Suzan-Lori Parks Comes to A.C.T.

By Simon Hodgson

Suzan-Lori Parks reached down to the black case beside her chair and took out her guitar. “It’s about listening in,” she said, gesturing with her free hand. On the 8th floor of A.C.T.’s administrative offices at 30 Grant Avenue, three dozen young actors from the M.F.A. Program leaned in, watching the strings, waiting for the notes. Slowly, the playwright and songwriter of Father Comes Home from the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3) started a steady rhythm, light and even. 

Playwright Suzan-Lori Parks and A.C.T. Dramaturg Michael Paller with actors from A.C.T.'s M.F.A. Program.
Photo by Taylor Steinbeck.
“When I was in rehearsal for Father Comes Home,” she said, fingers still strumming the strings, “I was playing the musician [the role currently played by Bay Area musician Martin Luther McCoy at The Geary]. I was watching Odyssey Dog and thinking, ‘What am I hearing?’” She mimed a dog’s back paw reaching up to scratch its ear, then changed the guitar rhythm to an uptempo beat. A moment later, the students’ smiles broadened, as Parks added verses to the guitar notes in an impromptu performance that ended in cheers.

The playwright met with A.C.T.’s student actors as part of Conservatory Hour, one of several opportunities throughout the M.F.A. Program academic year when these budding theater-makers can ask questions of professionals, from actors to directors to playwrights. “What do you look for in actors when you’re in readings?” asked second-year actor Caleb Lewis. “When is it time,” said graduating actor Oliver Shirley, “to stop rewriting?” “What are your rituals in your writing process?” asked second-year performer Ash Malloy.
Playwright and songwriter Suzan-Lori Parks and A.C.T. Dramaturg Michael Paller.
Photo by Taylor Steinbeck.
In responding to the young theater-makers, Parks was generous, insightful, animated, self-deprecating, funny, and charismatic. She offered advice on acting (“I like actors who can listen to the work on the page”), on writing (put a timer on for 20 minutes and write until it goes off, then repeat), and on creating stories that go against the norm (“stick to your guns”). She also related the story of her own moment of inspiration when, as a college short-story writer, she was advised by James Baldwin to try playwriting. “Because he was James Baldwin,” she said with a smile, “I started writing a play that day.”

Father Comes Home from the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3) runs through May 20 at A.C.T.’s Geary Theater. Click here to purchase tickets. Want to learn more about playwright Suzan-Lori Parks? Order a copy of Words on Plays, A.C.T.'s in-depth performance guide series.

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