All the world's a stage
Former gang members and celebrities mingle at Playwrights Conference
By Kit Stolz 08/16/2012
Fifteen years ago, Kim Maxwell — an actress, teacher and director — with a group of friends from various Southern California theaters, spearheaded the launch of the Ojai Playwrights Conference. Despite a great lack of funds, the founders of the conference hoped that great writers, directors and performers from around the country would come to Ojai to create new works for the stage.
Since then, the conference has continued to bring some of the smartest and funniest writers in the nation to the blazing heat of Upper Ojai every August. After an intense week of rehearsal and rewriting on the campus of the Besant Hill School, new plays are read in the Zalk Theater on campus. The conference has succeeded at developing acclaimed works, including Other Desert Cities by Jon Robin Baitz, which won a critics award in New York last year, and will open at the Mark Taper Forum this fall in Los Angeles. Paradoxically, the conference seems to make a bigger splash in the theater world than in Ventura County.
For theater lovers, or “word nerds” as Maxwell teasingly calls her festival’s fans, it can be a thrill to see new work, but there’s also a bit of a risk. Brand-new plays can dazzle or fizzle. It’s their first test before an audience, so there is no guidebook, no review, no guarantee.
Three years ago, director Robert Egan — who has been running the conference for 10 years — began putting on special events at Ojai’s largest indoor theater, the recently upgraded Matilija Junior High auditorium. The idea is to show how drama clicks on stage, without falling back on special effects or familiar characters.
Last Wednesday, Egan brought in famed Father Greg Boyle, author of the best-seller Tattoos of the Heart, along with several of the priest’s “homies,” kids who grew up in the world of gangs but found new life and hope with Boyle and his Homeboy Industries in downtown L.A.
One of the former gang kids — heavily tattooed on his chest, arms and neck — was Richard Cabral, who recounted a horrific but mesmerizing story of being raised by an alcoholic mother, without a father, and of being beaten by one of her many boyfriends. Cabral told the shocking story with a cool, almost delicate charm. He turned out to be a big fan of an award-winning writer named Stephen Adly Guirgis, known for his ability to bring to life characters from the streets of New York (in plays such as Jesus Hopped the “A” Train).
By coincidence, Egan also is a big fan of Guirgis, whom he considers the best writer of urban stories around, and had already invited him to be a writer in residence at the conference. Inspired, Egan went on to mix in monologues from Guirgis’ mesmerizing writing with true stories from the homies. The monologues were read by actors, including a dynamic Jimmy Smits, and the kids stood up and told their stories at the mic. Guirgis’ monologues were more lyrical, but the kids’ stories — told from the heart — were just as moving, if not more so, and the audience gave the evening a long standing ovation.
On Thursday, to commemorate the festival’s 15th year, Egan treated a near sellout crowd to stories and songs by women, including well-known Ojai singer Amanda McBroom. The women spoke of their inspiring (and often exhausting) mothers, of making great friends while surviving breakups, of ex-boyfriends and new husbands. Charlayne Woodard, a spectacular storyteller, capped the evening by recounting the story of her own premature birth, and a family that would not let her die.
After yet another standing ovation, Egan thanked the crowd, and summed up the work of the conference. He quoted the previous night’s speaker, Father Boyle: “When you hear these stories, the circle of humanity gets wider.”