Every year it gets harder to summarize the Ojai Playwrights Conference (OPC) — and that’s a good thing. With Disney songsmiths, NPR radio personalities, and edgy theatrical innovators now invited to rub writing elbows with the American theater elite, it’s impossible to know just what will happen. Under Robert Egan’s leadership, this annual retreat and intimate festival of readings has become one of the hottest places on the planet to develop a new play. This season promises to be one of the OPC’s strongest ever, and in preparation for it, I spoke with three of the eight playwright participants: Sandra Tsing Loh, Bill Cain, and Alice Tuan. Through this exciting sequence of interviews I was able to get a feeling not only for what these three writers are currently working on but also for what they love about the annual trek to Ojai.
Sandra Tsing Loh
Sandra Tsing Loh, the celebrated author of, most recently, The Madwoman in the Volvo, is one of America’s foremost social commentators and humorists. She first came to widespread attention through her role as a radio personality, but she has gone on to achieve a sterling reputation as a solo performer and a certain notoriety for her freewheeling approach to the busy intersection between her personal and her professional life. Tsing Loh gives great phone interviews; this woman will make you think, she will make you laugh, and then she will make you think about what you just laughed at.
You are working on a stage piece after taking six years off from performing. How does that feel, and what do you expect from the conference? It’s extraordinarily useful to work with people who understand the trajectory of a story and what it needs to fulfill the longer form of a full show. It has to happen in the writing because who wants to come out to see some middle-aged person alone onstage? Theater must be different to be compelling. There’s too much competition from things like the explosion of excellent television in the last few years. With meth-lab TV shows available on demand at home, why are people going to get their car keys and drive to the theater? It has to be special.
As far as returning to the stage is concerned, I want to tell you about an experience I had at Campbell Hall in Santa Barbara, because what happened to me that night is one of the reasons I’m pursuing this. I was on a book tour for The Madwoman in the Volvo, and my flight to Santa Barbara was delayed, so I arrived at UCSB very shortly before I was set to go on. Up until that point, the tour had been mostly signings, short readings, and interviews, but when I got to Campbell Hall, they explained to me that the audience had paid $15, and that they were expecting me to talk for an hour! I almost panicked. I did not want to read for an hour, and I was even more reluctant to commit to an hour’s worth of questions, so I just walked out there and started to talk, off book, about menopause. And it was electric. The room lit up with energy. Women were so ready to listen and think about this subject it even took me by surprise, and I had written about it. The majority of American women will soon be 45 and over, and it seems as if virtually everything we have been told about this aspect of our lives is wrong. That night in Campbell Hall was one of the places where the idea of this performance got started because it felt so good to talk with the audience there.
Bill Cain represents the current American theater scene at the highest level of creativity and ambition. He is a regular at the OPC, and two of the five plays that he developed there, Equivocation and 9 Circles, went on to win the prestigious American Theatre Critics Association Steinberg New Play Award. The play he has in development for 2014, Hasty Pudding, has the potential to be his best work yet.
You obviously like coming back to Ojai for this conference. What’s so special about it? The magic of the Ojai Playwrights Conference lies in its structure. For the first week, before the actors arrive, it is just the writers, and that’s when the community is created.
Tell me about Hasty Pudding. What happens between Abraham Lincoln and his son Robert Todd? On the day he was assassinated, Abraham Lincoln spent two hours alone talking with his son Bob. He asked him to go to the theater, but Bob was tired and turned his father down. I believe that something happened between the father and son that day that has had a profound impact on American history. Robert Todd Lincoln became a robber baron and a key figure in the coming Gilded Age. This play is about how we as a nation became so separated between rich and poor. It’s a story that has to do with the impact of the railroad — Robert Todd was secretary of war at one point, but later on he became first general counsel and then president of the Pullman Palace Car Company. When Eugene V. Debs led the Pullman Strike in 1894, it shut down the country’s railroads, and it was Robert Todd Lincoln who got the federal government to come to the rescue of management, using violence to suppress the strike and break the union. I’m interested in telling this story about the history of a great divide in our nation through the conversation that took place on that day between father and son.
In a field crowded with qualified entrants, Alice Tuan enjoys the distinction of having written what many consider to be the most scandalous piece of new American theater. Ajax (por nobody), the play that Tuan wrote based on Sophocles, has thus far received staged readings because, as one reviewer put it, “Ajax features so many acts of sodomy — involving so many implements and so much bloodshed — that it is in fact legally, ethically, and (one hopes) physically impossible to perform as written.” Although Ajax (por nobody) remains Tuan’s best-known work, that won’t last, as this prolific and energetic writer has many other fascinating projects under way, including an updated version of Noel Coward’s Private Lives called Private Rivals. Tuan has a particular interest in the complex and rapidly evolving constellation of cultures along the Pacific Rim and will be the official writer in residence of this year’s conference.
What got you started writing plays? I think for a long time I was a playwright without knowing it. When my Chinese grandfather, who had been a general in Chiang Kai-shek’s army, moved in with us in the San Fernando Valley, I was still a little girl, but I could tell that there was something odd about this Chinese general baking in the California sun. One memory I have of him in particular was when he couldn’t get the microwave to work. He was trying to heat up his cup of tea, and he was pushing the buttons, and these beeps were coming out, but it wasn’t working, and I helped him. This little tableau, and our nonsense dialogue, became my first script. It was a journal entry then, but looking back, I feel like it was the beginning for me of writing plays.
What do you like about coming to the Ojai Playwrights Conference? Art flourishes in generosity, and that’s what I feel here. I love it, and I always get writing done.
The Ojai Playwrights Conference and Festival runs August 2-10. For information, tickets, and a complete schedule of events, call (805) 649-0400 or visit ojaiplays.org.