As an experiment, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan Lori-Parks wrote one play each day for a whole year. Now, more than 600 theaters across the U.S. and in Canada and the U.K. are staging the series, “365 Days/365 Plays.”
Augusta’s own Le Chat Noir recently joined the largest grassroots theater collaborations in history.
“I knew what was going on, but I also knew that only certain people were allowed to do it,” said Doug Joiner, one of the owners of Le Chat Noir. “You had to be selected. That’s why I’m so proud to be able to host such a phenomenon.”
Underground Epics, National Spoken Word Week, Augusta Renaissance and the theater partnered together to represent Week 45, a two-day/seven-play production, before passing the cycle on to the next theater. It’s a kind of cultural relay race that celebrates the community of theater around the world.
“I think essentially it’s very unifying because this phenomenon is happening not only in America, but other countries as well. It gives us that sense of purpose that theater sometimes lacks,” Joiner said.
Lori-Parks’ grab bag of 365 plays range from one-page abstract performance pieces to lengthy productions with complex character development and plot lines. No two plays are alike. Some are hardly more than stage directions, as in “Lickety Splits.” Others are tributes to the artists who influenced the playwright. Still others put new twists on old favorites, like transplanting “Macbeth” to the American ghetto.
“I think it will be a significant event,” said Director Amyr Heard. “You have so many participants in this and the plays are good plays. They encompass so many different people, so many different times.”
The plays performed in Augusta will include the surrealist piece that is perhaps the most representative of Lori-Parks’ series: “Proust’s Cookie.” It tackles the impetus behind artistic inspiration. Another play pits identity and personal change against the expectations of society.
It’s a testament to Augusta’s small black-box theater that Heard called them in only their second season and asked if they were interested in being involved.
“It’s quite a compliment because it seems that we are gaining a reputation for being something cutting edge,” Joiner said. “People who are doing that kind of work want to
come to us and perform it in our space.”
Heard had dropped by the space with Lucy Craft Laney Museum Program Coordinator Anthony Page while in town for National Spoken Word Week. She had been involved in the Atlanta productions — like at the city’s renowned 7 Stages and Actors Express theaters -— and when her sheer enthusiasm for the project won over the producers, they agreed to let her direct the play outside the city during one of the official weeks of the project’s production.
“I had one place that I wanted to do it, and that was Le Chat Noir. I’ve seen the place, I’ve heard them talk about the theater and their passion,” Heard said.
As it happened, the theater had a show booked the week before and the week after, but for the week Heard requested, the schedule was wide open.
“So it was meant to be,” Heard said. But she had only a short amount of time to pull together the actors and rehearsals necessary to stage nine plays in two days — not to mention that all of the scripts are kept under lock and key until the agreement is finalized. Augusta Renaissance and Augusta State University helped in finding the cast, including award-winning actor Brad James. Luckily, the cast doesn’t have a lot of set-building to do.
“The production, as far as what it needed, is very minimal — almost Brechtian,” Joiner said, after the German playwright who relied on an audience’s reflection and detachment, rather than a play’s atmosphere and action.
It’s necessary when presenting multiple plays that the stage remains versatile, and Heard liked the production’s focus on the stories, as opposed to creating a grand spectacle.
“I liked that they were taking it back, for lack of a better word, to the community,” she said. The messages live longer in the audience’s interpretation of the play, rather than in some kind of SparkNotes synopsis of the storyline.
Lori-Parks isn’t getting rich on these productions. All of the productions have to be free and open to the public in order for a theater to participate.
She is, as Joiner said, one of the most prolific playwrights alive today, and her dramatic work is already taught in colleges across the globe. Yet she continues to examine the definition not only of dramatic writing, but also of theater.
“You can’t deny her because of all the other stuff that she’s done,” Heard said. “She’s already a great power.”
And yet there has been some criticism of the production. It has been called a gimmick, a publicity stunt and an exercise in hubris. But Joiner and Heard say the quality of the work speaks for itself.
“All innovators are accused of using gimmicks,” Joiner said. “The critics often don’t realize what they’re talking about. Sometimes they call things a gimmick and realize years after that that the gimmick was brilliant.”
365 Days/365 Plays
Le Chat Noir
Free and open to the public