Sue Fortin says “a strange little fluke” drew her and the Prodigal Theatre Company she just founded with David and Maia Mills-Low into the 365 International Festival. Advertised as one of the largest collaborative art projects ever conceived, the festival aims to present 365 Days/365 Plays—the result of a year-long adventure in playwrighting by Pulitzer Prize-winner Suzan-Lori Parks during which she wrote a play every day for a year beginning on November 13, 2002.
Fortin and David Mills-Low, working together at the Opera House Theatre Company in Phillipsburg last summer, learned about the project and its unusual premiere—the plays are scattered throughout the country—while reading the theater section of the Sunday New York Times online.
“We needed to do this,” says Fortin. “We had to do this.”
So Fortin and David Mills-Low put in an application on behalf of their nascent theater company, hoping to join the more than 700 theaters producing 10 plays each (each play is performed in multiple locations). Much is left to festival organizers, including deciding which 10 plays a participating company will perform and when they will be performed, which means the Prodigal Theatre Company only found out the what and when after opening the envelope with their acceptance enclosed.
“One of the challenges of doing 365,” says David Mills-Low, “and not knowing what you’re getting until you get it is that casting issues can come up. As we were putting in our application we thought what happens if we get a play that has an all-ethnic cast? Sometimes that can be difficult to wrangle.”
Parks, an African-American woman, has earned plaudits for her extensive and innovative use of spoken black English in her plays so the concerns about drawing plays with tough-to-meet-in-Montana casting requirements were real enough. And they came to be.
“We did indeed get a play that calls for two African-American actresses,” says David Mills-Low.
Fortunately, they didn’t have to look too far. David’s wife, Maia, an actress and founding member of the Prodigal Theatre Company, is black and her sister, Claudia Alick, is also a theater professional with experience in acting as well as writing and producing.
Alick, who grew up in Missoula with Maia and brother Jesse (who is not returning for the festival but also chose a career in theater), works with several theater companies in New York City, including Smokin’ Word, of which Alick is executive and artistic director. Her company promotes hip-hop theater and performance poetry—“poetry for the stage, not poetry for the page,” says Alick, whose talent landed her a 2005 spot on HBO’s “Def Poetry.”
Alick returns to Missoula to participate in Prodigal’s staging of the 365 Days/365 Plays selections, and she’s looking forward to joining Maia onstage for the first time in Missoula. Additionally, Alick will perform her own material during a solo show immediately following Prodigal’s.
Companies performing plays from 365 Days/365 Plays have a great deal of freedom in how they stage their selections; the only requirements are the plays be performed in the order they were written and that performances be free. Prodigal, says David Mills-Low, aims to “put the plays up on their feet” though sets and costumes will be spare, which he says is appropriate because “the plays are sort of meditations on theater and art…[not] something where you’re going to come in and get a big story arc and lots of plotlines.”
The royalties for the 365 festival cost performing companies only $1 a day, which offers a fledgling company like Prodigal the chance to participate. Still, while only just starting, Prodigal’s ambitions are not small. The company aims to become, says David Mills-Low, “a regional theater company producing new work, putting actors and writers, directors, tech crew and designers to work and paying them money.”
David Mills-Low and Fortin both worked with Bozeman’s Vigilante Theatre Company, which David says “did all original shows commissioned from regional playwrights.” Still, he says, outlets for original work are not abundant.
“I have a number of friends who are playwrights who are having a hard time getting their stuff done in Montana. You can scrape something together but in order for them to get a big production of something they have to ship it around to New York, Seattle, Chicago, L.A. and all that kind of stuff,” he says. “We want to make a platform for writers to get their stuff done here in Montana and that’s something that’s very important to me.”
While the Prodigal Theatre Company’s aspirations might be fiscal as well as creative, they’re kicking things off with an emphasis on art over commerce. “ is an opportunity to be taking part in this national festival and to be doing something,” says David Mills-Low. “But it’s not a moneymaker.”
The Prodigal Theatre Company performs selections from 365 Days/365 Plays Friday, May 18, at 7 PM in the Masquer Theatre of UM’s PARTV Center for free. Immediately after, Claudia Alick presents her own work during a $5 show.