Ambitious Parks premiere caps off New Work Week

By Rose Dichter Schapiro

The scene on Saturday was a slightly strange one, with a crowd of theatergoers lounging on the twisted stairs that lead up to the Francis X. Kinahan Third Floor Theater. The line before the doors opened at 6:45 p.m. was for those who anticipated the world premiere of seven new plays by noted dramatist Suzan-Lori Parks. The weather was beautifully temperate, and the signs taped around the Reynolds Club read, “365 Days/365 Plays: Upstairs.” It was the culmination of University Theater’s (UT) New Work Week, a six-day festival of staged readings of original pieces, including several premieres of student-written work. The crowning jewel of the week was the production of Parks’s own new piece, with Parks herself in the audience, giving a talk-back after the show.

Begun in 2002, 365 Days/365 Plays is an incredibly ambitious work. Parks was inspired to write a play a day for an entire year. The results of this project are being staged around the world. Some cities, such as Chicago, are staging the entire project in a variety of venues, while others are only doing certain weeks. The plays are all very short—Saturday’s presentation of seven plays ran about half an hour. UT was assigned the week of April 18–April 22, and the production was sponsored by Court Theatre. This part of the cycle was directed by Court’s artistic associate, Ron O.J. Parson, and featured an ensemble of 10 actors, all of whom played multiple roles in the seven presented plays. The timeline of the project spans from mid-November to mid-November, setting these works roughly in the middle of it.

The plays performed Saturday night had a variety of subjects, some corresponding directly to the time of year and others a little more random in subject. The Jesus Rose featured a flower mistaken for a risen Jesus, while Less and Less was simply a man and a woman having a conversation—though the audience (and as it turned out, the director and actors) is unsure exactly what the characters are talking about. Some of the plays were more subtle and strange, but others were a bit more conventional. They used devices common to Parks’s work: the unified and fragmented chorus, the moments of bizarre and wondrous humor, characters who are simultaneously complex and well defined. Parson’s staging was strong, charming, and helpful in illuminating some of the complications of the texts—actors jumped across the stage and danced, a band evoked in the script rose from its seats to thrum on an imagined bass and tap on a pretend drum kit. As Parks would say later on, “Theater is kind of dorky…. You’re pretending to be someone else.” Yet this kind of amalgamation of fun and seriousness worked in the context of the reading. The idea is that this work is really alive, both because it was written and because it is being performed.

Parks’s cycle is ambitious in its scale and its breadth. To do so many world premieres at the same time poses some problems, especially for a playwright such as Parks, who is often very involved in the initial stagings of her scripts. Parks noted that this was truly a creative release for her and that the issue of “faith” comes into play when one just gives one’s work to a group of theaters without much familiarity with them or their specific goals. Some of the beauty of 365 Days/365 Plays is this relinquishing of the creative control of the playwright to the community at large. During the talk-back, Parks described some of the ways that the plays have been performed. Mime, translation, and nursing home drama clubs all offered different interpretations of the scripts.

Parks is one of the most important living American playwrights, and her work has been well received and deemed culturally and socially important for years. She is quite clearly an invested and vibrant writer, and her work is original and often compelling for simply that reason (usually in addition to many other qualities). When Parks appeared on stage Saturday, she was ebullient and grateful, distributing the bouquet given to her stem by stem to the actors and directors. She then took the bow that had tied it together and tied it into her hair. She appeared pleased with what she had seen and thanked the collaborators for their work.

The process she described for actually staging 365 Days/365 Plays was a complex one, involving producers all over the country and the world, theater politics, and concern about the concrete realities of such an ambitious project. Yet when she was asked if theater was dead, Parks answered, tentatively, “I think as long as we’re here, not really.” This kind of sentiment was the spirit of the evening: From the line running down the stairs to performing and listening, so much of the event was about being there and gathering together to experience something new and good. If 365 Days/ 365 Plays teaches us anything, it is the power of the multiple.