For the next year, Austin will be practicing daily public acts of creative expression as part of 365 Days/365 Plays
"One percent is theory and 99 percent is practice. It is the 'doing' that brings the many benefits and rewards of yoga." Sri K. Pattabhi Jois
What do you do every day?
A few months ago, my yoga studio offered a 40-day challenge to its teachers and students. Each day for 40 days, the participants practiced one or more yoga postures. In addition, we determined our intention for this practice, ranging from finding more kindness to being more patient to sharing more love. We wrote down our intention on a piece of paper and turned it in. There. It was official. The combination of intention and asana intertwined a daily physical practice with a daily spiritual practice not quite walking in the desert, but definitely an exercise in contemplation and hope. At the end of the 40 days, our shared effort culminated in a vegetarian potluck party.
My intention was "ease." I'm a playwright, and I travel a lot. So I wanted to create a practice that I would actually do when I was away from home. I thought "ease" was a way to tell myself, "Get Off Your Butt," but nicely. Yogically.
Well, I screwed it up within 36 hours. Instead of doing yoga, I thought a lot about not doing the yoga. I justified. I rationalized. I napped instead. Days went by. The asana was left untended. The intention withered on the vine. And, no, I didn't go to the party.
Yoga and writing are sister practices for me. Both cultivate breath, observation, repetition, and attention. And there's a strange dynamic in there, too, about ambition, which feels both integral and antithetical to the daily act of doing the work. I want to be good at yoga, flexible and strong. I want to be a successful writer, widely read and widely produced. But when all I can think about is what I'm not, those ambitions get in the way. The ambition becomes the practice.
The playwright Suzan-Lori Parks also practices yoga. She knows about breath, observation, repetition, and attention. And she's had an experience of success, winning the Pulitzer Prize (for Topdog/Underdog) and a MacArthur Genius Grant, among many other awards. And in 2002, she wrote a play every day for a year. A play a day, 365 days in a row. A simple daily ritual.
In a recent phone conversation with Parks and her friend and producer, Bonnie Metzgar, I called her year of plays a writing practice, but she said no. She said, "There is no rehearsal. Like Yoda says, or someone, 'There is no try.' Every day I write. Just because, that's what it is."
When she was done, Parks put those 365 plays in a drawer until Metzgar, a former associate producer at the Public Theater in New York, asked her to open the drawer and take them out. Today there are 15 "hub" cities across the country, each one committed to producing the entire cycle, in order a national ritual of theatre-making and theatre-going.
Austin is one of the hub cities, and, in a massive effort that kicks off Nov. 13, curated by Zachary Scott Theatre Center, we will experience 365 days of new plays, produced by upward of 30 local theatre companies in seven-day blocks of time, in expected and unexpected venues all over town.
"It's a huge project," acknowledges Zach Artistic Director Dave Steakley, who directs the first week of plays. But, he says, it's also personal. "It's almost like opening someone's private journal. I think it's as much an expression of who she is as the stories and the work that's coming to her."
365 Days/365 Plays is a national festival, and the way that it works is this: One theatre coordinates a hub city's effort and finds other theatre companies to participate. Each theatre company picks a week. Then they get access to the seven plays that were written during that week. Then they produce the seven plays in the order in which they were written. They determine what "produce" means; it may be a full production with lights and sounds and a set or a simple reading of the text or something in between. The plays can be done all in one evening or stretched out over the course of the week, like a little amuse bouche before a meal. Like seven little asanas. Every theatre is doing this on top of its regular season.
What's happening in Austin and around the country is large-scale yoga drama: breathing together, observing together, giving attention. For the next year, the city is going to be practicing daily and public acts of creative expression, connected to other cities across the country, all doing the same thing. As Oskar Eustis, artistic director of the Public, says, "It's a meditation in almost a religious fashion on the power of theatre."
I suggested that, in an era of perpetual funding problems in the arts, producing a national festival of 365 plays was actually kind of ballsy. Parks agreed, but said, "It's ballsy, but hopefully it's not about being Popeye 'I'm going to will it into being.'" Rather, her intention is that "if there's a day or a series of days or whatever there's a theatre that can't manage a production a question of time or there's no rehearsal, the lights go out and the A/C doesn't work we're going to sit out in front of the theatre and light a couple of candles and read this play aloud."
What do you do every day?
Bonnie Metzgar has a beautiful response to that question. "I feel like I'm on a spiritual path, personally," she says. "I'm a very invested member in a 12-step community, and so I feel that some of the meditation I do in regards to my recovery is part of my daily practice. The 11th step is about sort of creating constant contact and meditation. And you know, I would say a couple times a week I do what I would say is a heavy-duty meditation, but in a daily way I do like a check-in meditation."
Ken Webster, artistic director of Hyde Park Theatre and producer of Week Five (Dec. 11-17), says, "I go to the theatre every day. I eat at Zen Japanese Food every day. I order the same thing every day. I get coffee from Quack's every day. It's sad when there's someone new working there because I have to tell them my order. I'm definitely a creature of habit."
For the past five years, Hyde Park Theatre's season has generally included, as Webster puts it, "a lot of Canadian playwrights, but mostly young American playwrights no one has ever heard of." Webster hopes that the Week Five plays will expand Hyde Park's audience and grow their company. They'll need more actors than they currently have, even though one of the plays is only two minutes long. "But the playwright suggests that you do it a few times," Webster says, "that you repeat it two or three or four or five times, depending on how you feel."
Breath. Observation. Repetition. Attention.
365 Days/365 Plays is visionary and ambitious, but it's also just a commitment to doing the work. "A play a day could be anything," says Parks. "It's specific. And it's manageable."
She continues: "It's sometimes frightening to get specific. It sounds simple, but it doesn't sound easy." If the intention is, I'm going to write every day without ambition. I'm going to yoga every day without ambition, then the ambition becomes the practice. "Instead," offers Parks, "I'm going to write every day. I'm going to show up on the mat every day." That sounds strangely reasonable.
What do you do every day?
Every day, Dave Steakley checks the Broadway Stars Web site for its comprehensive theatre news. "Sometimes I do that at the start of the day, and sometimes I do it to decompress at the end of the day." But then again, Dave Steakley works all the time. He plans to produce his Week One plays on the pedestrian bridge over Town Lake. "I keep dreaming too big," he says. "It would be so great to have an actor in a little canoe having to interact with an actor who's on the bridge." He wants to follow the communal intention that Parks and Metzgar established for the festival early on. "It needs to be something very public."
At the Theatre Communications Group conference in Atlanta last summer, Steakley heard Parks and Metzgar talk about their vision for 365 Days/365 Plays, and he volunteered Austin and Zach immediately. After the kick-off show on Nov. 13, Zach will host a big party at the theatre, which won't be potluck. Moreover, Suzan-Lori Parks and Bonnie Metzgar are planning to attend. "She helps take all that 'supposed to' out of the equation," Steakley says. "Once you see her and meet her, it's the ability to experience the work with less baggage. Just let it be."
Fortunately, we get that chance. Come practice having a good time.