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Parks v. Ravenhill

August 10, 2007

Suzan-Lori Parks blazed a trail when she sat down a few years ago to write a play a day for a year. Seems like this type of feat of theatrical endurance is becoming popular.

British playwright Mark Ravenhill (Shopping and Fucking)is pulling together a series of last-minute plays to be performed at this year's Edinburgh Festival. The original plan was for the dramatist to write a play a day throughout the festival.

But Ravenhill's epileptic seizure and subsequent memory loss earlier this year, combined with a realization that writing a play every day during the festival might not be the best use of his talents or the audience's time, has caused a slight change in plans.

Instead, Ravenhill has been working on a cycle of 20-minute plays over the last three months, the final three of which he actually plans to compose at the festival. In total, he's producing five and a half hours' worth of theatre to be premiered in staged readings at The Traverse Theatre through August.

The cycle is called Shoot, Get Treasure, Repeat. "Each 20-minute play is a stand-alone piece, but they are all in some way about the war on terror," the playwright says in The Guardian. "Key images and phrases are repeated throughout the cycle. My aim was to create an epic out of a series of small encounters."

Of course, there's a difference between sitting down and writing a play a day for a year and having them performed in a year-long festival a few years later as Parks did, and presenting a hastily-written cycle of 20-minute plays straight away at The Edinburgh Fringe. Parks and Ravenhill's projects are quite different in many ways, though they superficially seem similar.

Parks' project started off as an exercise. She wanted to see if she was capable of writing a play each day. It was like doing a daily yoga routine for her. She would write in hotel rooms, on the bus, on the plane, in the line at the grocery store, late at night, first thing in the morning. Whenever. When her cycle was finished, she put it away. It wasn't until a few years later that the plays were resurrected, published and made the focus of a massive nationwide festival which is still ongoing, (though it garnered very little media attention beyond the fanfare of the opening couple of weeks.)

Ravenhill is under a great deal more external pressure than Parks, though he doesn't have to go through the same kind of drawn-out endurance test. His project is more public in some ways. Few people outside of Parks' immediate circle knew about her play-a-day project while she was writing it. Ravenhill's act of kamikaze dramatics is all over the papers and the fruits of his labors - good or bad - are being presented before live audiences this month.

While Parks' project is a marathon, Ravenhill's is a sprint.

The question is, are these kinds of exercises in dramatic composition genuinely fruitful for anyone beyond the writers themselves and the theatrical marketing machine? I'm not even entirely sure doing this sort of project is good for the writer. Parks got a lot out of writing a play a day I think - at least internally. I don't think the 365 festival has had the impact (nurturing solidarity, involving communities etc) that the producers hoped for. But Ravenhill's project doesn't feature the same self-nurturing properties as Parks' quiet, personal activity of sitting down to write a play a day. He is working fully in the public eye and people expect him to pull it off. I hope he doesn't end up having another seizure as a result.

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