate treatment, with scenery and costumes? Do they belong in theaters or out in the city, using attention-grabbing or thematically resonant backdrops? Each company gets to decide for itself.

In tones ranging from a helium cartoon squeak to the growl of an orating preacher -- all embellished with enough body English and hand-waving to see a third-base coach through a 10-run inning -- Parks tells the story of how the 365 came to be. She begins with a flashback to Nov. 12, 2002. Recently anointed with her Pulitzer, she is at home with Paul Oscher, her harmonica-playing, blues-singer husband, to whom she announces that -- for reasons she says she still can't fathom -- she has taken a notion to spend a year writing a play a day.

"Yeah, baby, that's cool," comes the drawl from the couch. So, the following morning, she creates a two-character piece called "Start Here." And she keeps going, true to her word, writing by hand, filling up notebook after spiral notebook at home and on the road, where she spends a good chunk of 2003 touring to publicize her first novel, "Getting Mother's Body."

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