The “wright” in “playwright” is a coincidental homonym. “Wright” may sound the same as “write,” but it signifies more than putting words on paper. A wright is someone who makes something, a craftsperson or a builder, and “playwright” has been the preferred term for authors of live theater works since at the least the 19th century for precisely that reason. A successful play is a kind of machine for actors, a sequencing of word, action, gesture, and meaning that, through performance, culminates in something more than the text of its parts. For more than 10 years, the Ojai Playwrights Conference has existed to give contemporary playwrights a place to share their passion for their craft and focus on the development of new works by both emerging and established peers.
In recent years, the outstanding quality of the work done at these annual meetings has resulted in a string of successes for the playwrights involved, and an increasing demand for the finished products on the part of some of the world’s best theaters. For instance, David Ives took a play he worked on at Ojai to the Manhattan Theatre Club in the same year that Adam Rapp developed Nocturne there, a play that later was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. Bill Cain’s Equivocation, first workshopped at the conference in 2007, is playing right now at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland.
This year, there’s an even stronger effort than ever to share this extraordinary creative excitement with the public. After a rigorous week of private discussions and meetings, the conference will present a full five days of performances and symposia that are open to the public, beginning on Tuesday, August 11. Recently, I spoke with Robert Egan, artistic director of the Ojai Playwrights Conference, about the upcoming events.
You have an impressive list of participants every year. How do you do it? We are very fortunate in the quality of the plays and playwrights we have been able to attract, especially in recent years. It seems like now everyone wants to come here. We get great people, both emerging and established. Playwrights say they feel the process and setting help them get back to their original vision. The entire first week is strictly in conference format. The second week, the actors arrive and things become public.
The idea of playwrights getting back to their original vision at the conference is intriguing. Could you say a bit more about that? Bill Cain said, “The Ojai Playwrights Conference is not about the business of theater. It is about the theater of theater.” The whole first week is very intense, and there are a lot of one-on-one discussions. We have our own artistic staff, particularly the dramaturges, and we have a process, a methodology that we follow. We sit around a conference table and read and discuss each writer’s work in a very thorough way. The exciting thing is that through the intense focus of the full workshop, we create fire in the playwrights.
What are some of the highlights of the public portion of the conference? In addition to staged readings of all the new plays, there will be two symposia. Jeanine Tesori [Shrek the Musical] is doing an evening symposium on musicals, and then on Thursday night, there will be an all-star night of solo performers, including Lisa Kron and Charlayne Woodard. There’s also a special family theater day on Saturday, August 15, with Leslie Carrara-Rudolph, one of the original Muppeteers.
The public portion of the Ojai Playwrights Conference will take place from Tuesday, August 11-Sunday, August 16, at the Zalk Theatre and the Matilija Auditorium in Ojai. For more information and tickets, call 640-0400 or visit ojaiplays.org.