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A steady diet of plot luck

Times Staff Writer

IF Suzan-Lori Parks and Bonnie Metzgar could sell Chevys the way they’re selling plays -- without a test drive, without even a peek under the hood -- they’d be rescuing General Motors instead of Pied Pipering several hundred American theater companies toward destinations unknown.

Parks is the livewire MacArthur “genius” grantee and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright of “Topdog/Underdog.” Metzgar, her low-key friend of 20 years, is producer, artistic confidante and, for this mission, her prod.

What they’re up to, as they settle into a conference room in Center Theatre Group’s downtown L.A. headquarters, is rallying theater’s varied and divided multitudes, each company forever doing its own thing, to create strength in numbers for a common cause. Namely, the yearlong, simultaneous nationwide staging of a daily cycle of short performance pieces that Parks has dubbed “365 Days/365 Plays.” She and Metzgar are asking, and receiving, blind commitment: Sign up now to do a week’s worth of plays, find out later what they are.

From Nov. 13, 2002, to Nov. 12, 2003, Parks bore at least one brainchild a day, naming each a play whether it measured several pages or was a single-paragraph runt. When finished, she had 582 typed sheets that would take more than 24 hours to perform. Discussions with a couple of interested producers didn’t pan out, so she set aside the opus. Parks moved on to other projects, adapting Zora Neale Hurston’s novel “Their Eyes Were Watching God” for a 2005 ABC telecast produced by Oprah Winfrey and, more recently, writing the book for a planned stage musical adapted from “Ray,” the hit film biography of Ray Charles.

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Two years had passed when Metzgar, the former associate producer at New York’s Public Theater and now associate artistic director of Curious Theatre Company in Denver, asked what had become of the 365. To her, Parks’ feat embodied both the intense discipline and the freewheeling spontaneity that give rise to the creative act. The two began to conspire and think big. Starting on Nov. 13 and continuing through Nov. 12, 2007, hundreds of theaters making up more than a dozen regional tag teams plan to take weeklong turns staging the plays, on or around the day each one was born.

All of which has prompted this first of two afternoons of networking with interested L.A. theaters. Parks, whose hallmarks are big rainbow brows, waist-length dreadlocks and enough cheerful, apple-cheeked enthusiasm to eclipse a high school pep squad, joins Metzgar for five sessions over 4 1/2 hours, in which they give a spiel and answer questions from leaders of more than 20 local companies. Those range from host Center Theatre Group, the $40-million-a-year giant that is coordinating L.A.'s “365 Days” effort, to Fulcrum Theater Works, a fledgling troupe from East L.A. Others at the table include such staples of the local small-theater scene as Cornerstone Theatre Company, Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, Playwrights Arena, Zoo District and Los Angeles Women’s Shakespeare Company.

The agenda is more to inform than to recruit and persuade. After all, how many small theaters wouldn’t want to work with L.A.'s flagship company and a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright -- especially since Parks, 43, is a local herself? She settled in Venice in 2000, at the start of a four-year hitch as director of the dramatic writing program at the California Institute of the Arts, and the beach community remains her home.

While the “365 Days” project aims for unity among theaters, Metzgar emphasizes that it’s not about marching in lock-step. She wants each company to stamp the work with its own personality. Should the plays be done as simple, script-in-hand readings, or do they deserve more elaborate treatment, with scenery and costumes? Do they belong in theaters or out in the city, using attention-grabbing or thematically resonant backdrops? Each company gets to decide for itself.

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In tones ranging from a helium cartoon squeak to the growl of an orating preacher -- all embellished with enough body English and hand-waving to see a third-base coach through a 10-run inning -- Parks tells the story of how the 365 came to be. She begins with a flashback to Nov. 12, 2002. Recently anointed with her Pulitzer, she is at home with Paul Oscher, her harmonica-playing, blues-singer husband, to whom she announces that -- for reasons she says she still can’t fathom -- she has taken a notion to spend a year writing a play a day.

“Yeah, baby, that’s cool,” comes the drawl from the couch. So, the following morning, she creates a two-character piece called “Start Here.” And she keeps going, true to her word, writing by hand, filling up notebook after spiral notebook at home and on the road, where she spends a good chunk of 2003 touring to publicize her first novel, “Getting Mother’s Body.”

“My parents said when I was little that I was hard-headed, which is another way of saying that you have tenacity or stick-to-itiveness,” Parks, who was born at Ft. Knox, Ky., and raised an Army brat, recalls when she and Metzgar break from their succession of meetings.

As the year unfolds, she writes memorial playlets for its eminent newly dead -- Barry White, Johnny Cash, Gregory Hines. On the day news comes that novelist Carol Shields has died, Parks finds herself in an airport security line, eavesdropping on a woman upset at losing a sweater. By the time she walks unshod through the metal detector, Parks has scrawled a play while holding her boots. It’s the story of a lost sweater, conceived as a eulogy to the everydayness she loves in Shields’ writing.

