National Theater Celebrates ‘365 Days/365 Plays’

December 22, 2006 at 6:45 PM EDT

JEFFREY BROWN: It was not a typical day at the theatre recently in Denver.

ACTRESS: You’re kidding.

ACTOR: No, I’m not.

ACTRESS: Your legs are folded underneath you…

JEFFREY BROWN: Actors delivered their lines on a sidewalk while the audience watched from the street. The play ended only minutes after it began…

ACTOR: Step right up…

JEFFREY BROWN: … and was followed soon after by another one across the street.

ACTOR: Well, that’s the end of that, I guess.

JEFFREY BROWN: Nothing, in fact, was typical about the “365 Days, 365 Plays” project, not how the plays were written, one a day over the course of a year…

ACTRESS: Let me pass!

JEFFREY BROWN: … and now how they’re being presented, by hundreds of theatre companies around the country in a year-long festival.

In New York recently, I met up with the woman behind all this. In 2002, Suzan Lori Parks had just won a Pulitzer Prize for her play “Top Dog Underdog,” when she got the idea of writing a play a day.

Daily offering to theater

SUZAN LORI PARKS, Playwright: I felt like I'd been given so much by theatre, so why not make a daily offering to the art form that had given me so much? That's the psychological version of why I did it. It was fun; it sounded like fun. And could I do it? I don't know. Let's see. That's really why I did it.

JEFFREY BROWN: So you got this idea?


JEFFREY BROWN: You wrote the first one?


JEFFREY BROWN: And then you woke up the next day...


JEFFREY BROWN: ... and thought, "Oh my goodness."

SUZAN LORI PARKS: What the heck am I doing?

JEFFREY BROWN: "What the heck am I doing?"

SUZAN LORI PARKS: Well, you know, I'm cleaning up my language there, but what have I gotten myself into?

It would have been awesome where they did it on a bridge outside...

MAN: Oh, really?

SUZAN LORI PARKS: ... a pedestrian bridge...

JEFFREY BROWN: Parks, 42, is the author of 12 plays, but she'd never done anything like this. As the days unfolded, the plays came, all quite short, some just a few paragraphs, others several pages. Inspiration came from everywhere: the news; the death of a famous person; an overheard conversation.

SUZAN LORI PARKS: Sometimes in line, as I waited to board an airplane, you know, you're waiting to get on the security line, you know, get to the security thing.

JEFFREY BROWN: Just standing in line.

SUZAN LORI PARKS: Standing in line, you know, with your shoes tucked under your arm, and you're writing, and you're overhearing someone say, "I lost my sweater." That'll do. You know, and that becomes part of a play.

ACTRESS: Hey, guys.


Hundreds of theaters

JEFFREY BROWN: All of this was merely a personal quest for Parks until her friend, theater director Bonnie Metzgar, asked to see the plays and decided they had to be produced.

BONNIE METZGAR, Theater Director: We began to talk about how we might be able to give that experience to as many people as possible.

ACTOR: We invite you now to go inside where plays are performing in the lobby and in the balcony.

JEFFREY BROWN: The two women then took the next atypical step in this story. Rather than work with one theatre, they created a festival in which the plays would be presented over a year by many theatre companies. Nearly 800 have signed up to date.

ACTRESS: Bored? Me, too.

JEFFREY BROWN: They organized regional hubs around the country. Each hub then enlisted 52 local theatre groups to perform one week's worth of plays.

BONNIE METZGAR: There's this huge art community and theatre community across the country and around the world that is happening every day, and this is an expression of that community.

ACTOR: French fries, with lots of ketchup and hot sauce, a double burger -- make it with those nice thick patties -- root beer float, and a slice of apple pie, a la mode.

JEFFREY BROWN: When the festival launched in November, the Curious Theatre Company in Denver presented the first week's plays, which included one about the last meal of a man on death row.

ACTOR: Microwaved?


ACTOR: Like I'm going to be in a minute?

ACTOR: I'm home!

JEFFREY BROWN: Another, called "Father Comes Home from the Wars," had Parks' characteristic mix of humor and seriousness.

ACTOR: You're home.


ACTRESS: I wasn't expecting you, ever.

ACTOR: Maybe I should go back outside and come back in again.


ACTRESS: Once more.

ACTRESS: You're kidding.

JEFFREY BROWN: I think a lot of people might not recognize these as plays, or at least as full-blown plays the way we're used to.

SUZAN LORI PARKS: Sure. Sure, sure, sure.

JEFFREY BROWN: So in what sense are they a play?

SUZAN LORI PARKS: A play has a doorway in it from the conception. From its conception, a play has a doorway in it. Through that doorway will come actors, directors, audience members, journalists, scholars, designers, you know, of all kinds.

JEFFREY BROWN: And in terms of the rewriting, the editing process, the quality idea...

SUZAN LORI PARKS: Right, sure.

JEFFREY BROWN: ... was there any difference in these as opposed to your full-length plays?

SUZAN LORI PARKS: Well, sure, sure. I mean, certain words don't -- you know, first the writing comes, the radical inclusion, everything is welcome. And then, of course, you know, you trim, prune. You want to make it -- you want to make it strong enough so that you can pass it out to 700 different theatres.

Each play 'a full arc'

JEFFREY BROWN: The actors in Denver said that, in spite of their short length, the plays felt complete.

ERIK SANDVOLD, Actor: They were, you know, pertinent to what was going on, but they just had this incredible timeless quality about them, this sort of iconic, you know, mythical almost sort of scenarios that were being played out.

KAREN SLACK, Actor: She gives you a full arc. Those characters have a full journey. And I do feel that, as far as the pieces that I've been a part of, they start at a specific place. You have a wonderful arc, and then they end, which I think is a magnificent thing to be able to accomplish, in sometimes half a page, you know?

ACTRESS: Why not?

JEFFREY BROWN: For the audience, it wasn't always easy to distinguish the actors from those watching. But Paul Barru said he felt that only heightened the experience.

PAUL BARRU, Audience Member: Well, I think it -- you get more of a sense of the vitality of life as it is actually going on when you're watching it. When you see a play, it's very hard to break the barrier of knowing that it's on the stage and been directed and created.

And while some plays get beyond that, they're very rare, whereas this breaks beyond that almost every time you see it.

JEFFREY BROWN: Parks says her project is also sparking another kind of response.

SUZAN LORI PARKS: What's fun is that I've gotten a lot of e-mails from other writers, a lot of young writers, saying, "Hey, we got a group together in Portland, and we're going to write a play a day, all of us together. We're going to, you know, do that." And that's really neat.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, that's what I was wondering. I mean, there's a sense of be a writer every day, learn to write by writing every day.

SUZAN LORI PARKS: Right. Right. If you're a writer, it's not about deciding once and then just coasting. You know what I mean? It's like being married. You can't just decide -- you can't say "I do" on your wedding day and then just coast. You have to say "I do" every day, you know, or at least that's how I feel.

I say "I do" with my husband -- we say "I do" every day. We look in each other's eyes, "I do." "You do? You do, too? OK, we're here." I do the same thing with my writing process, you know? I do. I say that every day.

ACTRESS: There will always be damsels in distress. There will always be dragons.

JEFFREY BROWN: "365 Days, 365 Plays," the festival, will continue through November 2007.