The lineup for this year’s Ojai Playwrights Festival reads like an insider’s wish list of the creative leaders in this demanding, highly competitive world. For example, MacArthur Award recipient Luis Alfaro’s Mojada is playing right now at the Victory Gardens Theater in Chicago to rapturous reviews. On Sunday, August 11, with Mojada still running, Alfaro will perform St. Jude, his one-man show about the health-care system for a lucky few in the intimate Zalk Theater at Besant Hill School. Other participants this year include Lucy Alibar, who wrote the most acclaimed indie film of 2012, Beasts of the Southern Wild. Shot on 16mm film with a shoestring budget, Beasts went on to score four Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture and a Best Adapted Screenplay nom for Alibar.
Sam Hunter is one of the country’s hottest young playwrights, with two hit shows in the last two years, including the recent success The Whale, his drama about a 600-pound man that premiered at Playwrights Horizons in New York. He’s only 31, and he’s already on track to be successful in a field that is incredibly unpredictable and brutal on the ego. Part of the reason that Hunter has managed to get into the big leagues so quickly has to do with the system of playwrights’ conferences he attends. A month ago Hunter was in New London, Connecticut, for the Eugene O’Neill, one of the oldest and most established of these summer camps for theater professionals. This month, he’s in Ojai, where the Ojai Playwrights Conference is underway through August 11. I spoke with Hunter recently by phone. He had just finished a reading with the other participants during the first, writers-only week of the program.
Have you been a participant in the Ojai Conference before? Yes, five years ago I came here in the summer between my first and second years as a playwright in residence at Juilliard. I love it.
Did the play that you were working on back then ever get produced? There were some small productions, but that show, which was called I Am Montana, was more my graduate-school calling-card play. It demonstrated my ambitions as a dramatist, which is what I needed back then in order to move to the next level.
What does it take to make it as a playwright today? Everybody necessarily does it his or her own way, but within that obvious generalization, I find it useful to think of the work as following one of two paths. This is going to sound pretentious, but bear with me. The first path is the Beethoven route, which involves an incredible amount of inner strength and believing in the value of your one big idea. You isolate, you work like crazy, and your work reflects that sense of pain and sacrifice. For me, that’s how I used to feel.
The second path is the Bach plan. Bach was mostly happy; he had a family life, and he was a civil servant. He approached writing music as a duty, not from the point of view of content — he was very free with that — but from the point of view of productivity. He had lots of deadlines, he worked hard, and he got a tremendous amount done, all without ever really doubting either the validity of what he was composing or his own ability to get it done.
Do these playwrights’ conferences help? Or are they just an excuse to see your friends and travel? I find them to be essential. The feedback I get from other writers is the most important information I have about my progress, especially in the earlier stages of a play. It’s so important to get a take on what works and what doesn’t from someone who’s been there and who knows how hard it is. These encounters with my peers are what make it possible for me to take a show into rehearsal with some confidence. That’s why I love this particular conference in Ojai so much — the whole first week it’s just us, the writers, and we really get into it.
The show you are working on this year is called Rest. What can you say about it? Well, it’s a commission from South Coast Rep, and that is just so lucky because I know it will get a great first production there. It’s set at a rest home in Idaho that’s on the brink of closing, and it takes place during a massive blizzard. One of the residents at the rest home runs away, and the people remaining, a group that includes his wife, have to decide what to do about this missing guy. He’s there, and then he’s gone. It’s about confronting death and the future, and, as they face the fact that this guy may not be coming back, each character has to decide what that loss will mean for the ensemble.
For more information about the Ojai Playwrights Festival, which runs through Sunday, August 11, at various locations, call (805) 640-0400 or visit ojaiplays.org.