As anyone who has attended the Ojai Playwrights Conference (OPC) will tell you, its programming is not for the timid. Under the leadership of director Robert Egan, the annual two-week event has featured some of the fiercest writing in the history of the American theater. Whether we are talking about Fun Home, the groundbreaking musical that received its first workshop production at Ojai in 2009 and went on to win five Tonys in 2015, or Vicuña, Jon Robin Baitz’s 2016 play about a brash reality-television star’s unlikely presidential bid, the OPC has consistently lived up to its mission statement of valuing writers who “focus on the compelling social, political, and cultural issues of our time.” At a time when playwrights and audiences alike are reexamining their most deeply held convictions, this meeting of creative minds looks set to reveal stormier undercurrents and starker subtexts than ever.
To begin with, the lineup positively bristles with established talent, including some of the American theater’s most distinguished writers. Baitz is back, and he will be working on an epilogue to Vicuña, the play that critic Anthony Byrnes called “a dire, urgent warning about the cost of collaborating in a bully’s dark work.” Seven-time Ojai participant Bill Cain will also return, and he’s bringing a project called The Last White Man, about three actors who all believe that playing Hamlet will allow them to cheat death in some way. Cain, the author of Stand-Up Tragedy and Equivocation, is the contemporary theater’s greatest interpreter of Shakespeare as both a writer and a cultural phenomenon, and his plays that reimagine aspects of the Bard’s life, reputation, and influence are never less than brilliant.
Santa Barbara theatergoers who enjoyed the Elements Theatre Collective’s excellent 2015 production of Samuel D. Hunter’s A Bright New Boise will relish the opportunity to share in the development of Greater Clements, another Hunter play about the slippery sense of the past that haunts America’s former mining towns. Fans of Roger Guenveur Smith’s outstanding solo work on historical figures Huey P. Newton and Rodney King can look forward to getting an early peek at what he and Culture Clash’s Richard Montoya have dreamed up to tell the story of how a beloved Los Angeles neighborhood has changed irrevocably in Venice Is Dead.
No one represents the resilient and irreverent spirit of the OPC better than Sandra Tsing Loh, who workshopped her enormously successful one-woman show The Madwoman in the Volvo at Ojai in 2014. I caught up with Loh by phone last week, and she filled me in on what she’s bringing this year and how it reflects the country’s new abnormal.
“The election hit me so hard,” Loh said early in the call, adding that she “wasn’t as surprised with the result” as some of her friends because she forced herself to watch right-wing news as well as CNN and MSNBC, and she knew that we might be headed for “World War Four.” As a result, the new show she is working on is called Blue State, “or maybe just Blue,” and will reflect on what she refers to as “the Kubler-Ross stages of grief” that she and others have gone through under the Trump administration.
The genesis came in part from what Loh experienced while performing Madwoman in the late fall of 2016. Faced with audiences who seemed troubled and distracted, Loh began conducting a “Trump group scream” at the beginning of each show. With Blue State, she plans to continue using her acerbic wit to “shrink the tumor” that’s weighing on our national consciousness. “We’ve been sent the most giant trickster monkey,” she told me, “an orange orangutan,” and we’ve got to find a way to recover our spiritual bearings.
4·1·1 For the full schedule and to get tickets to the Ojai Playwrights Conference, visit ojaiplays.org or call (805) 640-0400.