Where, in this season of seemingly endless political division, can a thoughtful person seek meaningful dialogue? The answer lies only as far away as the bucolic Besant Hill School in Ojai. That’s where the bulk of Across the Divide, the 19th annual Ojai Playwrights Conference, will take place Sunday, August 7-Sunday, August 14. Across the Divide is also the title of the first event of the conference, a roundtable discussion on August 7 designed to prepare the ground for what will follow — readings of eight new plays plus a reading/performance of the new musical Blue House about the artists Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera.
As has been true throughout the history of the conference, the playwrights are a mix of the up-and-coming (David Jacobi, Aziza Barnes) and the top of the heap (Jon Robin Baitz, Robert Askins). The work begins well before the public arrives, with the actors and playwrights conducting table readings and workshopping the scripts for a full week on their own. The excitement builds as writers, directors, and performers develop interpretations and imagine new solutions in anticipation of facing an enthusiastic and knowledgeable audience during the second half of the conference in what is known as the new works festival. Here are some of this year’s highlights from that schedule, which begins on Thursday, August 11.
Thursday’s opening night sees the conference take over the larger Matilija Auditorium space for Blue House, a new musical with songs and lyrics by Perla Batalla and David Batteau and a book by Oliver Mayer. The piece began as a commission from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art to Batalla for a series of five songs that were performed there as part of In Wonderland: The Surrealist Adventures of Women Artists in Mexico and the United States. Five years have passed since then, and Batalla and Batteau have written another dozen songs that playwright Mayer is weaving into a two-act narrative about the tempestuous relationship between Mexico’s most famous artists.
When I spoke with Mayer last week, he explained that there would be two Fridas in the show, one young and the other depicting her as she was in the last days before her untimely death. Both Batalla and Mayer waxed rhapsodic about the impact of working on this story, with Mayer saying that “the female power of Frida is bigger than any commercialization of her image. She empowers the women in our lives, and she helps the men to understand them.”
The clever and ominous title of Martin Zimmerman’s On the Exhale refers to an instruction typically given to people learning to shoot. “On the exhale” is when in your breathing pattern you are supposed to pull the trigger. What’s unusual about the enthusiastic markswoman at the center of Zimmerman’s play is that she only learns to love guns after losing her son in a mass shooting. Is her new passion for the rifle range a perverse hobby, or is she in training for an act of revenge? This play takes the “good guy with a gun” theory to heart, only to turn it upside down and inside out. On the Exhale will be read at 7 p.m. on Friday, August 12, in the Zalk Theater.
On Saturday, August 13, at 7:30 p.m., the house is sure to be packed for Vicuña, the latest from the ever popular and terrifically successful Baitz. A Manhattan men’s tailor and his apprentice reel in shock when one of their most unstable custom-suit clients crosses over from reality television stardom to running for president of the United States. Believe me, the laughs from this new satire will be huge. Missing it would be a disaster!
The Ojai Playwrights Conference runs August 7-14. For a full schedule of events and to obtain tickets, call (805) 640-0400 or see ojaiplays.org.