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The Year of Playing Dangerously 

Suzan-Lori Parks is either crazy or brilliant. Perhaps both.

Wednesday, Jan 3 2007
I don't know at what point the business of doing something eccentric over the course of one calendar year became fashionable, but these days it seems as if 365 days is the standard time necessary to accomplish anything worth talking about. In our culture of instant gratification, where attention deficit is no longer a disorder but part of everyday life, the idea of keeping up an activity — particularly one that's physically or mentally challenging or just plain wacky — without pause for 12 months boggles the mind. A friend in Minneapolis recently told me about a couple he knows who took a year out to run a marathon in every state. That's almost a marathon a week. Just thinking about this act blisters the feet. Even an endeavor as physically undemanding as recreating all 524 recipes in Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking in a tiny Queens apartment every evening for 12 months (as Julie Powell of Julie & Julia fame did) is apparently worthy of a book contract and far too much national media exposure.

Of all the crackpot 365-day-long schemes to have been dreamed up lately, the one concocted by playwright Suzan-Lori Parks has to be among the most bonkers. One morning in 2002, Parks (best known for her Pulitzer Prize-play Topdog/Underdog and her screen adaptation of Their Eyes Were Watching God for Oprah Winfrey) suddenly got it into her head to write a play every day for a year. Beginning on Nov. 13, 2002 (only hours after coming up with the idea), with a piece fittingly entitled Start Here concerning a Waiting for Godot-esque conversation between the mythical Hindu figures Krishna and Arjuna, and finishing on Nov. 12, 2003, with a dialogue-free work involving lights shining on a bound manuscript of the collected plays, Parks composed 365 short dramas. They cover everything from the war in Iraq to the death of Johnny Cash to a lost sweater.

Parks' cycle is a remarkable, audacious achievement, comparable in its scope only to a similar ruse of Luigi Pirandello's back in the 1930s to write a story a day for a year. (The Sicilian writer died on Dec. 10, 1936, 125 narratives shy of his goal.) Composed at an extremely busy time in Parks' career — featuring a lengthy book tour for her debut novel, a full-time teaching job at California Institute of the Arts, the transfer of Topdog from New York to London, and screen projects for the likes of Brad Pitt — the plays (some of which she composed in hotel rooms at 2 a.m. and in airport security lines at all hours) are as much testimony to the playwright's sheer force of will as they are to her talent. Even though the ideas didn't always flow (as titles like Going Through the Motions and This Is Shit suggest), the pieces are (at least on paper) constantly playful, occasionally dark, and frequently challenging. At their best, they are all three at once. In 9-11, written on Nov. 9, for instance, a man and a woman on stilts repeat the German word "nein" in unison 11 times — a surreal foil to the sight of two boys playing war games with toy airplanes while their mothers look on, sipping tea. Meanwhile, The Birth of Abraham Lincoln (written on Feb. 12) picks up on two of Parks' perennial themes — the 16th president of the United States and race — to reimagine, with satirical aplomb, the domestic events surrounding Lincoln's nativity.

What sets Parks' endeavor apart from the likes of serial marathon runners and culinary bloggers is its afterlife. Her 365 days are coming 'round again thanks to theater companies all over the U.S., which are staging the plays, one by one, in an enormous, logistically terrifying festival. By Nov. 12, 2007, more than 700 groups large and small, professional and amateur, well endowed and pauperly, will have performed each piece in the cycle. Parks and her principal collaborator, the Denver-based director Bonnie Metzgar, have deliberately kept barriers to entry low in order to foster a grass-roots, community-building spirit. The performance rights cost just $1 a play, and all shows are free to the public. The festival's organizers have set up a network of 15 hubs across the country to oversee the production of all of the cycle's plays, each hub charged with bringing 52 performance groups on board, with every group committed to performing seven plays over the course of a preselected week.

Given the Bay Area's affinity for the lunatic fringe, it's no surprise to see local artists treating Parks' plays like the madcap circus acts they are. Tactics so far have been radically different from company to company. During opening week last November, for example, the Z Space Studio (which, alongside the Playwrights Foundation and the Cutting Ball theater, is organizing the festival in the Bay Area) mounted the first seven dramas at Potrero Hill Neighborhood House. Despite being underscored by clanking, didgeridoo-laced sound art and quasi-spiritual dance interludes, the performance exploited Parks' acerbic sense of humor to the fullest. Ten Red Hen took a more improvisatory approach in Week 4, performing the plays in a variety of private residences, from a Bernal Heights townhouse to an industrial artists' loft in Oakland, with audience members drafted on the fly to play characters like Wellington and Napoleon. The Cutting Ball's efforts at the Exit Theatre, meanwhile, included a rendition in Latin of "Oh Come, All Ye Faithful" — director Bill Selig's interpretation of Parks' call for "something Christmas-y."

The kamikaze spirit shows no sign of relenting. This week's productions, mounted by Katy Hilton & Company, will all be performed on one evening — Sunday, Jan. 7. Hilton's vision draws on her idea of the festival as "like a massive television broadcast with hundreds of theater companies tuning in simultaneously." As such, the presentation will include ample use of video footage. One piece is to be staged as a silent film, with subtitles and a live accordion accompaniment. The following week, members of foolsFury will spend their days jumping in and out of cars, performing the plays in public spaces like Union Square and Yerba Buena Gardens.

It's easy for doubts to creep into a critic's mind about such an apparently lawless undertaking as "365 Days/365 Plays." Is the gimmick factor too high and the artistic factor too low? Can such a gargantuan festival truly foster community? Will anyone even remember the sprawling endeavor past its sell-by date? I don't know. But no matter how haphazardly the plays are staged, the combination of Parks' imprimatur and the careening imaginations of the groups involved inspires confidence and hope in me that transcends skepticism. More than that, it makes the business of doing something eccentric over the course of one calendar year seem almost smart.

About The Author

Chloe Veltman


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