(from left) Benjamin Benne, Anne Washburn, June Carryl | Credit: Courtesy, Beowulf Sheehan, Courtesy

For professional, regional, and community theater alike, the recovery of pre-COVID audiences is sadly underwhelming. Many theater companies are downsizing (or, in the worst case, closing altogether) to offset the seeming decrease in public interest. 

“For so many producing theaters, one of the first things that often get cut is new play development — and certainly new play production,” says Jeremy B. Cohen. Cohen has recently taken the reins from Robert Egan, the longtime artistic director of the Ojai Playwrights Conference (OPC), where writers, directors, actors, and dramaturgs come together to develop and stage readings of brand-new works. “It’s a very interesting time to come to the table at OPC,” Cohen says. “The urgency feels really strong right now because there’s so many disappearing opportunities. We’re in this moment of decreasing audiences, but from an artistic and humanitarian standpoint, the necessity of live theater feels more critical than ever.”

Mathilde Dratwa | Credit: Courtesy

The mission of the annual OPC is to develop fresh theatrical works and foster the creativity of the playwriting process. The two-week conference features one week of collaborative play development within the community of artists, followed by a week of rehearsals before the performance of five staged readings.

In this environment, which Cohen calls an “intentional community,” the artists have the opportunity to carve time out of their demanding lives to focus on their craft. “There are fewer and fewer moments of communion in our lives,” says Mathilde Dratwa, who will be presenting her new play, Dirty Laundry. “I love the act of collaborating. My favorite place on earth is a rehearsal room. I love the weird alchemy that happens, the way the actors and dramaturg and director and designers put their fingerprints all over the play. … It’s rare to get to spend time with other writers. I cherish the opportunity to talk about process — the nitty-gritty of it all.” 

Dirty Laundry is a play about grief and family, about the difficulty of communication, even with those we know very well. “The play is very human,” Dratwa says. “It’s messy and funny and sad and absurd. It’s a play with no bad guys — everyone is just trying their best. And failing. But don’t we all?”

This year, Cohen is determined to increase what he calls “equitable access” to the OPC by waiving the cost of tickets. All single at-the-door tickets are “pay what you can,” meaning you can name your price. The performances this year will be held at the Milligan Center for the Performing Arts on Ojai’s Thacher School campus (5025 Thacher Rd., Ojai).

OPC also provides educational and mentorship opportunities for young playwrights in the internship program and the youth workshop. “In the educational capacity,” says Cohen, “we’re not just training them so they do theater. Rather, what are the creative skills that the work they’re doing in theater can offer whatever they choose to pursue vocationally? So if they become activists or lawyers or dentists, they’re the most thoughtful, creative-strategist dentists you can have. That feels like a win to me.”

For audiences, the festival kicks off on August 2, with a celebratory evening of readings and presentations from conference and Ojai artists. “It’s a great cabaret, welcome-to-the-circus kind of night,” says Cohen. “For me, it was a way of saying, can we not do that Brigadoon thing where we pop up, use up resources, and leave? Rather, how can we be active as part of the community?”

The importance of fostering new works is to create plays that relate to today’s audience members — to move them with socially relevant viewpoints, to elicit an emotional response, and to provoke conversation. “When we all come together to watch a production — to breathe the same air, to cry and laugh and gasp side by side — something shifts,” says Dratwa. “When the play is good, when the actors are truthful, our hearts crack open. As a non-religious person, this is my understanding of the concept of grace.”

Audiences can participate in conference offerings from August 2-6, including new plays by Ngozi Anyanwu, Benjamin Benne, Mathilde Dratwa, Julia Izumi, and Anne Washburn. Writers in Residence also include June Carryl, Madeline Sayet, and DeLanna Studi. —Maggie Yates

Festival passes are available for purchase, as are single tickets at the door. For more information, visit ojaiplays.org/new-works-festival.


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