The Ojai Playwrights Conference is a multifaceted summertime tradition that this year runs from August 9-14, during which eight playwrights and a wide range of others will convene to workshop new plays, catch up with old friends, and reimagine the American theater. Started in the late 1990s as a way for Los Angeles writers to get out of town and work together on new projects, the conference has blossomed in subsequent decades into one of the most influential venues for presenting new work in the country. Under the devoted leadership of Robert Egan, and with the hard work and commitment of such established writers as Bill Cain, the Ojai Playwrights Conference has grown into the kind of event that can host the development, as it did with Stephen Adly Guirgis’s 2011 play The Motherf*cker with the Hat, of a multiple Tony nominee.
One of the playwrights on hand for this season is Rick Cleveland, who was also a part of the group that got the whole thing started. Cleveland, who won an Emmy for his work on television’s The West Wing, has become the go-to guy for intelligent writing about the country’s presidents. After achieving success with My Buddy Bill, a funny monologue—a tiny bit true, but mostly invented—describing his friendship with Bill Clinton, Cleveland is back with another presidential piece, this one, Rick and Dick, based on an imaginary series of letters between an adolescent Cleveland and former president of the United States Richard M. Nixon. I spoke with Cleveland by phone last week about Rick and Dick, the Ojai Playwrights Conference, and his interest in all things presidential.
Have you got an obsession with American presidents? It’s a topic I find endlessly fascinating, that’s for sure. The presidency is an exclusive club—not too many people get to join it.
Is Rick and Dick accurate in any way? Yes, but I am also changing things. I’m a bit younger than I make myself in the show, and the real fan letter I wrote back then was to Sam Ervin, the chair of the Watergate committee, not to Nixon. I loved the Watergate hearings to the point where I think my parents suspected there was something wrong with me. Today, we take the access we have to politicians through C-SPAN and Twitter and everything else for granted, but back in the 1970s, until the hearings came along, there was no way to get to know these people from afar.
Speaking of access, where have you been this week? Washington, D.C. I spent almost all day on Thursday [July 28] in the Capitol Building. I’m one of the writers working on a series for Netflix about Washington. It stars Kevin Spacey, and the executive producer is David Fincher. It’s called House of Cards, and it’s based on a British show from the 1990s.
What can we expect when you do the workshop version of Rick and Dick on Sunday, August 14? Richard Coleman, a great actor from Second City, will be my Nixon. We’ve actually done it once before, at Theater 150, and since then, I’ve reduced it from three hands to two. There were other characters from Watergate, and other letters, but I decided to let the Nixon letters open up and breathe some more, so now it’s just one kid, and one president. It’s kind of like A.R. Gurney’s Love Letters, except it’s about an adolescent Rick Cleveland coming of age, and a middle-aged Dick Nixon experiencing his downfall.
What was it like being present at the creation of this conference? While I’m certainly proud of whatever I contributed, my hat goes off to Bob Egan for making the Ojai Playwrights Conference into something that every playwright in the country would like to participate in.
The Ojai Playwrights Conference takes place Tuesday, August 9-Sunday, August 14. For tickets and information, visit ojaiplays.org.