In his collection of essays, Notes of a Native Son, James Baldwin wrote “I consider that I have many responsibilities, but none greater than this: to last, as Hemingway says, and get my work done.”
For more than a decade Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, novelist and screenwriter Suzan-Lori Parks has been ferociously devoted to legions of artists equipping them with tools, motivation and fiery inspiration to get their work done.
Eleven years ago Jesse Cameron Alick (who is currently Company Dramaturg at The Public Theater) was producing a theater festival unrelated to the Public. Alick asked Parks to write a new play.
“It was one of those times where I channeled something deep,” says Parks who was the first African American woman to receive the Pulitzer Prize in Drama for her play Topdog/Underdog. Her credits also include The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, F*cking A, The Death of The Last Black Man In The Whole Entire World aka The Negro Book Of The Dead, Father Comes Home From The Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3) and White Noise.
While she didn’t have time to write a new play she reached into the depths of her soul and discovered something that divinely resonated with her to do for the festival. “I said, ‘I will sit on stage with my typewriter and write for 20 minutes with a timer,” said Parks who also wrote the screenplays Girl 6, Their Eyes Were Watching God, Anemone Me, Native Son and the upcoming The United States vs. Billie Holiday. “During the time I will also invite the audience to write along with me.” Once the 20 minutes were up, Parks would take questions from the audience about their work and creative process.
She called the show Watch me Work.
Eleven years later, Watch Me Work is not only still going strong, it has built a family of nurturing community of creators. “It’s a play in that writing we do together is the action. And the Q and A that follows is the dialogue,” says Parks who is also a Master Writer Chair for the Public Theater. Watch Me Work is also completely free of charge. Anyone can sign up. “If you are a writer, an accountant, a mom, we welcome all workers,” says Parks.
Watch Me Work was traditionally held in the mezzanine of The Public Theater Lobby as the audience gathered to work on their own projects (writing, composing, painting, whatever they wish). Then Parks answered questions offering guidance about creativity and process. Several years ago HowlRound came on board to live-stream Watch Me Work so anyone could watch remotely and tweet questions.
“It’s showing up for each other and cuts across skill level, racial, ethnic and religious differences,” says Parks of the diverse attendees. “It’s very important for artists of all skill levels to be able to say, ‘We are all here to support each other. Regardless of what we’re bringing to the table. We all have a seat at the table.’ Especially in these times.”
When The Public Theater shut down due to COVID-19, Watch Me Work transformed to an entirely digital platform. Parks and the audience meet 3 to 5 times a week via Zoom at 5pm EST as HowlRound continues to livestream the show.
Parks goes to great lengths to assure attendees that Watch Me Work is about them. “It is all directed toward the audience, how people create solutions and to let people know they are not alone in their journey,” says Parks who studied creative writing with James Baldwin when she was in college at Mount Holyoke. “He taught me how to conduct myself in the presence of the spirit as if I were a lightning rod,” shares Parks.
Several people have been joining Watch Me Work since its inception. “Think of your mind space as an LP,” says Parks as she explains more. “In those grooves you have voices, suggestions, opinions, directives.” In the same vein Watch Me Work is laying a groove. “It’s encouraging, sometimes kick in the pants, sometimes tough love, but always directed at helping the person figure out how to take the next step on their journey,” she offers. “So when you play your record back you will hear some of those encouraging words that build your heart and spirit and help you go forward.”
Watch Me Work also connects people with the nuts and bolts process of creating which we don’t often see. With most creative endeavors we the finished result, “We see the product— the play, the novel in the book store, the poet on stage doing her awesome slam poetry, the film on screen,” says Parks. “But what is the act of doing it look like? And is there anything energetically that can be communicated by allowing people to watch me work while simultaneously they are working? And should there be questions they have about their creative process, I’ll be there to offer encouraging solutions.”
Parks has also brought in special guests like Public Theater’s artistic director Oskar Eustis, Young Jean Lee, Tony Kushner, Luis Alfaro, and Tim Blake Nelson. She even read a passage from Helen Keller’s essay, Optimism.
Parks says that she benefits from Watch Me Work as much as the audience. “I’m always stumbling, trying to figure out how to keep going. There’s a lot going on in the world, especially these days,” she says. “So I come to Watch Me Work not because I always do everything perfectly and without difficulty. But because I often do things imperfectly and with great difficulty. But I do them. I show up.” (She went on to share that the first award she won was perfect attendance in the first grade.)
“Are you putting the time in and showing up? How is your writing practice?” she will ask someone who says they are having difficulty with their writing. “They’ll reply, “Well, I have a lot of ideas…”
Yet, as Parks explains, the spirit is always taking. “If we don’t led her an ear, we’re not gonna hear. It rhymes for a reason,” she adds. “The spirit, the muse, wants to visit us. If we are moving around all the time and not paying attention, then what?” She often uses a dating analogy. “If you had a sweetheart and you never showed up for them, they would say say ‘I don’t know if you’re really in love with me?’ We treat the spirit in the same way.”