A year-long maze of plays

U.S. theaters juggle Parks' one-a-day plan for 12 months

It’s only 2006, but Suzan-Lori Parks is already on track to be the century’s most prolific playwright.

On Nov. 13, 2002 — soon after winning the Pulitzer for “Topdog/Underdog” — she began writing a play a day for 12 months. And beginning Nov. 13, 2006, the entire output of that year will be premiered in a festival dubbed “365 Days/365 Plays,” with each of the 365 free-standing playlets presented over the course of the next year in theaters across the country.

More than 700 theaters are involved in “365,” from high-profile professional companies like the Public Theater in New York to amateur student groups, with more joining every week. That massive scope has demanded the creation of an ambitious producing model capable of establishing a network between companies of varying size and mandates, while simultaneously honoring the playwright’s vision.

However, that vision doesn’t necessarily include a cohesive statement from the plays. Discussing her creative inspiration, Parks says, “It was just some kooky notion.”

Appropriately, then, the plays — which Theater Communications Group will publish on Nov. 13 — are a grab bag of styles. Some are only stage directions, such as “Lickety Splits,” in which a woman runs onstage and licks a man all over his body. Others are politically conscious, such as a script that transplants “Macbeth” to an American ghetto. There are also tributes to artists such asGregory Hines and appearances from Abe and Mary Lincoln.

Some might argue that “365” is an exercise in hubris from a writer out to demonstrate her virtuosity. However, Parks says the project’s mission is reflected as much in who’s producing the work as the work itself. With so many theaters participating, “365” is engendering one of the largest theatrical communities ever formed.

Parks is overseeing the project with producing partner Bonnie Metzgar, associate a.d. of Denver’s Curious Theater. The collaborators say they are dedicated to a spirit of inclusion. “You always hear that theater is dying,” Metzgar explains. “But this project proves that theater is everywhere. We’ve set out to celebrate the diversity of theaters in America.”

Both the producing and financial models of “365” are designed to unite as many artists as possible.

Participating theaters have been divided into collaborative networks, comprising one “hub” theater and at least 52 members. Each of the networks is responsible for at least one production of all 365 scripts, performed in the order that Parks wrote them.

Networks are aiming to involve as many companies as possible. In L.A., for instance, 50 companies from Santa Monica to the Valley are uniting. In the Southeast network, theaters are coming onboard from multiple states.

The system also encourages larger theaters to step up in leadership roles. In Gotham’s network, which currently has 65 companies, the Public has dedicated $350,000 to “365.” This will cover not only its own productions — including this week’s kickoff, directed by Michael Greif — but also will support projects such as a monthly recap called “First Sunday Series.”

Oskar Eustis, artistic director of the Public, is inspired by the outreach “365” affords. “It’s letting the Public serve as an umbrella to 50-odd companies,” he says. “Supporting nontraditional theaters in New York is one of our mandates.”

But “365” is also designed for companies without major resources. Creatively, theaters are free to produce plays however they can, even if it’s as a staged reading, in a nontraditional venue or on the street.

Metzgar says this freedom is crucial. “We want many of the smaller arts groups that get excluded from premieres to be invited to the table,” she asserts.

And seats at the table are cheap. Plays are licensed for a whopping $1 apiece. “No one is making any money in this project at all,” quips Metzgar.

Additionally, every ticket to every performance will be free. This means greater access for auds, and it also means theaters don’t have to please paying customers. Free seats could keep patrons curious, even if some of the plays are poorly received.

But while these prices are obviously a boon for inclusiveness, “365” still has expenses. Both national leaders and individual networks must devise their own methods for covering them.

Metzgar says her fund-raising strategies are being invented as she goes. She explains, “We were cautioned by people in the funding community, who were interested but couldn’t move as fast as we could. We wanted to stick with our momentum, and so we are at the mercy of individual givers.”

Metzgar says of the $220,000 national budget — which covers travel, a national Web site and staff salaries — only $40,000 has been raised. This suggests a danger that the project, no matter how well intentioned, could eventually collapse.

Furthermore, producing tactics among networks can seem remarkably fly-by-night.

The massive Western network, for instance, covers hundreds of miles, enlisting theaters from Oregon to New Mexico. Inter-theater communication rarely can be face-to-face, and even though “365” starts this week, not all of the network’s participating companies have been confirmed.

Billings, Montana’s Venture Theater will perform during Christmas week, but it has not yet received its scripts. “We seem to be the most rural bastion of the project,” Venture a.d. Mace Archer deadpans.

However, Archer argues that the benefits of bringing “365” to his area far outweigh the hurdles. “Until now,” he says, “I don’t think a theater in Montana has produced a word of Suzan-Lori Parks. It feels very separate here. The connectivity (offered by ‘365’) is important to keeping us aesthetically alive.”

Everyone interviewed shared a similar spirit. Asked if he has concerns for the next year, Eustis says, “I’m sure there are going to be some challenges, but solving them will be part of the fun.”

Metzgar says the project’s obstacles should be met one day at a time, since it’s impossible to predict how this unusual project will unfold. She continues, “Until we’re in it, we won’t know what the best use of our minds and energies will be.”

For now, she’s still focused on bringing as many theaters as possible into the fold. Recently, she’s even begun fielding interest from international companies as far away as Canada, China and New Zealand.

Will there ever be a point where she throws up her hands to new participants? “Once the train is going,” Metzgar insists, “we’re just going to find a way to help people jump on.”

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