Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Wednesday Afternoon in NoHo: Suzan-Lori Parks' "Watch Me Work" at the Public Theater's Under the Radar Festival

This afternoon at 4 p.m., we had the privilege to see (and to write at) "Watch Me Work," a performance piece by the great Suzan-Lori Parks (whose Pulitzer-winning Topdog/Underdog we'll be teaching this coming semester) in the lobby of the Public Theater as part of its acclaimed Under the Radar Festival.

Here's the scoop on it:
This performance piece, a meditation on the artistic process and an actual work session, features Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks working on her newest writing project in the main lobby of The Public Theater. The audience is invited to come and watch her work and/or to share the space and get some of their own writing work done. During the last fifteen minutes of the performance Parks will answer any questions the audience might have regarding their own work and their creative process.

"Watch Me Work" will take place on select weekdays for 75 minutes each day in the Main Lobby of The Public Theater. As the schedule and start times will vary, please check our website daily for the latest schedule. The performances are free and open to the public.

About a dozen to fifteen people were in the audience, sitting at chairs by tables on the north side of the Public Theater's lobby, near the entrance to Joe's Pub. We sat next to the brilliant Lemon Andersen (Def Poetry Jam, County of Kings, etc.), who was reading and writing during the performance, just as most people were.

It was interesting to watch Suzan-Lori Parks during the hour. She had two red non-electric typewriters, and while you can tell she's a fast touch-typist, she was typing thoughtfully, deliberately except for moments when things seemed to be coming out in a rush.

We had a few sheets of paper and were mostly taking notes for something, having finished a writing project just this morning. We watched other people working, and we watched Suzan-Lori Parks, wondering stuff that's probably trivial. Why did she put two sheets of paper in the typewriter carriage at a time? Does she ordinarily use a manual typewriter? Was she drinking coffee or tea out of that mug? Were those sucking candies mints or fruity? Does she have back, neck, shoulder and wrist pain from the way she sits (kind of hunched over) at the desk? When she read a page, what was she thinking?

Then, after a while, we totally forgot about Suzan-Lori Parks or where we were as we got lost in the flow of our own thoughts and working out an issue on paper and in our heads. One of the things we started doing when we were in the Brooklyn College MFA program was trying to write stories everywhere. We wrote both in longhand and on a Smith-Corona typewriter, but back then, we remember writing complete (and later published) stories totally in the food court of the Roosevelt Field Shopping Center, in Boylan Cafeteria at Brooklyn College, and on a bench on the Rockaway boardwalk. At home we sat cross-legged on the floor at our typewriter. We got our first computer (a TRS-80) as a faculty member at Broward Community College and immediately began using it; by then, the early 80s, we were writing on an electronic typewriter, not an electric one, and we got our first (really heavy) laptop computers (like the Tandy 1400) in the mid-1980s.

(This is what we started writing about in the Public Theater lobby. We also started to think about the first time we were in this building, 38 years ago, when we had student rush tickets to The Cherry Orchard, with James Earl Jones, Gloria Foster, Earle Hyman, Ellen Holly and an amazing African-American cast at the Anspacher Theater.)

It was jarring when Parks' alarm clock rang an end to the hour at 5 p.m. She took some questions from the audience, most of whom seemed to be playwrights. (We wrote our last plays as a teenager in the 1960s; a play we wrote at 15 in 1966 won for us first prize -- $150 -- in the 1973 Ottillie Grebanier Award, judged by Jack Gelber, at Brooklyn College, but by then we'd already switched to short stories.)

The questions about people's work and writing problems and processes were fascinating. A woman named Mary had a question about difficulties with endings, even getting started with the endings of plays, and Suzan-Lori Parks gave her valuable suggestions. The most interesting to us was to write twenty or so silly endings. The point was to lower the bar, to let yourself go and not feel compelled to do something serious. (After our first book was published in 1979, we were frozen for awhile after finally becoming "an author.")

Lemon Andersen asked about working with actors and how they "get" the playwright's voice. Mostly in his work, like the wonderful "County of Kings," he's been the sole performer. It was utterly fascinating to listen to him and Suzan-Lori Parks talk about the issue of actors; she said, among other things, not to get pressured into taking an actor who's not right for the part.

To Karen, an audience member who had a question about problems producing, Parks also had good advice, mostly to get stuff down, like two pages a day (what Karen set as a goal), "come hell or high water." She gave her an assignment for the next "Watch Me Work" on Friday.

Another question came from Coral in Houston, who'd seen Suzan-Lori Parks at the ZACH Theater in Austin, and who is having one of her plays in production. Coral asked about attending rehearsals and related issues, and again, she got some intelligent and thoughtful advice (attend every rehearsal unless you can't stand it, but don't be so obviously expressive that the actors catch exactly what you think of them; you can let the play go on opening night).

The event ended at 5:15 p.m. We're grateful to The Public Theater, the Under the Radar Festival, and most of all to Suzan-Lori Parks, whose plays we have loved, for giving so much of herself today. And we hope she got a lot of good work done!

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