Ojai Playwrights Conference creative director takes a remaining bow

As theater economics go from unhealthy to worse, new play growth packages are quietly disappearing. The Humana Pageant of New American Performs on the Actors Theatre of Louisville, considered one of America’s preeminent showcases of latest drama for a lot of a long time, didn’t have its annual occasion this yr and is reevaluating its future.

Sundance Institute Theatre Program, one other prestigious theatrical incubator, has been phasing out core actions. And final yr the Lark, a fertile off-Broadway middle of latest work, shut down.

Luckily, two pillars of latest play growth stay. On the East Coast, the Nationwide Playwrights Conference on the Eugene O’Neill Theater Heart in Waterford, Conn., continues to be the doyen of the sector. And on the West Coast, Ojai Playwrights Conference, as soon as the California upstart, is now in its twenty fifth season as a Shangri-la of playwriting.

What unites the O’Neill and OPC is purity of focus. Each packages are dedicated to the gestation of performs, unbiased of manufacturing concerns.

Many theaters fee and workshop new initiatives they hope to current on their phases. However a producing curiosity can obtrude on the creative course of by imposing synthetic deadlines and prioritizing the wants of the theater over the work itself.

As a result of the play actually is the factor at Ojai Playwrights Conference, there was appreciable alarm when Robert Egan, who has served as its creative director and producer since 2001, introduced that he can be departing on the finish of this yr. Heart Theatre Group affiliate creative director Luis Alfaro, a playwright who has been an energetic member of the OPC group, exhorted Egan to guard his legacy.

“I wanted to make sure that Bob maintained the steadfast belief that Ojai Playwrights Conference was invested in writers through their process and not their product,” Alfaro explains. “Bob has a wonderful curatorial vision rooted in new play development that is built in relationship, experiment and in trusting that writers know what they need more than anyone else.”

The roster of dramatists who’ve come to OPC represents a who’s who of the American theater. Stephen Adly Guirgis, who’s again once more this summer time, got here to Ojai with embryonic variations of his Tony-nominated “The Motherf— With the Hat” and his Pulitzer Prize winner “Between Riverside and Crazy.”

Jon Robin Baitz, one other OPC common, developed “Other Desert Cities,” considered one of his most critically and commercially profitable works in recent times. Danai Gurira, who first got here to OPC to work on “In the Continuum,” the play about ladies and AIDS she wrote with Nikkole Salter, returned with “Eclipsed,” her play about Liberian ladies and warfare that defied the chances by transferring to Broadway.

Talking by way of Zoom from his book-lined examine within the transformed farmhouse in Nice Barrington, Mass., that he’s remodeling into an arts colony along with his spouse, Michelle Joyner, Egan was ending some initiatives earlier than returning residence to Southern California for his remaining OPC Summer season Conference and New Works Pageant. The 2-week annual occasion, which brings collectively a bunch of working playwrights in a fostering group, culminates in a collection of public readings and occasions (from Aug. 7–14).

He’s been making ready to step down for a while to pursue unbiased work as a producer of reside occasions, a director with a eager curiosity in Samuel Beckett and a author who has earned the precise to check his wings in several mediums. However earlier than he ended his tenure, he wished to ensure that the play growth oasis he cultivated would proceed to thrive lengthy after he left.

Robert Egan, the outgoing creative director, producer of Ojai Playwrights Conference which is a Southern California incubator of latest performs. (Mel Melcon/Los Angeles Occasions)

(Mel Melcon/Los Angeles Occasions)

A self-described “child of the ’60s” and an mental who studied important principle with Terry Eagleton at Oxford College after majoring in political economics and English literature at Boston Faculty, Egan describes the ambiance of this system as “disciplined but with generosity of spirit. We are rigorous but we love you.”

Through the convention, playwrights, administrators and dramaturgs reside and work collectively. Assembly repeatedly for meals permits for dialogue to occur organically. Serendipity is constructed into this system together with California sunshine.

Guirgis painted an image by way of e mail: “First of all, OPC is plush. They fly you, feed you, the writers meet at a beautiful poolside library each morning with plenty of breaks to catch a dip in the gorgeous, LARGE, Spanish-tiled swimming pool or play a set of tennis. You eat, sleep, work and play in an environment that is like a first-class spa or wellness retreat. No one wants to leave. And under Bob’s leadership, everything is about the writer and the process. What’s great about Bob is he’s a top-notch, longtime, seasoned pro director and dramaturg but with the enthusiasm of an inspired beginner.”

“Playwrights have a rich field of theatrical talent to tap into,” Egan says. “Guirgis would laugh at me when I would say this, but we are a city of joy. We’re here to help you fulfill your vision. We believe in what you’re doing. Everyone comes to the table with that attitude.”

When requested what separates OPC from the dwindling variety of different play growth facilities, Egan emphasizes this system’s mission: “To develop unproduced plays of artistic excellence from diverse writers both emerging and established, and to nurture a new generation of playwrights. We engage writers who care and dare to confront the great challenges of our day.”

Egan deconstructs this assertion with the scrutiny of a literary scholar. “We are unashamedly political,” he says. “Not small ‘p’ political. But capital ‘p’ political. We’re looking to work with artists who deeply and passionately meditate on the relationship between individuals and this very complex thing we call social reality.”

