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365 plays, one day at a time

Suzan-Lori Parks spent a year writing a play per day. Now they're being staged nationwide.

November 17, 2006|Christopher Reynolds | Times Staff Writer

Inside the Ahmanson Theatre and Mark Taper Forum on Wednesday night, the usual actors performed the usual theatrics for the usual audiences, with comfortable seats and high production values for all. Outside was another story.

Ten plays were promised. Free. In an hour. Part of what might be the largest American theater collaboration ever. What?

"Look at the people!" said a beaming woman, who wore dreadlocks and a black leather jacket and glided up the stairs like the belle of a postmodern ball. "Look, Paul. Get the people!"

Paul Oscher, camcorder-wielding husband of prize-winning Los Angeles playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, obliged. There were about 400 of them massed near the hissing fountain of the Music Center plaza, a grouping rich in hard-core theater people.

There was Don Cheadle. There was Judge Reinhold. There was the Music Center safety officer, eyeing the extension cords, and director Bart DeLorenzo, eyeing everything.

Then actor Patrick Breen, in costume as Krishna, stepped up to say: "We start here. Come on."

But really, this all began four years ago this week, when Parks came up with a big idea composed of 365 little parts. She would write a play a day, for a year -- "a daily meditation, a daily prayer celebrating the rich and strange process of a writing life."

Parks had never been one to let go of outlandish notions easily. At 39, she'd already won a MacArthur "genius" fellowship and a Pulitzer Prize for drama. And as a devotee of yoga (with not one but two Sanskrit slogans tattooed on her left forearm), she loved the idea of making her writing into a ritual of daily devotion.

And so, on Nov. 13, 2002, Parks started writing, peppered the works with her usual rich language, alienated characters, biting humor, startling shifts in tone, and echoes of Hindu poetry and Greek tragedy. A year later she finished. None of the plays was longer than a few pages, yet memories of 9/11 were in there, and infanticide and weapons of mass destruction. So were William Tell, Glenn Gould, Abraham Lincoln at age 89, and the deaths of Gregory Hines, John Ritter and George Plimpton -- who realizes on Sept. 26, while working a crossword puzzle in the afterlife, that Parks is writing a play about him.

"I hope it won't be, you know, too, you know, out there, you know, too abstract," Plimpton tells Ritter.

"What? Death?" says Ritter.

"The play," says Plimpton.

Parks let the pages sit in a draw for a while.

But last year, Parks and Denver-based producer Bonnie Metzgar devised a plan to get all the plays produced, in order, by troupes across the country, simultaneously. Implausibly, they appear to have succeeded, and "365 Days/365 Plays," a yearlong nationwide shoestring venture of rash ambition and confounding logistics, is now five days along.

Like pyramid schemers, Parks and Metzgar have lined up more than a dozen "hub" organizations, which have in turn lined up scores of smaller companies in New York, Atlanta, Austin, Chicago, Minnesota, San Francisco, Seattle and points beyond -- in all, more than 600 theater companies.

In Los Angeles, 51 theater groups will take part, coordinated by the Center Theatre Group, which sponsored Wednesday night's entertainment.

Parks, who was born in Fort Knox, Ky., started writing seriously as a student of James Baldwin at Mount Holyoke College in the 1980s. She first won attention in New York with the production of her second play, "Imperceptible Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom."

Since then she has completed a novel, written screenplays for Spike Lee and Oprah Winfrey, and had several plays produced, including "The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole World," "Venus" and "The America Play." But it was "Topdog/Underdog" -- a 2001 work about rival brothers named Lincoln and Booth -- that changed her life.

In October of that year, she won the $500,000 MacArthur Fellowship. The following year, "Topdog" moved from off-Broadway to Broadway, and Parks won the Pulitzer for drama. So when she came up with "365," people were ready to listen.

The "365" project, Parks said, is about "radical inclusion."

"You can't write a play a day for a whole year without practicing radical inclusion, where every idea that comes to the door of your creative mind is welcome. You can't have a bouncer on the door, saying, 'You and you, but not you.' "

It's also about improvisation -- not just in many of her stage directions, but also among all her myriad directors, actors, administrators and crew.

The first Los Angeles rehearsal didn't materialize until Sunday, when DeLorenzo gathered the cast around a table in the CTG's cavernous Boyle Heights props warehouse. They'd take on the first week's seven date-specific works, along with three "constants" that are being performed throughout the year -- about 20 script pages in all.

"For those of you keeping score," announced DeLorenzo, two pieces into the first read-through, "we've gone from the Bhagavad-Gita to Agamemnon."

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