In recent years, we tend to think of digital media as the fastest, most immediate form of communication, and in most ways we are right. Yet live theater delivers something that no digital experience can match — a living, breathing human presence right in the room with you — and can rival even viral videos when it comes to responding in real time to the outside world. Take, for example, Vicuña, the 2016 drama by Jon Robin Baitz. In August of that year, the play was part of the Ojai Playwrights Conference, and on October 23, it premiered at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Los Angeles.
With its tight focus on a blustering real estate tycoon turned reality television star who improbably winds up becoming his party’s candidate for president of the United States, Vicuña was one play in August 2016; another in October, when audiences outside Ojai got a look at it; and yet a third, very different show just two weeks later, after the current occupant of the White House was elected. Same words and actions throughout, but with an entirely different, some would say more ominous significance as history progressed around it. Try obtaining that kind of resonance with a tweet.
The theme of this summer’s Ojai Playwrights Conference New Works Festival, which runs August 5-12, is “Breaking Light,” an image that festival director Robert Egan chose because he sees this year’s playwrights as “breaking through the darkness of division, despair, and polarity and lighting the way toward compassion, inclusion, and hope.” It’s an aspirational, even optimistic message, but don’t mistake this for a sign of any softening in the material. OPC remains as tough-minded, as confrontational, and as irreverent as it has been from the beginning, and as it was in 2009, when Stephen Adly Guirgis showed up with something he called The Motherfucker with the Hat — which, by the way, went on to Broadway and picked up six Tony Nominations in 2011.
Baitz is back in 2018, as is Ojai stalwart Bill Cain, whose Road to Glory will be featured as part of an evening titled “Ignition: New Work for a New World,” which will take place in Ojai’s Matilija Auditorium on Thursday, August 9. Other elements of that evening include the acting talents of Suits star Patrick J. Adams and a musical performance by the East L.A. Chicano rock group Quetzal.
The rest of the OPC programming will be presented in the intimate Zalk Theater at Besant Hill School, a great space for becoming totally absorbed in the language and action of new work. The festival culminates in a long weekend of readings that runs from 6 p.m. on Friday, August 10, through the same time slot on Sunday, August 12, with shows beginning as early as 10 a.m. on Saturday and Sunday. Egan takes particular pleasure in the representation of women playwrights that’s been achieved this season, with returning artists Alice Tuan presenting Cocks Crow, a new play about Americans trying to do business in China, and Ruby Rae Spiegel, whose Dry Land, a 2014 OPC project, went on to major success off-Broadway, introducing Blue Green, her latest exploration of the unlikely alliances and seemingly irreparable divisions that cut through contemporary culture.
In Steph Del Rosso’s 53% Of, a cast of women plays three distinct groups of people. In the opening scene, they are a group of women in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, awaiting the imminent arrival of the president, while in the next they are the husbands of those same women. In the final scene, they become a bunch of young people in Brooklyn preparing for some kind of protest. It’s this kind of innovative thinking in theater that keeps the Ojai light breaking free.
The Ojai Playwrights Conference New Works Festival runs August 5-12. For tickets and information, visit ojaiplays.org.