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One Play A Day
‘365’ theater project unites U.S. colleges and universities.

By Mark Blankenship

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.”

Among the most remarkable groups birthed by “365” are those at Rutgers University and Wesleyan University. In both cases, undergraduates have stepped forward to oversee the entire process; casting, rehearsing and presenting a seven-play slate. Students and faculty at Hastings College in Nebraska have committed to mounting all 365 shows, even though they didn’t sign on until early this year.

Parks’ work, which is often flooded with lyrical language and fantastic imagery, has forced colleges to perform in unexpected places and by unusual means. Last November, for instance, Yale undergrads brought audience members to a library, opened card catalog drawers, and produced iPods that were playing audio recordings of a script. After they’d listened to the play, spectators rode an elevator to a rooftop showing of another. In the following weeks, dining halls at the University of Notre Dame became impromptu stages, and students at Canada’s Dalhousie University performed in various outdoor locales.

Professors involved in the endeavor say the plays offer a valuable enhancement to the standard curriculum. “The plays are hard-hitting and political, but their meanings are not obvious. They require analytical thinking and research into the political climate of the week [in which they were written]. They’re attracting students for all the right reasons,” says theater professor Mark J. Charney, who will oversee Clemson University’s leg of “365” in March.

The project has already attracted students who might never take a theater course, including musicians who are composing scores for several of Clemson’s pieces. New York City’s Hunter College will foster interdisciplinary collaboration by letting students direct and design as well as act.

“When we go to conferences or write high-minded reports about our work, we talk about the value [in theater education] of creating something outside the classroom that is a truly collaborative theater experience,” says Jonathan Kalb, chair of Hunter’s theater department. “That’s not just rhetoric. Using ‘365’ as the basis for a local community that creates a theater production is fundamental to what we do.”

At some schools, “365” is engendering communities that spread beyond the campus gates. Clemson students will perform their work in nearby towns, and they will work with professional actors from a local company.

In some cases, the younger artists will even be casting and directing the pros. In Atlanta, a city with one of the largest theater scenes in the country, the line between university and professional work has essentially been erased. The 11 participating schools are part of the Atlanta Network, not the University Network. Only Spelman College has opted to join both. That means that when the Atlanta Network gathers for monthly meetings at a local restaurant, students are sharing ideas with renowned local artists who may also be their professors.

It had to be this way insists Celise Kalke, artistic associate of Atlanta’s flagship Alliance Theatre. “We felt ‘365’ would only show the breadth of Atlanta theater if it was set up as a professional-university collaboration.”

Kalke says she believes the relationship benefits everyone, particularly since so many Atlanta professionals teach theater by day. “When you work in the theater,” she says, “you think very much about getting things done. Having university involvement means the depth of the dialogue will make the process of collaboration more resonant.”

Bridging the Gaps
Of course, with “365” birthing so many small communities, the challenge now becomes joining them into a cohesive unit. After all, if schools across the United States and Canada are all working on the same project, it stands to reason that they will have insights to share. Though “365” does have a Web site in development, Rugg says she hopes someone will emerge with a plan to bridge the vast distances between schools. She says she’s toying with the notion of “365 Spring Break.”

She’s particularly enthusiastic about what young people could teach one other. “The reason it’s so important to have students connected and involved is that they have to figure out what’s happening next in the American theater. And maybe it will encourage them to see that a project like this can be accomplished,” she says.

Parks concurs, but she stresses that she doesn’t want “365” to become a massive networking opportunity. Even though the plays are world premieres, she says, she wants them to be staged with the sense of low-pressure experimentation she feels is crucial to making theater in the first place.

“What I find is that students are often in trouble if they take themselves too seriously,” she says. “There’s a lot of maneuvering to book the right meeting or get the right internship. I’m trying to invite [students] to the party in a different way. When you encourage enthusiasm, that nurtures the spirit. And the more time you spend nurturing the spirit, the more chance you have to create art — or even a life — that’s meaningful.”

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