Artwork that “refracts” reasonably than “reflects” the world is what Egan is after. “You don’t want to re-create the surface,” he says. “You want to refract it, disturb it, so people are seeing the deeper dynamics.”

Egan insists “that new play development is only as good as the people who do it.” He’s fast to offer credit score to the locals who host dinners and open their visitor homes; to the volunteers and interns who maintain the operation working; and to the community of theater artists and professionals who generously give their time and loving experience to deliver new work into existence.

“OPC has a talented artistic committee that guides all key artistic decision-making and they join a great reading committee of up to 18 people, who do it for free basically because they love the dialogue,” he says “It’s a great discourse about plays, but with a focus on whether the work serves our mission. Are the plays talking about the world we live in? It’s a highly diverse group, so you’re getting different cultural expressions, insights and articulations of what’s important right now. We’re always learning from each other.”

Earlier than he got here to OPC, Egan spent 20 years as the manufacturing creative director of the Mark Taper Discussion board. Employed by Gordon Davidson to reignite new play growth on the theater, Egan says he succeeded in these years by observing a easy rule: “The table of decision-making power has to be diverse and dynamically reflect the city we’re in.”

“We brought in artists like Chay Yew, Luis Alfaro, Diane Rodriguez, Luis Valenzuela, Lee Richardson, Victoria Ann Lewis, John Belluso, Brian Freeman, Lisa Peterson, Oskar Eustis, and the work we did reflected all those committed people,” Egan remembers. “We became the most diverse theater in the United States of America, and it was the thrill of my professional life.”

Intergenerational and aesthetic variety at OPC are vitally essential to Egan as properly. First-time playwrights are positioned on equal footing with seasoned veterans. The group is united not by an aesthetic however by a dedication to participating the world.

“I say this with some reservation, but we’re a content-driven conference in the sense that we’re not as interested in plays that may be formally dazzling but at their heart aren’t agitating from an essence that speaks to equity and justice and community. We love plays that are talking about something essential, and then we doubly love plays that are exciting theatrically,” he says.

Egan cites for example of this mix Dave Harris’ “Tambo & Bones,” which was at OPC in 2019. The play, which had its world premiere this yr in a co-production with Playwrights Horizons and Kirk Douglas Theatre, provides a vigorous, metatheatrical look on the consequences of stereotypical Black stage representations on Black identities.

In a typical yr, OPC has growth slots for 9 performs, with two additional areas reserved for writers-in-residence. This tabulates into a variety of scripts passing by way of this system, lots of which have gone on to nationwide and worldwide acclaim. However when Egan displays on his tenure, it’s the relationships with writers that matter most to him.

He speaks ardently of his friendship with Invoice Cain, “the most produced playwright in OPC history” and a Jesuit priest “who understands that there are new gospels being written every day and we’re just not listening to them.” And he extols Baitz, his colleague for nearly 40 years, for his “commitment to imagining a better America for all in his work.”

Egan traces the evolution of his social conscience from his days rising up in segregated Washington, D.C. Later, in England, when he was mingling with a few of the nice postwar British playwrights, together with Tom Stoppard, David Hare, Howard Brenton and Caryl Churchill, he was galvanized by the best way politics and economics have been radically reshaping the probabilities of dramatic kind.

“I just knew we had to find and support those voices in the United States of America that were wanting to get to a more profound understanding of our country,” he says. “That was the big impetus.”

Does he have any classes to impart on what to not do when growing new work? Egan speaks of the fragile nature of the suggestions course of, the place one free comment can throw a author utterly off beam. It is because of this {that a} strict protocol is noticed at OPC within the first week when playwrights, administrators, dramaturgs and OPC employees collect for personal readings of every play.

“The first level of conversation explores what had impact and generated heat,” Egan says. “The second involves questions the playwright and core creative team (director and dramaturg) might have of the community. And the third dimension happens only if the artist is open to hearing from the room. We ask that any comment is relayed in the form of a question. So instead of saying,’ I don’t think that moment in the second act worked,’ you ask, ‘Why did you construct that moment the way you did? Have you thought of alternatives?’”

When the general public is introduced in in the course of the second week, the dangers intensify. “It’s hard for the audience because they want to judge,” Egan explains. “But I have to tell them, ‘I’m sorry, you’re not here to rewrite the play.’ We want to know what had power, and we want to explore where there are questions. It’s pretty clear from this process where a writer needs to focus, but it’s not painful. I’ve been to playwriting conferences where they bring in a panel of experts to tell you what’s wrong with your work. It’s so ridiculous.”

Egan finds his background in important principle to be helpful on many fronts. “First, we need to enter a playwright’s world and learn its unique language. And then it’s a brilliant structuralist activity. Let’s deconstruct this scene, this character, this moment, to see how it’s operating. A play emanates a range of meanings. It may not be doing what the writer thinks it’s doing. The play itself is autonomous.”

These final phrases are spoken with a level of spiritual awe. And why not? Serving to to deliver new creative life into the world is a course in miracles.

A seek for Egan’s successor is underway, however will probably be a tough act to comply with. “To me, Bob is Ojai Playwrights Conference,” Guirgis wrote. “OPC very well may need multiple pairs of shoes to fill his.” However Egan is assured that the group is on safe footing. The board of administrators, which he expanded and shored up, is firmly behind the mission.

“The entire Ojai Playwright Conference community,” he says, “has come to understand the sacredness of what takes place when we gather in those rooms.”