And now the play’s her thing

Times Staff Writer

Galeen Roe admits there are times when rushing from her job as a downtown law librarian to stick-shift her 1999 Chevy Prizm through traffic to make an 8 p.m. theater curtain leaves her feeling grumpy.

But Roe also confesses to a certain compulsion when it comes to not missing any concert, play or performance art piece she can possibly get to. “That’s what I do, I go to see bands in Tijuana, or to see a play wherever,” says the effervescent 35-year-old, who lives with two cats in Los Feliz. “My parents are like: ‘I think there’s a show in Boston -- if you leave now, you’ll make it.’ ”

So it comes as no surprise that, after a chance introduction to playwright Suzan-Lori Parks’ yearlong, nationwide theater festival “365 Plays/365 Days,” Roe would decide she had to attend every single play.

Parks, the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer of “Topdog/Underdog,” decided on Nov. 13, 2002, that she would write a play a day for a year. Exactly four years later, those plays became a yearlong festival with more than 600 theaters in Los Angeles, Atlanta, San Francisco, Washington, Chicago, Minneapolis and other participating cities.

Each company committed, sight unseen, to presenting one week of Parks’ date-specific works. Because the plays are often no more than a few pages, most companies opted to present all seven at one show.

Spearheaded by Center Theatre Group, the Los Angeles-area festival began Nov. 15, 2006, on the plaza of the Music Center; the L.A. cycle also will end with a one-night performance presented by CTG and Grand Performances downtown at California Plaza on Tuesday.

On that first night last year, Roe was there. After seeing an ad, she says, “I just walked over from work.

“They handed out the programs, and it was like: ‘Oh, I’m Galeen, I’m kinda crazy -- I’m going to go to all of these!’ I’ve been in more theaters than probably 80% of the city, but I was already saying, ‘I’ve never been to that theater.’ ”

What Roe does is show up, and for “the 365,” as most tend to call it, playwright Parks believes showing up is more than half the battle. “Any Zen teacher, karate teacher or yoga teacher -- and I’ve studied them all -- will tell you that showing up is 100% of what you’ve got to do,” Parks says. In fact, that’s why Parks has written a play for Roe, to be presented during the final Los Angeles performance. Though Parks will not reveal details, she will perform in the piece, along with other actors.

“I was thinking, what can we do for her as a way of saying thank you, and I thought: ‘I know, I’ll do the thing I always do; I’ll write a play!’ ” Parks says. “There have been some other dedication plays throughout the year. I think this will actually perfect the cosmic juju thing, to sort of write a play to the perfect witness, an audience member. And that it happens in L.A., you know what I mean? In a town where, if you read the guidebooks, it’s not about theater.”

Though no one really kept track, Parks and “365" producer Bonnie Metzgar believe that there were frequent attendees as well as others who saw multiple plays as part of marathon performances, but Roe is likely the only person in the country possessed of enough cosmic juju to follow the shows individually, week after week, through one area festival.

At last month’s Week 48 shows at Santa Monica’s Highways Performance Space -- presented as what executive and artistic director Leo Garcia calls an “anti-circus” of simultaneous performance pieces -- and Buffalo Nights Theatre Company’s Week 49 shows at the nearby Powerhouse Theatre, Metzgar and Parks greeted Roe like an old friend. “The fact that Galeen has gone and been the pilgrim and walked through all these places where art happens in L.A. is just an amazing thing,” Metzgar says.

It is probably safe to say that Roe was the audience member whose world -- and gas budget -- was most affected by the 365. But, as the festival winds to a close, theater companies in the Los Angeles area and elsewhere say there was more than enough audience juju to go around.

Theater representatives say the festival’s greatest benefit was the connections made between large and small theaters within their respective communities. In New York City, the Public Theater invited the more than 60 local participants to repeat their performances in a series of once-monthly marathons of that month’s plays.

“I saw a wonderful little theater called the LightBox, doing some of the most innovative physical work I’ve ever seen -- who knows what that’s going to mean?” says Public Theater artistic director Oskar Eustis. “That is, to me, the beauty of this whole 365 project, creating a space for unintended consequences, a space for surprising results. We won’t know what all of the reverberations are for some time to come.”

But Eustis and others insist the 365 hasn’t been an insular exercise by theater people, for theater people. “I think both the plays themselves and the variety of the presentations have been fantastic, mind-expanding exercises in the possibility of theater,” he says. “It’s been small. If you just count the audiences at the Public, it’s only a few hundred a month; you can’t call that a mass impact. But if you could, the audience for each of those theaters when they were performing in their own homes, it begins to mount up exponentially.”

In May, Chicago’s Goodman Theatre presented “365 Plays” Week 26 as part of its downtown “Looptopia” Festival. All seven of that week’s plays were performed free but by ticketed reservations on a Friday night in the theater lobby, before another show with paid admission.

“We kind of ensured that we would have an audience,” says Goodman associate producer Steve Scott. “We had literally hundreds of people here -- in fact, many more than we could accommodate -- we had literally a line around the block.” Scott added that, of the 50-odd theaters that participated, “I don’t recall anybody telling me that nobody showed up, or even just three people showed up.”

Los Angeles companies put their own spin on the plays and the festival. Midway through the festival year, Pasadena’s the Theater@Boston Court threw a “halfway party,” inviting other L.A.-area companies to reprise a part of their week of performances in the Boston Court’s 99-seat theater stage. All four of those performances filled the available seats.

Like Chicago’s Goodman, downtown’s East West Players, which performed its “365" plays with an all-Asian cast, offered them before performances of another play, in this case “I Land,” Keo Woolford’s show about Hawaiian culture.

Artistic director Tim Dang says about 70 people attended the performances in the theater courtyard.

And while they didn’t get lines around the block, no theater was more appreciative of being part of the 365 than Watts Village Theatre of Los Angeles. Artistic director Guillermo Aviles-Rodriguez is proud of the fact that his company did the first 365 performance in the country, at 12:01 a.m. on Jan. 1, at Shakespeare Festival/L.A.'s downtown venue; more than 50 people showed up. The company also gave well-attended performances at Watts Towers and John Anson Ford Amphitheatre. The company put its own multicultural twist on the plays by translating certain phrases into Spanish, Yiddish, Greek and other languages.

“Our community is Watts, we have a 50%-plus poverty level, and you really don’t think of theater when you think of that community,” Aviles-Rodriguez says. “ ‘365' was an amazing opportunity to do that with 50 other theaters behind us. The doors that had been closed to us automatically opened. “That was the big benefit for us, showing our community that the company in their backyard can run with the big dogs.”

--

diane.haithman@latimes.com

--

‘365 Plays/365 Days': Week 52

Where: Marina Pavilion, California Plaza, 350 S. Grand Ave.

When: 8 p.m. Tuesday

Price: Free, but reservations are recommended

Contact: (213) 972-7599, www.365inla.com