Undergraduate theater students rarely get the chance to work on a major world premiere, but this year hundreds of them will. Currently, more than 70 colleges and universities are participating in "365 Days/365 Plays," an ambitious project from Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks. Every week, as they mount their portion of this epic experiment, another group of students and teachers will be ushered into theater history.
But while it now involves thousands of artists, "365 Days/365 Plays" began as a single, tantalizing question. Is it possible, Parks wondered, to write a play every day for an entire year? On Nov. 13, 2002--just months after the searing drama "Topdog/Underdog" made her the first Black woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for drama--she decided to find out.
Each morning, Parks produced a new script. Some were just a few sentences, and some were several pages. Some consisted only of stage directions--like a play called "Lickety Splits," in which a woman licks a man all over his body--and some were responses to the headlines of a particular morning. There are tributes to celebrities like Gregory Hines, who passed away in the summer of 2003, and there is a series of pieces that transforms Shakespeare characters into modern American soldiers. The plays may not tell a single, ongoing story, but they are unified in their testament to a playwright's will.
Fittingly, the structure created to produce "365" is as ambitious as the work itself. The 700 participating theaters--with more joining every week--have been divided into a series of networks across the United States and Canada. Each network is responsible for mounting all 365 plays, and each theater in a network must produce at least seven of the scripts. The productions began on Nov. 13, 2006, exactly four years after Parks started working, and they will end on Nov. 12, 2007. Generally, each network has been presenting the plays in the order Parks wrote them, which means that every week a new batch of scripts debuts simultaneously in theaters around North America.
Parks and producing partner Bonnie Metzgar say they are dedicated to making space for anyone who wants to tackle "365." To that end, the royalty fee for each play is only $1, and companies are encouraged to produce the scripts however they can, regardless of budget. This openness quickly led to the creation of the University Network, which includes both prominent institutions like Brown, Vanderbilt and Yale universities, and smaller schools like Berea College in Kentucky, Hendrix College in Arkansas and Palomar College in California.
To Parks, the appeal of the University Network is clear. "There are a lot of innovative thinkers in the university system, and it seemed obvious they should come on board," she says. "If we're getting college and university students excited about the theater and involved in a world premiere, we're saying, 'Hey, you have a place at the table.' Hopefully, a lot of good can come from that encouragement."
Metzgar's enthusiasm is also evident, particularly with regard to the quality of university work. In an e-mail, she writes, "One of the goals of the [University] Network is to show how university theaters are a vibrant part of the American theater. Universities are often the source of the most adventurous theater in town."
Creating New Communities
The chance to take artistic risks on such a significant scale has created a fervent response. Rebecca Rugg, the associate chair of playwriting at Yale School of Drama and coordinator of the University Network, says students and faculty are enthusiastically forming communities to bring their portions of "365" to life.
"This project has been at its best when the decentralized leadership model has allowed people to take the initiative," she says. "There are these people teaching who want to participate in the cultural life of the country, and they're telling the students to let their imaginations go nuts. …