WINNING PLAYWRIGHT RELIED ON HARD WORK, NOT ADVICE.
VALENCIA - Suzan-Lori Parks heard it a number of times early in her career: Don't be a writer; you don't have it in you.
Now 38, the woman who spent her childhood on U.S. Army bases all over the world is an accomplished playwright, head of dramatic writing at the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia and the recipient today of a $500,000 MacArthur Fellows grant.
``I'm hard-headed. I'm tenacious. And writing is really, really hard work,'' said Parks, a newlywed and director of a theater-projects writing program at CalArts.
She's tenacious - and entirely matter-of-fact about her success.
In a telephone interview Tuesday from her Venice apartment, Parks spoke briefly of her 15 plays and her current work on a Disney musical and a TV project for Oprah Winfrey.
Whether modest or still in shock about winning the prestigious John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation award, Parks spent only a moment or two talking about the $500,000 no-strings-attached grant that she can use however she wishes over the next five years.
``As a winner of the grant, you have absolutely nothing to do with it,'' Parks said. ``I just found out Friday.''
There is no application process, and each winner is notified by a single telephone call,'' said Daniel Socolow, director of the MacArthur Fellows Program. ``It is the first and only call we make to them, and it can be life-changing.''
Neither the 23 recipients this year - including writers, a psychologist, scientists, a pianist and a conservationist - nor nearly 600 previous winners applied or auditioned for the honor.
According to Socolow, most of the foundation's funding supports the creative efforts of organizations and institutions, but a portion is set aside for individuals who have demonstrated leadership, initiative and creativity.
Susan Solt, dean of the theater department at CalArts, recognized those same qualities in Parks years ago and felt so passionate about bringing the playwright to her college that she pursued Parks to New York, where her 1999 play ``In the Blood'' was winning accolades.
``Suzan-Lori Parks' work was very critical in our curriculum for years,'' Solt said. ``She represented a new writer of extraordinary gifts and quality whose work we felt was essential to our program.
``We wanted her to come and train the young Suzan-Lori Parkses and create a program that was completely imagined by her,'' Solt said. ``I think (she) is the pre-eminent figure, playwright, creator, in the American theater today.''
Parks, a fan of the Greek classics and Shakespeare, considers herself a writer dedicated to helping young writers find the creativity, realism and truth in their lives.
``I used to teach at Yale. But for me, given the chance to run a program - designing it like I think it should be designed: not just writing, but acting, set design, puppetry, African dance, yoga - ... was an offer I couldn't refuse,'' she said.
So she moved from New York to a small apartment - ``knee-to-knee,'' as she calls it - where she lives with her husband of three months, Paul Oscher, a blues musician, and her white pit bull, Lambchop.
No stranger to awards - she won a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2000 and two Obie awards, in 1990 and 1996 - Parks says that African-American culture and experience are prevalent in her work, but calls it oversimplification to affix any label to her plays.
``Being African-American, I find myself most interested in African- American people,'' Parks said. ``But the African-American experience is really the American experience.
``It doesn't have to do with just ghetto and gang warfare. It's about people in dire straits with their backs to the wall.''
(color in SAC edition only) Suzan-Lori Parks, head of dramatic writing at the CalArts Institute in Valencia, has won a $500,000 MacArthur prize.
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|Publication:||Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)|
|Date:||Oct 24, 2001|
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