Story posted October 10, 2007
Ideas are sometimes like yeast cultures. Give them a little human warmth and they start to grow. Add some creative juices and they multiply like crazy.
That's what happened when Pulitzer prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks started writing a play a day for one full year.
The resulting 365 Days/365 Plays project has been called the largest-scale theatrical collaboration in United States history. The daily changing cycle of small plays are being presented every day for 52 weeks by theater companies, colleges, and universities around the country and around the world.
Bowdoin is stepping into the mix at week 49, premiering seven of these 365 works over seven days with dozens of informal casts across campus from morning till midnight, beginning Monday, Oct. 15. (Visit this site for a full performance schedule and map.) All told, 10 theater and dance faculty and staff and nearly 200 Bowdoin students are involved in the performances, making it possibly the largest theatrical project in the College's history.
The über-project culminates in a Oct. 19-21 weekend performance of all plays at Pickard Theater with a cast of 12 students—many of them first-years who have been rehearsing together on this complex production almost since the start of school.
"It's a great way to make friends, working on a show together," says Sam Waterbury '11. "Everybody is sort of new at this."
Sam is performing in a memory-boggling work called Action/Inaction. It is a solo piece with no text in which Parks' brief stage directions invoke the actor to invent 365 tasks to do onstage. Further, she suggests: "Don't be shy about going all out. There isn't anything to hold out for. This is it. The Peace of the World depends on your success. Hurry hurry hurry."
During a recent rehearsal, that peace was resting on a yoga pose, a coffee cup, a sewing needle, a saw and a stapler. "We wanted to have as large a range as possible, from the mundane things you do everyday to other, more physically interesting things—like holding my left foot with my right hand and then jumping my right leg through the loop they create," says Waterbury, who has been working closely with choreographer and dance professor Gwyneth Jones and Production Coordinator Joan Sand on his 365 tasks.
Waterbury says he sees the piece "as a sort of caricature of every man. I think a lot of people scramble around in life trying to accomplish so many things. But at the end of the day the light fades long before we're finished ... eventually everyone has a realization that they won't be able to do everything before they die. How do they want to choose their time?"
His is one of three so-called "constants"—repeating short plays that are performed as part of productions of all other 365 plays. Its repetitive nature is indicative of Parks' highly personalized theatrical vocabulary, one that she describes as "a structure which creates a drama of accumulation."
In an Elements of Style that she publishes as guides to her plays, Parks likens her work to poetry, or jazz, where repetition and refrain of language and movement creates "weight and rhythm."
"Words," she writes, "are spells in our mouths."
Her plays challenge linear dramatic structure, "where, traditionally, all elements lead the audience toward some single explosive moment." Instead, she suggests, "the climax could be the accumulated weight of the repetition—a residue that, like city dust, stays with us." She adds: "I've realized how much the idea of Repetition and Revision is an integral part of the African and African-American literary and oral traditions."
Students came face-to-face with these ideas—and the person behind them—when Parks paid a visit to Bowdoin in October. In a packed public talk at Pickard Theater, Parks urged students to "entertain your foreign ideas. They are the spirit and the spirit is like a great noble king. Treat your spirit like a most honored guest. When it comes knocking, feel blessed and lucky and be attentive to what it has to say."
First year student Rakiya Orange '11, a member of the 365 Days cast, was in the front row soaking it all in.
"It was amazing," says Orange. "Like she was talking directly just to me. A lot of things she said closely related to my life. Like, if somebody gives you advice and it doesn't stick with what you want, you can push the advice away. Even if the person is educated. Even if you don't know what you want to do in your life yet; don't worry about it. It will come to you. She didn't know she wanted to be a writer until she was in chemistry class and realized it was not for her."
Orange, who grew up in a theatrical family—her parents operate a community theater in Baltimore—came to Bowdoin to expand her educational horizons. "All of my friends went to [theater] conservatories," she says, "but I wanted to be different—to go to a small liberal arts college so I could do everything."
"Everything" included being cast in a show her first semester. "I just can't get away ..." she laughs.
But her work in Parks' short play, One and Two, is unlike anything the young actress has done before. There are two characters with no words to speak, and only brief stage directions—take one step forward, two steps backwards, then repeat. From this, Orange is creating a rich psychological world.
"My character is on a journey," says Orange. "In front of me is my fear and I can't get away. For my character, I've always been taking two steps backwards, one step forward. I'm getting tired of it and I break down and start sobbing. It's really emotional for me, so much goes through my head. Each time I do it, it's different. After practice I'll go back in my room and think about what I did and how it affects me. It is a deep process."
Parks' themes of alienation and missed connections are tempered with moments of tenderness and raucous joy, as characters collide in often surprising ways. In the piece Easy Come Easy Go, the classic ghetto handshake gets pushed to its most acrobatic limits. What starts with the classic trading of hand pounding, becomes "this elaborate and gorgeous gesture-groove of hip street-soul camaraderie." During rehearsal, those gestures included back flips, splits and belly flops.
"When I first read the script they all seemed like 10 disparate works," says Joan Sand, who is co-directing 365 Days with five faculty members from Theater and Dance. "But by the end of the play, you realize there is a theme running through: the desire and necessity for connections between people and the things that can get in the way of that.
"I hope audiences are entertained and challenged," she adds. "There is so much to look at and think about. Having six directors from different disciplines—and students who are both actors and dancers—really has allowed us a broader vision. And everyone gets their moment in the sun."