War breaks out, and its rumblings spill into her daily plays. A father coming home from battle becomes a recurring figure.

One play is written for as many actors as can be crammed onto a stage. Another, “The Blank Before the World,” is just that, a white sheet of nothing. In another play without words, “Lickety Split,” a woman runs on stage, licks a man all over, and splits. One might even sell some Chevys: It’s about a man who so loves his Impala that he urinates on it, like a wolf marking its turf.

A play, Parks will tell you, is whatever the playwright decides it is. If she were writing just her life and observations, that would be diary-keeping. Instead, she imagines actors performing the words and enveloping an audience in the experience. Hence, a play.

CTG artistic director Michael Ritchie knew nothing about any of this when he flew to San Francisco in February to have breakfast in a coffee shop with Parks, whom he knew only on a “handshake-hello” basis. She had called, saying she wanted to run an idea by him.

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Before the food arrived, Ritchie was eating out of her hand. “Suzan-Lori is one of the most engaging personalities you can meet,” he says. “It’s hard not to fall in love with her, and knowing her talent, and her desire to do this piece, which sounded so ambitious and intriguing and difficult to accomplish.... We weren’t finished with our first cup of coffee before I said, ‘I’m in, what do we have to do?’ ”

Parks relates the story in each of her L.A. meetings, taking the opportunity of repeated tellings to add increasing oomph to her delivery: “He said, YESSS, we will do it! And L.A. will be the BEST of the cities!”

Last month, Parks and Metzgar took their campaign to Atlanta, where leaders of nonprofit theaters had gathered for the annual national conference of their professional umbrella organization, Theatre Communications Group. They wanted to recruit enough “hub” companies to organize the project in seven regions but wound up with 14 nation-spanning collectives, most encompassing theaters from behemoths to bantams, just like in L.A. Teams are forming in Atlanta, Austin (Texas), the Bay Area, the Carolinas, Chicago, Colorado, Florida, Minneapolis, New York City, Seattle and Washington, D.C.-Baltimore, Metzgar says, along with a separate Mississippi River contingent from Minneapolis, St. Louis, Memphis (Tenn.) and New Orleans. University theater departments are starting their own “365 Days” network.

There is no money in it. Production and promotional budgets, slim though they figure to be, must come out of the companies’ own pockets, and they are required to perform for free, although they can pass the hat. The only artist guaranteed a payday is Parks, who is exacting $1 a day for the performing rights in each city or region. Terry Nemeth, in charge of publishing for TCG, says she also stands to earn royalties from the 500-page book of the plays to be published on the day the cycle premieres. Its first printing of 15,000 copies will break the imprint’s previous record of 10,000, held by Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America.”

Play by the rules

WANTING to keep the logistics as streamlined as possible, Parks and Metzgar decided that theater companies would not have a say in what plays they do. Each theater will sign up for a given week and find out after the scheduling is sorted out what manner of drama its days will hold.

That hasn’t been made clear yet when Martha Demson, artistic director of Open Fist Theatre Company, asks whether troupes will be able to pore over scripts for what suits them. Parks breaks the news gently: This is one 21st century birthing process that involves the stork, not the sonogram. “It will be like getting the beautiful bundle of joy.”

Perhaps because the playwright says she wrote the cycle as a form of daily prayer, because of her stature and charm, or maybe just out of politeness, only one L.A. thespian attending the orientations asks the obvious question:

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“What if you read the plays and you hate them?” Frederique Michel, Paris-born artistic director of City Garage Theatre, wonders with classic Gallic bluntness.

“Don’t do them. By all means,” Parks answers, amiably. “If you don’t like the plays, no worries.”

By the time “365 Days/365 Plays” opens, Parks and Metzgar intend to have had tete-a-tetes like this with all 14 of their far-flung groups.

History shows that big, communal deeds can yield something as enduring as the pyramids, the great cathedrals, the medieval passion plays and Thanksgiving. But we’ve also seen ephemeral results, even when millions become roused to join the ballyhoo -- witness Ken Kragen’s 1986 “Hands Across America” benefit for the poor. Idealistic, but in the end a passing stunt.

So what do Parks and Metzgar think may come of marshaling hundreds of the nation’s theaters for a single, sustained purpose?

“I think we’re careening toward being an example for people,” the producer says. “I bet a lot of really smart people will have great ideas after us about what else to do.”

“The prayer is the beginning,” Parks adds, large eyes lifting to the blue outside the conference room window, her voice grown earnest and intense. “The possibilities are huge, so much huger than a play a day. So go forth and find that bigger thing.”

Could this be the Woodstock of American theater? Might babies be born because of it?

“Nice babies! Only nice babies!” Parks shouts while cracking up. “Why not? We like babies.”


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