Phoning It in: American Century Theater artistic director Jack Marshall (right) and sound designer Keith Bell adapt Parks’ plays for the airwaves.
Phoning It in: American Century Theater artistic director Jack Marshall (right) and sound designer Keith Bell adapt Parks’ plays for the airwaves. Credit: Photograph by Darrow Montgomery

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When a new Susan-Lori Parks play comes to the D.C. area, local box-office hot lines ring off the hooks with calls from theatergoers clamoring for tickets. For the American Century Theater’s production of seven of the playwright’s shorts, however, the phone lines will be carrying the plays themselves.

At 8 p.m. Monday, Dec. 18, the Arlington-based company will perform via conference call; audience members can call a toll-free number that will connect them to the live performance of the 30-minute audio program. “When I read [the plays], I realized you can do a complete radio drama—what Orson Welles called ‘the theater of imagination’—by sound only,” says American Century Theater artistic director Jack Marshall.

The teleconference play is just one of a year’s worth of performances that will make up the 365 Days/365 Plays festival, which began last month and runs to Nov. 12, 2007. During that time, participating local theater companies—both renowned and unknown—will each premiere seven of the 365 short plays Parks wrote over the course of a year. And, per the playwright’s instructions, every performance will be free.

That means scores of actors, costume designers, and directors are volunteering to put on the plays. Convincing so many thespians to work without pay turned out to be easy, says local coordinator and Studio Theatre dramaturge Danielle Amato. But it did require an ecumenical approach.

“We invited absolutely everyone we could think of,” Amato says.

The Helen Hayes organization, which gives out local theater awards, and the Cultural Alliance of Greater Washington helped in the recruiting effort by e-mailing their members, Amato says. The resulting coalition ended up including heavy-hitters such as Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company and the Washington Shakespeare Company, as well as troupes that could comfortably fit in a studio apartment.

“There are a lot of small groups like Odyssey Productions, who is doing site-specific guerrilla theater,” says Amato. “They are a theater group I wasn’t aware of.”

Becoming better known to theater’s in-crowd was part of the reason that Catherine Tripp assembled six of her actor friends and created Wynn Productions, which performed plays in the lobby of the Woolly Mammoth Theatre in late November. Like American Century Theater, Wynn Productions struggled to come up with a way to produce their seven plays inexpensively. The director kept costs down by cutting out sets and lighting—her actors stood in front of a row of music stands and read their lines. In lieu of blocking, a narrator spoke the stage directions. And rather than renting out an entire theater, Wynn Productions caught the attention of people in the Woolly Mammoth lobby as they waited to see another play.

“It is a commitment of resources, but it’s not like committing to a full production,” Tripp says.

Public performances not only are practical but they also fit the spirit of the 365 Plays, as Parks wrote many of them in public places, says Brenda Cook of the Curious Theatre Company in Denver, the national seat of the festival.

“She just woke up every morning and said ‘All right, what is the play for today?’ ” Cook says. The plays not composed before breakfast were penned during airport layovers and in between book signings, Cook says. As a result of their dashed-off nature, many of the works are tied to the day they were written in 2002—with one making reference to the death of Johnny Cash, for instance, and others relating to events in Iraq.

Parks and Curious Theatre Company associate artistic director Bonnie Metzgar later came up with the idea to enlist theater companies from across the country to perform the plays on or near the day they were penned, says Cook. Home-base theaters from more than a dozen cities and regions, including New York City, Chicago, and California’s Bay Area volunteered to pull together local coalitions of roughly 52 theater companies, each agreeing to perform a week’s worth of plays—though companies can put on all seven in one evening, or stretch them across an entire week.

That means the 365 plays are being staged in a variety of ways across the country, with a few well-funded theaters putting on full productions and many smaller groups running staged readings, Amato says. But as far as she knows, D.C. is the only participating city that will be broadcasting seven of the plays on a conference call.

“It’s a pretty creative way to pull this off,” she says.