365 Days Later
With a Pulitzer Prize and a MacArthur "Genius" Fellowship under her belt, playwright Suzan-Lori Parks embarked on the largest national theater collaboration ever attempted. She attended the finale of 365 Days/365 Plays at California Plaza last Tuesday. Photo by Gary Leonard.

Suzan-Lori Parks was in tears during the performance of the final seven plays of her 365 Days/365 Plays series at California Plaza last Tuesday night. As the actors exited the pavilion stage through the shallow pool behind them, she knew the largest national theater collaboration ever attempted was near its end.

An ambitious project to say the least, the 365 National Festival, conceived by Parks and producer Bonnie Metzgar, included more than 600 theater companies across the nation premiering plays Parks had written each day for a year beginning in November 2002. Center Theatre Group hosted both the kickoff last November and the finale.

When Parks arrived at California Plaza, she looked like the embodiment of tranquility, despite having driven an hour in rush-hour traffic from Venice. Wearing a black leather jacket and boots with a black tank top and skirt, she slipped inside the cozy confines of the nearby Starbucks to warm up with a coffee before the show. She discussed her feelings five years after writing the very first 365 play or, as she put it, "daily meditation."

"It's great. It's so much bigger than I imagined. It really says something about the ripple effect," she said, gently pulling a section of her waist-length dreadlocks behind her shoulder.

"It seems like I wrote a small play every day and the ripples are huge. So it just makes me think about the ripple effect, that one small action can lead to something really, really, really good. We should all remember that."

Center Theatre Group Artistic Director Michael Ritchie recognized the potential of a national festival from the beginning. He was one of the first arts leaders in the country to commit to the project.

"Honestly, it was the audacity of it," Ritchie said shortly after the last play ended. "First of all, she told me she had written a play a day for a year and I was so baffled by someone being capable of doing that. So I was batting around the idea of doing it. I said, 'I have no idea how to do this, but I'm in. The fun part will be figuring it out.'"

Pitching the Idea

Once CTG and the Public Theater in New York signed on, the Pulitzer Prize- and MacArthur "Genius" Award-winning Parks and longtime collaborator Metzgar visited theater groups in other cities where they "pitched the idea" of a nationwide festival.

"L.A. said, 'If New York can do it, we can do it.' And then Seattle said, 'We can do it if Atlanta is doing it.' Everybody jumped on board. It was really beautiful," Parks said.

With Associate Producer Diane Rodriguez at the helm of the project in Los Angeles, CTG worked with 51 local theatrical organizations. All of the groups presented seven plays each (some were only a few minutes long), with complete artistic freedom in production - all seven in one night or once a day, a reading or a full performance, at their theater or on location. Downtown Los Angeles participants included Cornerstone Theater Company, East West Players and the Bootleg Theater.

Metzgar expressed excitement about meeting so many like-minded artists - a sentiment repeated by others involved. "It's kind of like we have 3,000 new best friends," she said.

Even with so many passionate partners, there were skeptics. Parks recalled the naysayers who said she'd never be able to raise the funds and theaters would never come together, especially when Parks and Metzgar insisted that all the shows be free to the public. "We just laughed," Parks said. "In the face of all that, we decided to go ahead and do it anyway, and it's become bigger than any budget. It's bigger than any sum of money someone could have raised."

Audience 'Celebrity'

The festival has been a different kind of experience for Parks, who has traveled extensively to take in as many performances as possible - though she says she is sorry to have missed Boo, a Halloween play she wrote about a producer and a writer in conflict, which ended up being particularly timely, she pointed out, considering the "witching hour" of the Hollywood writer's strike. Unlike her daily involvement with the recently premiered Ray Charles Live! A New Musical at the Pasadena Playhouse, she has been completely "hands-off" on 365.

While Parks "participates joyfully" as a writer in the entertainment industry, having written scripts for Spike Lee, Brad Pitt and Denzel Washington, among others, she was impressed by the quality of the L.A. theater scene.

"That's the L.A. that the world needs to see more of," she said. "Not the movie star, red carpet world L.A. is known for, not the cut-throat world of the film industry, which is difficult especially these days with the writers on strike… but the work of these hardworking, brilliant artists who are so excited about finding new ways to work."

Tuesday's crowd of about 300 included producers, directors, actors and others from some of the participating Los Angeles area theaters. Also seated in the amphitheatre was Galeen Roe, who became a "celebrity" audience member by virtue of the fact that she attended all of the 365 plays in Los Angeles.

Roe, who works in a law firm on the 35th floor of an office tower overlooking California Plaza, set out on that cultural mission because she saw a gutsy spark in Parks. "I don't let myself do anything," said the bubbly, petite Roe. "But [Suzan-Lori Parks] just did it and persevered."

In response, Parks wrote a "forever play" for Roe, which she read for the audience at the conclusion of the evening. Then, Parks and Metzgar pronounced Roe "The Queen of 365inLA" with a colorful, sparkling crown.

Roe's participation could be seen as one of those unexpected ripples Parks described. But Parks reiterated that when she dove into the project, that wasn't the aim. Rather, it was the art.

"I don't think in terms of effects. I really don't," Parks said. "I just feel like I have to focus on doing my thing, which is writing the plays and then co-producing the festival and making sure that we are adhering to the core beliefs of the festival like 'radical inclusion' - whoever wants to do it can do it, and it's all free.

"It's up to the world theater to determine what happens next. I'm not trying to control the ripple. I'm just dropping the rock in."

Contact Julie Riggott at julie@downtownnews.com.

page 1, 11/12/2007

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