It's hard to get a coffee date with Suzan-Lori Parks.
My first appointment to meet the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, in town from New York to cast a show she's directing next year at Zach Theatre, was rescheduled to a different time.
As the meeting time approached, it was moved to a different location. And it ended up not being coffee at all, but a Diet Coke with no ice and an extremely large chicken salad (dressing on the side) from the lobby restaurant at a large chain hotel where Parks was staying.
Once you get Parks to sit down and chat, though, she is the kind of person you wouldn't mind talking to for a very long time, both because of her expansive, creative mind and the way she seems to notice (and appreciate) the tiny details of life.
For example, when her salad arrived, Parks declared, "Oh my God, how beautiful it is! It's so perfect!" And she sat back in amazement.
Later Parks became distracted by the entrance of a man in a baseball cap standing at the host stand. "It's an exact repeat of what happened this morning," she said, completely delighted. Parks explained that earlier in the day, she, the man in the baseball cap and the host had had a very funny exchange about the word "please."
"If I was still writing '365 Days/365 Plays,' that would become a play," she said.
Parks was referring to a time (beginning in late 2002) when she wrote a short play every day of the year. The collected works, called "365 Days/365 Plays," were produced as a national theater festival in 2006, involving a full year of premieres at hundreds of theatres across the country. The New Yorker magazine called it "the largest theatre collaboration ever."
In fact, her relationship with Zach Theatre began when artistic director Dave Steakley made the theatre a hub for "365 Days/365 Plays." Parks said she was "blown away" by Austin's opening night of the festival, which Steakley staged on the Pfluger pedestrian bridge over Town Lake.
During her mid-December trip to Austin, Parks staged her "Watch Me Work" series, which she described as part performance piece and part meditation on the practice of writing.
In these three sessions at Zach Theatre's Nowlin Studio, Parks — who was awarded a MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant in 2001 — sat at a table behind a red velvet curtain. She was surrounded by two small bottles of water, a bowl of mints, a cup of coffee and a red typewriter. She set a timer for 60 minutes and then typed away. Meanwhile, the audience was invited to work on their own writing projects. Some typed on their laptops; others wrote in journals; some sent text messages.
When the timer went off, Parks took questions from the audience, which she answered with humor and generosity. Parks said about the series, "The play creates a reflective experience for the audience in which they're encouraged to work on their own work. I love talking with people about their work."
Parks, who won a Tony Award in 2002 (in addition to the Pulitzer) for her play, "Topdog/Underdog," is known for creating theater that uses poetic, rhythmic language and is often highly metaphorical. She is influenced by jazz aesthetics and the idea of repetition with revision, which she said means "looking back and stepping forward at the same time."
Parks will be back at Zach Theatre next summer to direct her most recent play, "Book of Grace," which is set in Texas. It's her first time directing her own work, and she anticipates some revising and tweaking of the script as she goes.
Texas is familiar territory for Parks, whose mother is from Odessa. Parks lived there for a time, and she described a local park in West Texas, where she went as a kid to surf on the sand dunes, as "the most beautiful place in the world."
When asked what she thinks about Texas in general, Parks replied with her signature enthusiasm, "It's perfect."