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20 Questions with Suzan-Lori Parks

Suzan-Lori Parks discusses ‘Porgy and Bess,’ writing and what is under her bed.

Suzan-Lori Parks
Suzan-Lori Parks

Every week, playwright Suzan-Lori Parks hosts Watch Me Work at the Public Theater in New York City (where she holds the title of master writer), a kind of ad hoc writing workshop/ongoing performance art piece. The Pulitzer-winning playwright (for Topdog/Underdog in 2002) was also the adapter of The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, a musical version of the 1935 opera, which is currently on tour nationwide.

How often do you do Watch Me Work?

Every week at 5. Usually on Thursdays, but we’re going to move it back to Wednesday at the beginning of the year. People should come! It’s a free writing class.

 

Whose idea was it?

It was mine! I was sitting around with Jesse Alick, an artistic associate at the Public. And they were having a theatre festival [the Under the Radar festival] with “young writers,” and Jesse said, “Okay, Suzan-Lori, we want an old writer to participate.” And I’m like, “Thanks, Jesse. You know I don’t have time to write anything new. But I will sit onstage and write for 45 minutes and encourage the audience to write—or work on anything they want—with me. After the timer goes off, we will have a Q&A based on the audience’s work experience and their creative process. We’ll call it Watch Me Work, and it’ll be a play—we’ll do the action (which is the writing of the work) and the dialogue (which is the talking).”

We now stream it with HowlRound, so you can watch it online and tweet in your questions.

 

What’s been the most surprising question someone’s asked you?

They’re all extraordinary and beautiful—they fall into the category of “How do I keep going? How do I continue without going bananas?” It’s a variation on that question.

 

So how do you keep going?

By keeping going. That’s horrible, isn’t it? You keep on by keeping on. It’s such a simple answer, but it’s excruciatingly painful sometimes. If you’re having difficulty writing, you can either say, “I’ll put an hour in and look at the results,” or, “I’m going to beat my head against a wall.” It’s how you take it.

 

When you first got the Porgy and Bess project, were there any particular parts you were aching to tweak?

I didn’t know Porgy and Bess! I knew it was about a guy who was disabled and had a goat cart. Diane Paulus and the Gersh-win estate were kind enough to invite me into a wonderful experience. I got excited. I sat down and turned on the music and put the libretto on my lap and followed along. And I’m an architect, so I’m like, “Ooh, the characters’ journeys need to be better defined.”

 

Which characters do you think have better journeys now?

They all have better journeys. They are characters! Which, in 2014, is not too much to ask! Porgy can now sing “I Got Plenty of Nothing” and he’s not singing about being a po’ black man. As a plot point—we’re talking architecture now, not politics—Porgy celebrating his poverty is a questionable plot point. So we put a little frame into the song—we make “nothing” mean “love.” He comes out of his house and goes, “Good morning.” His neighbors go, “You lookin’ better than good. What you been up to?” He goes, “Nothing.” “Nothing?” And he goes, “I got plenty of nothing.” Now he’s talking about love—his celebration of love is a plot point. Dramaturgy 101, baby!

 

I noticed from your website that you play guitar. Do you have any other hidden talents?

I sing. I go to these music jams. So if anybody wants me to be in their band…. I want to be in a band—an old-timey band, because that’s the kind of music I play. I’m looking for bandmates! [laughs]

 

What three things would you take with you to a desert island?

I would take my banjo, my guitar and a book. The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. One with pictures. The Riverside edition has pictures. I’d need a pencil to take notes…. I’ll just write in the sand.

 

Okay, last question.

Yes! What’s under my bed!

 

Okay, what’s under your bed?

I don’t know! I just said that, you don’t have to ask that.

 

The last question is: If you weren’t a theatre artist, what would you be?

A musician. I consider myself a writer more than a theatre artist, because I’ve written a novel and I’m writing a second novel—but if I weren’t a writer, I would be a musician. I pretend I’m one in the privacy of my own home.

Actually, under my bed there are several bottles of champagne. So, again, if someone can help me form a band, we can consume all these bottles of champagne that have been given to me over the years that I haven’t gotten around to drinking yet!

 

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