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."
Before the rehearsal was over, Samuel Beckett, Mark Twain, U2 and Gabriel García Márquez had been cited.
"I've always enjoyed — not always understood, but always enjoyed — her writing," said actor Barry Shabaka Henley at one point.
DeLorenzo had questions too. He didn't know if the audience would be 50 people or 700 — a big difference when everybody will be relocating half a dozen times. With little or no time for technical rehearsals, he wasn't sure how lighting or sound would work out. He was trying to work around the Christmas decorations on the plaza, but Music Center management kept putting out more.
"It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," he said. "But that doesn't mean I'm not scared."
As the year advances, each enlisted theater company will take a turn at a week's worth of Parks plays, perhaps staging them all in a single night, perhaps staging all for seven nights running, perhaps staging one a day for a week as they were written. This way, every company can claim it's staging a premiere.
After CTG's turn this week, the torch passes to the Open Fist Theatre, then the Playwrights' Arena, then the Elephant Theatre, and so on, as detailed at www.365inla.com. (CTG will take over again for the last Los Angeles week.)
The plays may be presented as full productions or staged readings. They may be offered as stand-alone events or as bonus performances before other events. They must be free (though hat-passing is permitted). They may be staged anywhere. Producing companies will foot all their own bills (CTG is paying its cast Actors' Equity rates) and kick in $50 each to Parks and Metzgar's producing organization. Parks will earn about $1 per play in licensing fees from each participating theater company.
That's right, Hollywood: All these veteran actors, all this work, all this ambition, all these awards on the writer's résumé, yet nobody is spending any serious money and — unless vast numbers of people buy the just-released paperback containing all 365 plays — nobody is making any serious money, either. Here's a venture with 5,000 opening nights, yet, unless you count the playwright's own camcorder, there may not even be a making-of video.
"It's guerrilla," said Diane Rodriguez, CTG's staff producer for the project, as the hours ticked down to the performance.
"This morning, they changed the whole way we're doing sound," said DeLorenzo.
About this time came word that producer Metzgar, Parks' constant collaborator on the project for months, had a family emergency and wouldn't be able to come.
Just two hours before curtain, the actors completed their only on-site run-through.
"It could be totally out of control," said Rodriguez.
And then it was time to start. The sound was spotty. The hefty crowd meant a lot of obstructed views. But actors Breen, Henley, Liza Colòn Zayás, Adina Porter, Jesse Borrego, O-Lan Jones and Leonardo Nam hit their lines and marks. The migrations from set to set worked out. Nobody was killed crossing the street to see the last play on the steps of Walt Disney Concert Hall. And the party afterward at REDCAT was all smiles.
Actor Geoffrey Rivas, whose Latino Theater Company will take on a week of these works in May, liked the imagery in "Father Comes Home From the Wars — Part One," the Nov. 14 play.
" 'Window of opportunity,' " said actor Hamish Linklater, naming the Nov. 16 play. "Awesome."
Parks, who'd flown in after attending her plays' New York and New Haven, Conn., premieres on Monday and Tuesday and would head next to San Francisco, as well as Austin and San Antonio, Texas, pronounced the evening "beautiful." And even if it hadn't been, she said, that's not really the point.
"The result is the icing on the gravy," she said. "It's about encouraging actors, artists and audience members to examine their own individual windows of opportunity. That's all."
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