Every year it gets harder to summarize the Ojai Playwrights Conference (OPC) — and that’s a good thing. With Disney songsmiths, NPR radio personalities, and edgy theatrical innovators now invited to rub writing elbows with the American theater elite, it’s impossible to know just what will happen. Under Robert Egan’s leadership, this annual retreat and intimate festival of readings has become one of the hottest places on the planet to develop a new play. This season promises to be one of the OPC’s strongest ever, and in preparation for it, I spoke with three of the eight playwright participants: Sandra Tsing Loh, Bill Cain, and Alice Tuan. Through this exciting sequence of interviews I was able to get a feeling not only for what these three writers are currently working on but also for what they love about the annual trek to Ojai.
Sandra Tsing Loh, the celebrated author of, most recently, The Madwoman in the Volvo, is one of America’s foremost social commentators and humorists. She first came to widespread attention through her role as a radio personality, but she has gone on to achieve a sterling reputation as a solo performer and a certain notoriety for her freewheeling approach to the busy intersection between her personal and her professional life. Tsing Loh gives great phone interviews; this woman will make you think, she will make you laugh, and then she will make you think about what you just laughed at.
You are working on a stage piece after taking six years off from performing. How does that feel, and what do you expect from the conference? It’s extraordinarily useful to work with people who understand the trajectory of a story and what it needs to fulfill the longer form of a full show. It has to happen in the writing because who wants to come out to see some middle-aged person alone onstage? Theater must be different to be compelling. There’s too much competition from things like the explosion of excellent television in the last few years. With meth-lab TV shows available on demand at home, why are people going to get their car keys and drive to the theater? It has to be special.
As far as returning to the stage is concerned, I want to tell you about an experience I had at Campbell Hall in Santa Barbara, because what happened to me that night is one of the reasons I’m pursuing this. I was on a book tour for The Madwoman in the Volvo, and my flight to Santa Barbara was delayed, so I arrived at UCSB very shortly before I was set to go on. Up until that point, the tour had been mostly signings, short readings, and interviews, but when I got to Campbell Hall, they explained to me that the audience had paid $15, and that they were expecting me to talk for an hour! I almost panicked. I did not want to read for an hour, and I was even more reluctant to commit to an hour’s worth of questions, so I just walked out there and started to talk, off book, about menopause. And it was electric. The room lit up with energy. Women were so ready to listen and think about this subject it even took me by surprise, and I had written about it. The majority of American women will soon be 45 and over, and it seems as if virtually everything we have been told about this aspect of our lives is wrong. That night in Campbell Hall was one of the places where the idea of this performance got started because it felt so good to talk with the audience there.
By Paul Wellman